Open music news: Bolero enters public domain, and a proprietary music-encoding standard gaining ground

Open music: Bolero enters public domain, music encoding standards news

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This month I offer a bit of an open musical smorgasbord: a famous work of music that recently passed into the public domain; a new proprietary music-encoding standard that is gaining ground; three open audio players; and, of course, new music available for download from Linux-friendly vendors.

Bolero enters public domain

According to an article in the great French newspaper Le Monde, Maurice Ravel's remarkable Bolero entered the public domain on the 1st of May of this year. This means that Bolero can now be performed without paying fees to the various people who held the rights to this work until the end of April 2016. (You may remember Bo Derek, Dudley Moore, and Bolero “performing together" in the the movie 10, which as I recall did wonders for the popularity of both Bolero and corn-row hair braids.) The article mentions other notable Bolero performances by Frank Zappa and by Maurice Béjart in the oddly atmospheric Claude Lelouch film Les Uns et les Autres.

Bolero's success, together with Ravel's other works, have generated a fair bit of revenue for the rights holders over the years—according to the article, 10–15 million francs (about US$ 2 million) by 1994, of which Bolero accounted for some hundreds of thousands of dollars. And one of the more interesting parts of this story is who benefited from all of this. The article explains that Ravel died without children in 1937, leaving his legacy to his brother Edouard, a businessman. Edouard was in a car accident in 1954 and left the estate to his masseuse (or perhaps she was in fact his nurse, according to an article in the Guardian; although an article from TV5 refers to her as a "masseuse, canary-seller and button maker"). A complicated transfer of rights ensued, involving an ex-officer of the French Society of Authors, Composers, and Editors of Music (SACEM), and various tax shelter companies in Gibraltar, Monaco, the Virgin Islands, and Vanuatu.

In April 2016, less than one month before the piece passed into the public domain, the heirs of Alexandre Benois, the man who designed the set for the original performance of Bolero at the Garnier Opera, petitioned SACEM to be recognized as partial owners of these rights, which if successful would have prolonged the copyright for a further 20 years and provided said heirs with a piece of the action. After conducting a review of the petition, SACEM concluded that there was no basis for the claim.

The article closes with a wonderful quote from the president of SACEM, Laurent Petitgirard, who, having noted that more than 90% of the fees collected by SACEM go to living authors, concludes with the statement "the abuse of authors' rights could kill the rights of authors". Of course, the convoluted question of rights holders to the piece Bolero is nothing compared to that of Happy Birthday (to you), which fortunately also seems to be solved as of February of this year.

MQA proprietary closed-source music encoding system

Another topic that should be of considerable importance to music enthusiasts involves the proprietary closed-source music encoding system Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) patented by Meridian Audio Limited, Peter Craven, and Malcolm Law. According to an article on the Stereophile magazine site, "On 9am UK time on May 6, 2016, Warner Music Group (WMG), whose vast catalogue includes everything from the Beatles to Maria Callas, announced a long-term licensing deal with MQA (Master Quality Authenticated)."

A great deal of digital ink has been spilt on MQA both pro and con, both informed and speculative. What bothers me about MQA is not its technical merit, but rather its proprietary nature. Having finally shed ourselves of DRM music that forces us to buy specific software or hardware to enjoy that music as it was intended, we are now seeing the encroachment of yet another proprietary encoding standard—more DRM.

MQA appears to be making significant inroads due to its technical merits—perceived or real—and lower bandwidth requirements for transmission. Basically, as I understand it, any signal components above 20KHz or so are put into the low-order 8 bits of the 24-bit word, said to be below the level of the 16-bit noise floor of the majority of recordings, which allows the resulting wave form to be transmitted as though it were a 44.1KHz/24-bit signal and allows the playback through decoders that do not license/implement MQA as though a 44.1KHz/16-bit signal were wrapped in a 24-bit word length.

I find it somewhat cheeky that MQA-encoded music streams are being wrapped and sold in FLAC format. Of course that's all part of the strange notion internal to "proprietary thinking" where it's thought by some to be OK to incorporate public domain components into their proprietary designs. (But this isn't a philosophy course, so I won't say any more about that.)

Anyway, given the continuing drop in sales of physical digital media and of downloads in favor of streaming, and the appeal of a new encoding scheme to the suffering music industry seeking to sell one more time its back catalogue in a new format, it's no real surprise that the clever engineers at Meridian are generating a lot of interest on the supply side with MQA. The question is: Do we consumers want to pay for the use of media that limits our ability to choose our playback hardware and software?

I say no, let's not do that. I already have a bunch of CDs that are encoded with HDCD that only work properly with proprietary decoders, the patent to which is currently owned by Microsoft, who has let it languish (although most “Internet opinions" seem to indicate the patent either expired or is due to expire in 2017). My kids already have a bunch of DRMed AAC files bought from Apple back in the day that cannot be played back on their Linux computers nor their Android phones without paying Apple to unlock them.

So please, if you're in the market for a new digital-audio converter, carefully consider whether you want to support MQA or whether you should let your music format remain free so that you can enjoy it on whatever software and equipment you prefer.

Linux-friendly music

Recent music I have acquired from Linux-friendly online vendors—meaning, there's no need to install bloatware for other operating systems just to download the music files—and am really enjoying:

  • Nils Frahm's Solo Remains, released this year on Piano Day 2016 (the 88th day of the year) as a free 24-bit or mp3 download. Songs that didn't make it onto 2015's Solo—released on Piano Day of that year and also available as a free download—played on the incredible monster Klavins M370 piano.
  • The David Bowie compilation Best of Bowie, which I picked up from 7digital in 16-bit FLAC format. Getting this stuff in digital form is good because otherwise I only get to listen to it on vinyl when I'm at home.
  • Parachute's Wide Awake, also picked up at 7digital in 16-bit FLAC format. Wow! These people have mastered the hook—this music reminds me of the energy in the soundtrack to the first Shrek film. We definitely feel like dancing in our house when this music is playing.
  • Moderat's III (Deluxe Edition), picked up at Bleep in 16-bit FLAC format. If you like their previous album, II, you'll probably like this; it's not “more of the same," but it shows its roots.

About the author

Chris Hermansen portrait Temuco Chile
Chris Hermansen - Seldom without a computer of some sort since graduating from the University of British Columbia in 1978, I have been a full-time Linux user since 2005, a full-time Solaris and SunOS user from 1986 through 2005, and UNIX System V user before that. On the technical side of things, I have spent a great deal of my career as a consultant, doing data analysis and visualization; especially spatial data analysis. I have a substantial amount of related programming experience, using C, awk, Java,...