Rachmaninoff, Ripping, & the RIAA

"My god. This was better than any hi-fi I had ever experienced—I actually had Sergei Rachmaninoff in the room, playing Mendelssohn just for me. I am not ashamed to say that I wept." I wrote those words in the January 2001 Stereophile, about hearing a piano-roll transcription of Rachmaninoff performing Mendelssohn's Spinning Song (Op.67 No.34) on a Bösendorfer Imperial 290SE reproducing piano. I was in the middle of recording Robert Silverman's cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas at the Maestro Foundation in Santa Monica, where there just happened to be a floppy disk with Wayne Stahnke's transcription of the Rachmaninoff for the Bösendorfer mechanism, which Stahnke invented.

In early June 2002, I again had the privilege of having Rachmaninoff perform the Spinning Song for me, this time played from a modern duplicate of an original 1920s paper roll on a Chickering piano fitted with an Ampico mechanism. Again, I found both the performance and the apparent physical presence of the performer overwhelming, though the 5' Chickering was no match for the 9' Bösendorfer. Robert Silverman and I were at IPAM, the International Piano Archives at the (University of) Maryland. Following Bob's two solo recitals at Home Entertainment 2002, we had trekked down I-95 to present Donald Manildi, the affable curator of the Archives, with a set of Bob's Beethoven sonata CDs and the floppy disks containing the performance data for the sonatas, to add to IPAM's collection for its own Bösendorfer SE.

You think your music collection is impressive? That at IPAM, housed in a climate-controlled room, contains 96% of all commercial piano recordings ever issued, with taped copies of most of the remainder. Stored in motorized filing cabinets some 6' tall and 25' deep—watching one of these monsters slowly move sideways on its tracks to allow access to its contents is definitely a Dramamine Moment—are 26,000 LPs, 10,000 CDs, 8500 78s, 2400 open-reel tapes, and 8000 piano rolls, as well as thousands of books, magazine articles, and scores.

As well as the software, the Archive keeps a collection of the necessary hardware on which to play it. Keeping a DAT machine or an open-reel recorder in good condition may not be a problem at the moment, but what happens in 50 years' time, when neither the spare parts nor the service skills might exist? And the slowly deteriorating condition of open-reel tapes from as few as 20 years ago is a matter of concern to archivists worldwide. As Donald explained to me that IPAM is slowly transferring its tape collection to CD-R, I flashed on something that Doug Sax had told me years ago: that the only recording medium with true archival properties is a mechanically modulated groove, a technology 125 years old this year (and one that cannot be ripped by a computer it should perhaps be noted).

On the drive back to Manhattan, Bob and I were discussing the current state of the industry that had generated the content stored at IPAM. As you can read in Barry Willis' report in this issue's "Industry Update" (pp.22-25), the record industry is continuing its war on its customers. More and more protected discs masquerading as CDs are appearing on retailers' shelves. Watermarking is a reality with DVD-A and SACD. S.2048, the draconian Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA) sponsored by Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-Disneyland), is slowly working its dread way through Congress. (You can find the full text of this bill, which will require all new electronic products to contain monitoring devices to prevent unauthorized copying of protected material, and will therefore outlaw all existing computers and audio/video gear, at this website, and insightful blog commentary at the Happy Fund Pundit website.) And, as revealed by June articles in Billboard and the San Diego Union-Tribune, the RIAA now even wants to demand royalty payments on sales of used CDs.

The RIAA's position is that CD ripping and file sharing à la Napster have resulted in the loss of millions of unit sales and billions of dollars of lost revenue. I beg to differ. Organized large-scale piracy is the problem, and not one of the strategies proposed and/or adopted by the RIAA does anything about piracy. As long as digital data have to be converted to analog in order to be listened to, the pirates can copy the content at that point. The only disc that can't be pirated is one that can't be listened to.

And the question of whether all the ripping and burning even hurts CD sales is still to be answered. According to a June report from Ipsos-Reid, "downloaders do not stop buying prerecorded compact discs when they discover downloading....81% of downloaders report their CD purchases have stayed the same or even increased since they initially began downloading music from the Internet." US sales of new CDs were about $13 billion in 2001, unchanged from 2000, and about 5% down in 2002 year-to-date. Yet as Cato Institute researcher Stan Liebowitz wrote in a June online essay, this decline is about what you'd expect from the current recession, coupled, as I have written before in this space, with the dearth of good new music. According to Liebowitz, there is no apparent effect on CD sales from MP3 downloads, which now outnumber the actual number of new CDs sold. And some artists have even found that downloads increase CD sales.

But that isn't going to stop the record industry in its assault on its customers' rights. And with the advent of restricted discs and "rights-managed" media, it is possible that, in 50 years' time, IPAM will have one or more generations of pianists archived on discs that they can't copy or even play.