March 23, 2004

Another Monopoly Problem

Henry Farrell and Brad DeLong discuss the harms monopolies do by taking away the incentive to innovation. Another illustration can be found in music reissues. Reissuing old music (say, pre-1942) on CD can be done better or worse; the condition of the source 78s and the mastering process itself can make a big difference in the end product.

While recordings are in copyright the copyright owner has an effective monopoly on producing reissues. For a long time, the major labels seemed to use this monopoly to avoid doing a decent job. Read back editions of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD and you will find a lot of complaints about Columbia's shoddy treatment of the early Louis Armstrong recordings. Apparently their most recent reissue has been much better, but I think this is partly because of pressure from the wonderful remastering job done by JSP--imported from England, where the recordings seem to be out of copyright.

Similarly, for a long time--about a decade--Duke Ellington's 1940-2 recordings were available only on an RCA set (The Blanton-Webster Band) that muffled the recordings. This was still good enough to become my favorite album ever after I'd listened to three tracks of it, but it wasn't as good as it should be. The more recent reissue (Never No Lament) is much better--I've done some track-by-track comparison--but there's some crackling on the first disc which could easily have been avoided. But what incentive does RCA have to avoid it if there is no competition? It's still absolutely fantastic, and I'm glad I got the new issue (thanks, Mom and Dad!), but these immortal recordings should be available in pristine form. It's as though the Mona Lisa were behind glass with a spot on it, and the curators refused to wipe the spot off.

I wish there were a way for the makers of music to be compensated other than by awarding people monopolies on the production of their work. I don't have an idea how it could be done. But it seems to me that these monopolies have some of the same kind of costs as other monopolies do.

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 23, 2004 05:36 PM