European Copyright Laws Lead to Rare Music Releases
By ALLAN KOZINN
Published: December 11, 2013
Thanks to a provision in the European Union’s new copyright law, fans of some musicians who made recordings in the 1960s are likely to be treated, for the foreseeable future, to annual batches of previously unissued material. But because artists and record labels are apparently unhappy about being forced to release material they would rather keep in the vaults, collectors need to be quick and alert: So far, the most tantalizing recordings have turned up in limited, hard-to-find editions. And where labels are normally eager to publicize their releases, they are doing their best to keep these ones secret.
A new Sony collection of unreleased Bob Dylan recordings — concerts, radio and television appearances, and studio outtakes, all from 1963 — has just appeared in a limited edition of 100 copies, on six vinyl LPs. The set, “The 50th Anniversary Collection: 1963,” follows last December’s similarly titled release, which included 1962 material and carried the subtitle, “The Copyright Extension Collection, Vol. 1.” That set was released on four CDs, also in an edition of 100 copies, and briefly as downloads (but in only France and Germany).
Now the Beatles are getting into the act: On Tuesday, Universal plans to release, on iTunes only, “The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963,” a compilation of 59 recordings, among them a handful of studio outtakes; a few dozen BBC performances, drawn from the same well as the recent “On Air” two-CD set; and informal demonstration recordings of two songs the group gave to other artists — Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s acoustic guitar duet version of “Bad to Me” and a Lennon piano demo of “I’m in Love.”
The releases are a response to a new European Union copyright law that will extend copyright protection to 70 years — but only for recordings that were published within 50 years after they were made. So in the case of the Beatles, the group’s 1963 debut album, “Please Please Me,” already benefits from the copyright extension, but the unreleased session tapes — unused versions of the same songs on the album — did not, hence the release. Similarly, the BBC performances released on “Live at the BBC” (1994) and “On Air — Live at the BBC, Vol. 2” (2013) — are protected, but they represent less than half of the 275 performances the Beatles recorded for the BBC between 1962 and 1965. Another 44 of those recordings are included in the set to be released on Tuesday.
Like bootlegs — discs released illegally by collectors and entrepreneurs who have obtained material that has not been officially issued or approved — these are specialist items. They appeal mostly to devoted fans who know the commercial releases inside and out (and usually in both mono and stereo) but who want more. Because studio outtakes show familiar songs as works in progress, and live recordings reveal interpretive quirks and reconsiderations, fans of these recordings pore over them for a closer understanding of how their favorite musicians work.
Some musicians — Mr. Dylan in his “Bootleg Series,” the Beatles in “The Beatles Anthology” and Neil Young in “Archives” and other live releases — have seen the point of this interest, and have returned to produce official releases of unissued material. But those projects were undertaken on the artists’ own schedules, and not because European copyright law forced their hand. That explains why labels are keeping the new copyright extension releases low-key and unpublicized. People close to both the Dylan and Beatles projects confirmed that the releases are legitimate, but refused to speak about them for attribution. Phone calls and emails to Apple, the Beatles’ own record label, and to Universal, which releases the group’s recordings, went unanswered.
The recordings raise several questions. The new Dylan collection includes virtually all unreleased performances of value from 1963, among them outtakes from “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” — Mr. Dylan’s third album — as well as famous appearances on the “Oscar Brand Show,” “Studs Terkel’s Wax Museum” and at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. But the same cannot be said of the Beatles set. Many tracks already available on bootlegs are missing here, as are most of the summer-fall 1963 sessions for the Beatles’ second album, “With the Beatles,” and their fifth single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “This Boy.”
Unless those recordings are released before the end of 2013, they will go out of copyright — as the band’s unreleased 1962 recordings (two BBC shows and all but the few tracks from their failed Decca audition that were released on the “Anthology”) already have. That would mean that if Universal were to release an outtake of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” two years from now, another label could pick up that recording, which would be out of copyright, and include it in a so-called gray-market compilation — a disc made by a company that compiles public domain recordings by artists signed to other labels.
The secretiveness of Sony and Universal regarding these releases raises another question. Universal is taking the same approach it took with “Motown Unreleased 1962,” a series of jazz and soul compilations from that important Detroit label that Universal marketed on iTunes last year. Those sets remain available, but if Universal is following the Dylan model, it seems likely that the Beatles set will live on iTunes only briefly before disappearing. The Dylan sets, though hard to find, have quickly turned up on Internet trading sites. Are these releases, by being so severely limited, inadvertently abetting the bootlegging that labels usually try to stop?
A version of this article appears in print on December 12, 2013, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: European Copyright Laws Lead to Rare Music Releases.