Over 2000 Songs on Three And A Half Compact Discs For Only $2.98!!
April 8, 2015 3:24 PM   Subscribe

Inspired by a recent FPP, I went to iTunes to buy Charles Mingus' Ah Um. I found the standard 12-track album (9 original, 3 new) for $9.99, a $16.99 50th Anniversary Edition (24 tracks), a $4.99 album (9 original tracks), and also for $4.99, Charles Mingus Complete Recordings: 1957 - 1960, a 9-album, 68-song collection including the 9 original Ah Um tracks. Being no dummy cheap, I got the latter, and am now wondering if there are any other festivals of musical bargains which may be lurking on the iTunes, and have some other questions about how to tell a good compilation from bad, and the differences in editions and releases of the same albums.

First Question: For five bucks, 68 songs is a good deal, even if I don't like 90% of the content (I also got this classical compilation, which was okay, but felt like much more of a bargain-bin compilation). What are are your recommendations for a big whack of music for not a lot of money down? I'm particularly interested in instrumental jazz and classical music; jazz-wise, I'm quite enjoying Ah Um, so anything similar in the vein or sub-genre is welcome, and I really like Satie and Arvo Part when it comes to classical. Are there any collections that are a great, cheap introduction to your favorite music, or any compilations that look like deals, but are crappy?

Second Question: Regarding Ah Um, it seems really weird that the 9-track and the 9-album downloads were both priced at $4.99. The cover art for the 9-track looked amateurish, too, which scared me off from buying it, but the track lengths indicate that the album's legit. What's up with that? Is it because in 1979 the 12 tracks became the standard, and so someone swooped in and got the rights to release the original 9-track album?

Third Questions: The 9-album collection also only includes the 9 original Ah Um tracks, but it still seems weird that essentially a box set is being sold for so little. Granted, iTunes appears to treat the collection as a single, 68-song album which can make things a little awkward, but that can easily be fixed with music file management software. Perhaps I'm naive and the other albums are crap or the sound quality sucks, but still, what's up with that?
posted by Alvy Ampersand to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The strange albums are from companies that aren't the original owners - the $4.99 one is listed as being from "Lumi Entertainment" - here's a comment thread by several musicians that were surprised that their work was being sold by them. The box set is from "Playtime". The expensive versions are from Sony.

Sometimes such companies have an unusual contract that gives them rights to the original versions. Sometimes they're rerecordings or alternate versions that they have rights to. Sometimes they're fraudulent and counting on flying low enough on the radar to get away with it. I have no knowledge about these specific two companies, but a Google search on their names might hint as to how legitimate they are.

As far as ethical good deals, it depends on what your purpose is. There's lots of good free music available at archive.org, for example. It's hard/expensive to be a great musician and make great albums, so if you're trying to provide economic incentive to them, looking for bundles that pay $0.10/track isn't really viable. Me, I use podcasts and a paid streaming service to find new and interesting music and then purchase the stuff I like separately to try to help keep the musicians I like in business.

As you like classical, classicalarchives.com might be worth looking at.
posted by Candleman at 4:55 PM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

so someone swooped in and got the rights to release the original 9-track album?

It's not that someone "got" the rights in the sense of "they now own the copyright", it's that they paid for the right to make a copy of the album. They approached Sony Records (owner of the sound recording copyright) and the publishing company(ies) that own the copyright to the songs and said, "We'd like to produce and sell a version of the "original" 9-track Ah Um in exchange for $[x] royalty rate" and Sony & the publishers said, "Sure." I mean, that's really kind of the definition of "copyright" - it's the right to decide who can make copies of the work, and Sony and the publishers can allow someone else to make copies of the album if they choose. Same thing for the massive compilation, although that was probably more complicated to arrange given that Mingus recorded for several labels and likely had more than one music publisher. At any rate, obviously the companies paid little enough for the rights that they figure they can make money selling the albums for $4.99.

This is not at all an unusual practice, you see it a lot for almost any kind of older music. For example, Amazon has 8,337 CD & vinyl results for "Elvis Presley." The second one on the list is some kind of 80th Birthday Celebration 3-disc set put out by some label called "ZYX Music." Once an album or artist has kind of had their day in the sun, labels & publishers tend to figure that any income is better than no income, so they're more than willing to allow other companies to produce versions of albums, as long as they get a piece of the $$$.

It's a little surprising to see this for Mingus' work, given that he was aware of the pitfalls of the business and tried to keep as much control over rights as he could, and his widow is well aware of his genius and legacy and controls the rights that he was able to keep. So Candleman could be right that one or more of these labels/albums is illegitimate and they're just hoping to make a quick buck before someone catches on and tells them to knock it off. But they could be entirely legitimate, in a legal sense.

the sound quality sucks

Yeah, for all that major labels have sometimes screwed the pooch on the sound quality of re-issues, who knows what these other labels are using as their master - could easily be a third-generation cassette copy left on the floor of a car for a decade. OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but if you're going for "off-brand' compilations or versions of records, you're definitely taking your chances with sound quality.

jazz-wise, I'm quite enjoying Ah Um, so anything similar in the vein or sub-genre is welcome

More Mingus is kinda the obvious answer, but maybe take a swing at Duke Ellington, especially the Ellington at Newport "live" album.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:41 PM on April 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty certain the 68 track album is unlicensed and Amazon shouldn't be selling it. But there's a lot these types of albums for sale there and most digital music stores. Sometimes they are completely unlicensed and just hope not to get caught. Sometimes recordings fall into the public domain in a certain territory and not others and someone based in the PD territory took the opportunity to re-release the album without limiting sales to the PD countries (and likely not paying for mechanical rights for the actual songs in the process). Sometimes they'll be awful rerecords of the songs by other artists but that's not clear by the product page (less so with Jazz, but every successful Pop song has 15 different rerecords by individuals/companies hoping you won't notice or won't care that it's different).
posted by downtohisturtles at 7:51 PM on April 8, 2015

The $4.99 version comes up as not available in my (the US) country when I look at it while logged into iTunes, so presumably they have a license someplace.
posted by Candleman at 10:09 AM on April 9, 2015

The recordings in the Mingus box are all public domain in Europe and some other countries, but not in the US. The general rule for physical product (CDs) is that IP owners don't fight importation into the US unless the issuing label has US assets, as in the Capitol v. Naxos case. The producers of the Mingus box wouldn't have had access to master tapes, so they're probably dubbed from LPs, and the result can be anywhere from excellent to crappy, soundwise.
posted by in278s at 2:56 PM on April 9, 2015

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