David Pennant on the music of Robin Milford, June 2011

By 2005, my first cousin Marion Milford had shut herself away from the world. The Robin Milford Trust, which she had created along with two friends to promote the music of Robin, was defunct. There was one enthusiast, Peter Hunter, but apart from him, the world of music appeared to me to have forgotten Robin’s music.

I offered to help with the Trust as a way of showing love to my cousin; she accepted my offer, and I became a trustee.

My first impression was that only one of Robin’s pieces of music was still in print.

It seemed to me that this was a backs-to-the-wall situation. What was needed was a website for the Trust, which would give information, and make Robin’s sheet music and sound recordings as available as possible, in the hopes of starting a revival of interest. Within months, we had a website which detailed the CDs of Robin’s work available and had a list of Robin’s works, showing who had originally published the music, and where there were copies now.

Ian Abernethy got in touch and kindly offered to use his Sibelius software to produce new editions of the sheet music. In order not to upset music publishers, we decided to limit ourselves to works they would not be interested in. We also aimed not to compete with publications already in existence.

Before long, we had a growing webpage of free downloads of sheet music. I hoped that this might encourage people to try out Robin’s music, by providing as few obstacles as possible.

In 2011, we began receiving complaints that what we were doing was undermining the music publishing industry, and in breach of copyright.

Music publishing

All my lifetime, the way to obtain a piece of sheet music has been to buy it from a retailer. Retailers obtained the music from publishers, who not only printed the music, but promoted and distributed it.

In the last few years, the arrival of new technology has moved the goalposts. The invention of the laser printer, which has now become easily affordable, allows people with computers to print a copy of a sheet of music which is of just as good print quality as that obtained by traditional printing processes. Indeed, even the publishing houses have no need to commit themselves to a print run when taking on a piece of music. With Print on Demand, it is possible to store the music as a computer file, and only print a copy when one is required.

A similar process has taken place with recordings. Whereas one used to have to purchase a tape or more recently a CD, it is now possible to download a recording electronically, without the need for a hard copy.

It seems to me that the commercial production of hard copies, whether of sheet music or CDs, is in decline. This can be seen in the world of books. In 2010, the sale of e-books overtook the sale of printed books in the US for the first time. CDs are fading out; I’m told that there are no longer any CDs on sale in Manhattan

Distribution has also been affected by the internet. Today, if I want a hard copy of a book, my first thought would be to look for it on line and order it. I myself would no longer consider going to town to look for a book in a bookshop, as if I did, experience has taught me that it is unlikely to be in stock and that if I order it, I will be told it will come in a week, but it will in fact take a fortnight or longer, and the shop might or might not let me know when it comes in, and anyway I will need to return to the shop to collect it. If I order it online, it will probably arrive by post within a day or two.

A similar process is under way with sheet music, it seems to me. I order hundreds of pieces of sheet music each year, but I have recently heard that the local music shop I have been using is going to close before long. HMV and Waterstones are said to be in difficulties.

The main advantage of having a traditionally published piece of sheet music over a download is that you generally get a more music-stand-friendly score than you can obtain on an A4 printer. Personally, I prefer to play from a published piece of music than from a number of individual sheets, which I need to get under control by putting them in a binding of my own.

However, commercially published music is not always superior. The widespread practice of publishers using so-called Perfect binding, which means that the sheet music is unwilling to stay opened out properly, is an irritant. I have learned from experience which publications to avoid when ordering sheet music for my piano pupils.

It remains to be seen what the future holds, but it is my belief that whatever the Robin Milford Trust does and does not do with regard to sheet music, the whole industry is in a state of profound change. It would not surprise me if in a few years time, we will increasingly have intelligent electronic screens on our music stands, displaying the part, maybe with the music scrolling down in response to our playing. Time will tell.

 

Copyright

As I understand it, copyright exists in two forms.

Number 1. The first is to protect the intellectual property of the composer, author, etc, and ensure that he is rewarded financially.

Number 2. The second is to protect those who make his work available from having their work used without recompense.

Number 1. In UK law, Number 1 lasts for seventy years from death. Robin died in 1959, so it remains an issue for those who would publish his music until 2029. They need to enter into an agreement with the copyright holder.

Number 2. In UK law, graphic rights last for twenty-five years. After this time, sheet music graphics can be copied. If the year is still within the time frame of Number 1, a fresh agreement would need to be made with the copyright holder.

Understanding that we hold copyright number 1, it seemed to me that we were free to create an edition of Robin’s music, as follows.

  1. Previously unpublished works presented no problem.
  2. Where works had been published previously, it seemed best to make a fresh edition of works that had been out of print for a long time, to avoid giving possible offence. I rang OUP and spoke to the man in charge of copyright there, and he assured me that their copyrights had been reassigned to the Robin Milford Trust in the 1980s. So works previously published by OUP alone (the majority of those works by Milford that had been published) presented no problem. I imagine that the situation would be similar with other publishers such as Hinrichsen but I have not checked so far.
  3. I searched on the internet to discover which works of Robin were in print, and when I found sources for them, I put an active link on the website so that people could discover easily where they could obtain the music, and we did not create a competing edition.

Under C above, I failed on two counts. Firstly, we created an edition of the Bamboo Pipes music, and made it freely available, only to discover later that there was a published edition already available from Peacock Press, which had been created by John Turner. On the day I discovered this, I removed our edition from the website, and sent an email to Peacock Press apologising for our mistake.

As a result of discovering this, I decided to do further internet searches and found a second error, namely that an edition of the Suite Opus eight for Oboe and Strings, which we had recently issued in a fresh edition, already existed in published form. I duly removed our edition from the website.

This latter piece is one of 38,000 pieces of wind music held by June Emerson. We were offering it free. To buy it, you have to pay either 9 (for oboe and piano), 13 (for the string quartet version without Double Bass) or 31 (for small string orchestra with Double Bass). My own view is that the third price is somewhat prohibitive, and I feel sad that in removing our free edition from the website, I may effectively be helping to ensure that fewer performances of this work will take place in future. But see what you think: sales figures since January 2007 are twelve, three and four copies respectively. Is that good, bad or indifferent?

Over time, I have discovered that much more of Robin’s music is still in print than I had originally thought. With the addition of the books of Songs published by Animus in 2010, and our own efforts at the larger scores long out of print, we are now nearly up to a third of his music being in print.

 

Reflection

The aim of the Trust is to promote the music of Robin. I fear his being eclipsed. As a human being, with I hope more than an ounce of compassion, I don’t wish to undermine music publishers or anyone else. However, my feeling is that if we make free downloads available of works long out of print by a composer that few people have heard of, nobody will be harmed in practice, and there is a chance that Robin’s music may come to be appreciated more.

I don’t believe we are in breach of copyright in what we have done so far. Please let me know if you disagree.

I would welcome your thoughts, brickbats, and whatever else you care to send. I am hoping for a win-win outcome.

Thank you for your attention.

David Pennant