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Museopen to set classical music "free" (arstechnica.com)
172 points by sp332 on Sept 13, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 62 comments

This is a FANTASTIC idea! The article notes that some opposition to the idea, I can't see how anyone can defend any point against this. The music is out of copyright, orchestras get more work, and the sound of each orchestra is unique enough so that different orchestras can still sell CDs of the same piece.

OK, this is it. This'll be the first Kickstart project I will donate.

According to Leonard Bernstein, orchestras shouldn't sound unique. They should sound like the composer intended. Deutche Grammophon agreed; on their "greatest orchestras of all time" list, they put "Any Orchestra Leonard Bernstein is Conducting" at the #1 spot.

While I'm in agreement in principle, in practice there are significant creative differences between conductors as to what the composer intended.

Then there's the issue of pieces that have traditionally been performed one way, but then something turns up indicating that the composer may have meant it differently (I dimly recall this happening with something of Beethoven's in the last decade or so). Do you drop 100+ years of tradition and audience expectation in favor of originalism? What if the evidence of original intent is an early draft? There's a lot of room for well-meaning disputes there.

So at least with music old enough to not have any recordings made at the time the composer was alive, there are always going to be differences of opinion on how to translate the score into sound waves. Very serious enthusiasts will want multiple recordings.

He just disliked the idea of on orchestra having a trademark "sound". Bernstein actually said, if you can listen to a few bars and know which orchestra is playing, they're doing it wrong.

No, I think orchestras will get less work. I'm still in favor of this, but let's not kid ourselves. This is obsoleting recorded classical music (unless you care for a specific orchestra).

EDIT: I just noticed that you mentioned the bit about orchestras sounding unique. Well, maybe I'm not that into classical music, but this would probably satisfy me to a large extent.

To the extent that that is a problem, it is a past-tense problem. It has already happened. This won't add to the existing problem in any significant manner.

The real problem is that we don't need enough orchestras to actually sustain orchestras as an industry anymore, and the attempts to get around this fact are based in emotion, not fact or economics. I do not celebrate this, in fact I have the same emotional reaction many people do, but nevertheless I see it clearly: Classical music is not economically viable. We might as well record what we can while the orchestras still exist; at least the recordings will sound as good in 100 years as they do today.

> The real problem is that we don't need enough orchestras to actually sustain orchestras as an industry anymore

I don't understand how you reach this conclusion. Orchestras exist primarily for their live performances, and the halls where they perform seat just as many people as they always have.

Classical music is alive and well, from what I can see -- what makes you think differently?

A series of articles like this over the years: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/25/arts/music/25ravi.html

If that is inaccurate reporting, then I plead being fed bad data.

The other problem is that market behaviors are typically nonlinear. If you cut the demand down by 50%, that doesn't necessarily mean that you get 50% less output. If the going price based on the supply and demand curves sinks below the cost of production for some of the players, production can drop dramatically, not just linearly proportionally. Unless something drastic changes in the demand trends I don't see how this fate will be escaped.

I have no idea what the precise financial situations of the world's orchestras are. But I do know that many of them are perpetually crying poor but never actually closing their doors. I can't think of any major orchestra which has ever actually had to shut down due to a lack of money coming in.

New recordings must be, I imagine, a rapidly-dissolving revenue stream anyway. Any piece which is actually popular among buyers already has a number of "definitive" recordings which it would be difficult to top, and anything which isn't already the subject of a zillion recordings will probably never sell much anyway.

Many orchestras are supported by donations from wealthy benefactors, so "crying poor" is a core part of their (generally non-profit) business.

You can already buy a good recording for ~$20 USD. This isn't about listening to a CD, this is about freeing up the music for creative purposes, beyond just listening.

More to the point you can usually buy a crappy recording for two or three bucks on Naxos or some similar label.

You haven't listened to many Naxos recordings, have you?

Quoting from page 2 of their 2008 catalogue (http://www.naxos.com/SharedFiles/pdf/NaxosCat2008May.pdf):

  More than half of all current Naxos recordings are 
  included in various editions of the authoritative Penguin 
Several Naxos recordings have been distinguished with a Rosette or "Key Recording" accolade by the Penguin Guide: http://www.naxos.com/feature/Penguin_Guide_Top.asp

Classical music has always been cheap. Or at least, you could usually find a cheap recording of a piece, instead of going for a big-name orchestra.

Most people don't care, sure. But there have been examples of giving away free books to cause excitement and arouse interest. Classical music is not hugely popular nowadays, but this might help more people hear it and enjoy it, getting them to the place where they do want several recordings of the same piece.

Then again, this is all hypothetical. I doubt anyone can predict what effect this actually has.

Edit: One last point. You can hear almost any piece nowadays with a quick Youtube search, and that includes any quality recording you want. For people just looking to hear a piece quickly, I doubt Museopen will have anywhere near the effect that Youtube already has.

until they pull it for infringement. Also, i want music people can use legally, can you do that with any video on YT?

Like I said, it's great for those purposes and I'm glad someone's doing it. But for people just casually wanting to hear some recordings at home, nothing beats YouTube right now.

If this project succeeds and brings classical music to a wider audience, demand for the real thing, live, being there will mean orchestras get more work.

I'm not sure that really holds much water.

Right now, there are a ton of classical recordings available (just under extremely restrictive copyrights). If you want to listen to recorded music, it's available. You can go right down to your library and probably find a bigger collection than what Museopen will have for a while.

What you can't do is legally use those recordings in films, YouTube videos, etc. (Although de facto you probably can, I don't think enforcement is particularly aggressive.) This is where Museopen changes things.

However, I don't think those usages -- the ones prohibited by current copyrights on recordings -- were keeping orchestras alive. At least not most orchestras. Most modern orchestras exist because people want to go to the symphony and listen to live music. They're paying for the experience, not just to listen to a particular piece of music.

There are a very small minority of professional orchestras that might be affected by this, I guess ... orchestras who do soundtrack work. But I'm willing to bet that the bulk of their business is playing actual custom-written soundtrack scores, and not playing Beethoven's 9th over and over again for everybody who wants a copy.

The downsides to this are really, really limited, as far as I can tell. The net losers are probably the classical labels like RCA and Deutsche Grammophon, who have the big back-catalogs of classical music and license them out, not modern, living musicians.

Obviously this can only be done if an orchestra is willing to perform for a recording that will be public domain. Also, you must note what the point of this is. Making the recording public domain means you can use them in commercial works like indie films. You can already get free classical music to listen to just by pirating it, and you can argue over whether that hurts the artists or not. However, unless you have a death wish, you wouldn't use pirated music in a commercial work.

My first kickstarter donation as well :)

I'm a semi-professional classical musician, and while I think this is an interesting idea I think it's important to know what this is and what it is not.

This is a great way to be able to hear a performance of a recognizable melody. It serves the same purpose that sound clips in an encyclopedia serve: it lets you hear an example of the piece. And if you're creating a commercial where you want the audience to hear a piece they recognize, this will work just fine.

But this isn't something that would ever be taken seriously by real musicians, at least in its current form. Sure, there might be some legitimately good performances in there (especially if you're hiring the London Symphony Orchestra). But a lot of it is clearly quite amateur -- like the recording I found of Bach's First Cello Suite was performed on a piano! -- and no one wants to wade through a bunch of low-quality stuff to find the good stuff. And the people who are good don't want to be associated with the low-quality stuff.

Musicians fill their record libraries with names they recognize, based on other good work that artist or ensemble has done. There is such a big variation between the best recordings and the worst recordings that it's always a better bet to get recordings of names you know.

I don't think it's quite so drastic as you make it sound. In the original post he makes says the choice is between blowing the whole budget to hire a world-class symphony to record one piece, or contracting with a lesser-known organization (he suggests in Eastern Europe) to record a number of different symphonies. Either way we are talking about serious, dedicated musicians performing real music. I have attended concerts by some of the big names--LSO, LA Phil, San Francisco Symphony, Berliner Philharmoniker--as well as by many lesser-known ensembles. The difference in quality would be lost on 95% of the listening audience. As a classical musician it might be obvious to you, a little less so to me as a mere fan, but to most people it will just sound like professionally-recorded classical music. Certainly light-years ahead of what's out there today.

I don't disagree with anything you have said. My main point is that having very amateur work mixed with serious work means serious musicians will not trust it as a name. And that's fine -- it sounds like the founder understands this.

Abssolutely the largest challenge is this: accumulating a critical mass of content to bootstrap a change of mentality amongst leading musicians, who tend to be an extremely conservative community.

I tried to do something involving this as a startup four years ago, and content was far and away the hardest challenge. (The model involved giving away content, but selling torrent-seeds when no-one was offering content. Essentially the profit model was based around marking-up bandwidth, and using out-of-copyright music as the vehicle for it).

I spoke to lots of musicians during the course of that project, and live with musicians now. My pitch is that they should get themselves well known on the internet, and then charge large prices for their concerts and for teaching fees.

However, I've found all the musos I've spoken to over the last five years to be strongly addicted to (1) the model of producing and selling some sort of physical recording, and (2) the idea that they could one day make huge money from selling recordings, despite all the evidence pointing to what a limited future that model has. Even many amateur choristers puff themselves up with an idea that the content they produce is precious and valuable in a market (somewhere), and must therefore be protected from distribution on the internet where anyone could download it for free. (Oh the horror!!)

One contact (a well regarded instrumentalist) has only recently begun to upload content to youtube for promotional reasons. It has taken years for him to adjust to the idea that this might be a good idea. He was surprised to learn that he his name is becoming synonymous with a particular composer he performs, and adjusting to the idea that this might be a good thing, particularly when he's trying to get people along to his concerts.

Once the content is available and batched it won't be difficult to place a social media layer on top of it to give ordering, tag, recommendations, etc. The content is the key. I agree that quality is important, but once there's a critical mass, musicians will change their mindset and start to compete to get the best ratings on the internet.

We'll find that the top musicians on the websites will achieve a kind of celebrity and be in high demand for tours. This will be extremely good for "classical" music which has been decadent and moribund for decades.

But thats entirely the point, we arent trying to replace those recordings. Otherwise we really would be threatening commercial viability.

We want open recordings that people can use and not be sued for sharing, and this project is attempting to make them as decent as possible.

Bu they are seeking $11,000 to "hire an internationally renowned orchestra to record and release the rights to: the Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky symphonies."

And they've already raised the money through Kickstarter.

Doesn't this invalidate your point or am I missing something?

I agree, I commented elsewhere that the first piece I listened to was very low-quality. But by raising enough money to hire the London Symphony Orchestra, they can conceivably move up to having lots of quality music.

One suggestion for museopen: like haberman says, a big problem is "wading through" the low quality recording. So when you start to record higher quality orchestras, make it very easy to tell between the "good quality" recordings and the cheap recordings.

I agree but its a balance, if you want to use Mendelssohn's Italian symphony for an animation, bad or not, you NEED something free. This happened to an animator entering a contest. Its not a perfect recording, but it did the job and is a great example of what we do:


* like the recording I found of Bach's First Cello Suite was performed on a piano! .*

I heard one of Godowsky's piano transcriptions and it sounded kind of corny, but it's a matter of taste. He's not definitely not considered an amateur. According to wikipedia Schumann also wrote one transcription. Or was it the original cello score played on the piano?

By the way, the cello suites sound great on the double bass too.

(sorry, couldn't edit it because of noprocrast)

Note that they already have a lot of music available: http://www.musopen.com/music.php

You can even listen to their radio: http://www.musopen.com/music_overview.php

Since the founder is reading this thread, I'll ask here: why do you require people to log in before downloading anything?

Because too many have abused the site with bots and automated scripts. It has literally taken down the site more times than I care to remember.

We also have to keep track of things like who is uploading what for DMCA protection.

I just listened to a piece I like (a Chopin polonaise) and the quality isn't great.

This is a great idea though, and I hope the money helps them make many great recordings in the future.

As an amateur violinist, I'm more excited by the access to sheet music provided by this project. I bookmarked the sheet music page with a mind to dust off my violin when I get home from work tonight.

I wonder what is the intersection with the Petrucci Library http://imslp.org - do they have scores that IMSLP doesn't?

This quote from the article seems especially promising: "[A]n open-source music theory textbook is in the work, for instance." Would love to read that when it's made.

I could swear this was on Hn awhile ago, but here is the EFF's take on the matter. http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2010/08/musopen-wants-give-clas...

I'm in favor of enriching the public domain and this looks like a great project.

Unfortunately, free to use means free to abuse. I cringe whenever I hear Beethoven's Ode to Joy in a TV commercial. (What does it mean when it turns up in a commercial for "Big Momma's House"? Was it put there out of irony?)

Most of the classical music I know came from use in video games and cartoons - perhaps not as boorish and uncivil as TV commercials for Big Momma's House, but certainly not the concert hall either.

Nonetheless, I did develop an appreciation for the music, and as I grew older, was pleasantly surprised to learn more about it, and now, well, I'm married to a composer, and have gone to plenty of concerts, and will go to many, many more.

I'd much rather this stuff be available for use - and abuse - than for it to not be available. That's why I backed this project with $50. It's not a huge contribution, but for as much as I complain about copyright warehousing and the like, I might as well put my money where my mouth is.

Wow, I'm impressed that it would only cost $11,000 to record multiple full-orchestra symphonies.

Its per hour, and since they know this music so well, we're going to record it live.

They play Beethoven symphonies every year at least 1-2 times

The economics still don't seem to work out. Even with a modest-sized 40-person orchestra (and overlooking the massed choir for Beethoven's Ninth) that's only $275 for what must be at least several days' work. Are "world-reknowned" orchestras really that hard up for cash?

Heck, if I can get a full orchestra to play me a symphony for a thousand bucks then I might just do it for fun.

I found this web page:


The parent article here implies they will be recording, e.g., all of Beethoven's symphonies, etc. Off the top of my head, this project sounds like at least a week's work, even assuming the players know the music well.

40 players + 5 miscellaneous (conductor, recording engineer, whatever), say, 45 people for a week at $11,000 comes out to around $6/hour. I'm not saying the guy is lying about it, I'm just amazed at how inexpensive this appears to be. Even double that rate, or triple it... that's some pretty awesome work you can get done for that amount of money.

Im not sure I follow your math, the rates on that page show the cost. Assume its $20-30 an hour 45 people at $30 an hour is $1350, $5400 for 4. I'm having them play live so they can read through a symphony in half an hour potentially, depending on which one.

Beethoven: 9 symphonies... Brahms: 4 symphonies... Sibelius: 7 symphonies... Tchaikovsky: 6 symphonies. That's 26 altogether. I've never recorded an orchestra; based on session musicians I've worked with, I would expect the recording sessions to last longer than the compositions in question, and I was estimating at an hour per symphony in the first place, giving the figure of about a week's worth of recording time (~40 hours).

But as I said, I've never recorded an orchestra before; my guesstimates may well be skewed. Even so, at the numbers you are quoting, that's quite a bit lower than I would have guessed earlier today. :-)

Maybe you could save money by getting 'em to play the symphonies four times faster than usual, then slow 'em down digitally!

I'm a little surprised that the big-name orchestras don't want royalties

They do, they charge accordingly to remove them

They should mic each instrument individually, so that in the future you can recreate the experience of sitting anywhere in the concert hall.

Close-micing (which is the term of art for what you're describing) would potentially be interesting in terms of letting people remix the recording, but it wouldn't "let you recreate the experience of sitting anywhere in the concert hall."

Recordings made from close-miced instruments sound very "dry". That is, there's little to no 'room tone' to give you a sense of space or place. I've listened to recordings like that, and it sounds like you're having the instrument wired directly into your brain. In some cases that might be what you want -- a lot of pop music (virtually all) is recorded that way.

I prefer my classical music recorded "wet", on an X/Y or ORTF pair setup. This is basically where you take two identical microphones and set them up down in the seating area of the concert hall, right in the acoustic sweet spot of the room. Done well, and played back on a good set of speakers, you can hear the placement of various instruments across the stage. (Another fun technique is binaural recording, which is designed for playback on headphones. It is not very popular right now, though.)

There are some techniques to make a "dry" recording "wet," by basically faking the room tone, but they're, well, fake. Tossing in a little reverb and messing with the EQ is never going to give you the same effect as the natural acoustics of a concert space.

A lot of modern recordings have a mix; they'll use some mics up on the stage (relatively dry), some down in the audience area, and others on key instruments to give the engineer flexibility later on. But a lot of really excellent classic recordings from the 50s and 60s were done with nothing but two condenser mics.

What you could probably do, if you really wanted, would be to do some sort of multichannel recording using a big microphone array ... if you did it right, with the right playback equipment, that might give you the ability to "move around" inside the listening space. I'm not sure if it would really be any easier than just doing multiple X/Y-pair recordings from different parts of the concert hall, though.

>There are some techniques to make a "dry" recording "wet," by basically faking the room tone, but they're, well, fake. Tossing in a little reverb and messing with the EQ is never going to give you the same effect as the natural acoustics of a concert space.

I disagree with this. It's certainly true of most "reverb" plugins, but it's possible to measure the frequency response curves of famous concert halls and exactly recreate the effect of sitting there, down to the details of how your head shapes the sound coming from different directions. It just comes down to how accurately you can measure the impulse response function. The physics implies that this is basically perfect, modulo the quality of our recording gear.

To do this, you set up microphones as your "ears" where you want it to sound like the person is sitting, and then go on stage and do one of two things. Either fire a blank from a gun, or play a tone sweep. (The latter is more common these days.) From the recording of the way the sounds bounce around the room, you can generalize all of the linear behavior of the reverberation (which is all you are interested in anyways.)

From this you get a convolution kernel, then just convolve that with your dry signal.

You can actually get something that sounds identical to a binaural recording out of this.

Let's do this for pop music.

The founder mass emailed a bunch of people whose emails he scraped from various popular blogs and HN hackers lists looking for a co-founder and started a reply-all mess.

Didn't even have the decency to BCC.

Pretty much shitcanned in my book for doing something so spammy and rude.

I used the co-founder list...to request a co-founder, I dont know what you mean by various blogs, its in a google doc which you were apparently listed in. Apologies if it was unwanted but please then remove your name from it.

I emailed most of the list as I am not looking for a specific person, anyone that is interested in helping. Its not like there are attributes specifically mentioned that would help me narrow for "someone interested in classical music".

However, it obviously wont happen again :)

It's intended to provide people information so they might find a suitable co-founder based on skills wanted, common interests etc. It's a great tool to use. The issue is with both emailing everyone on the list and with putting everyone in the TO instead of BCC.

I've got about tons of emails about this all day which are people saying "please remove me". I wouldn't be a fit for your work anyways, but even if I was, I would have changed my mind by now.

You're right, not BCC'ing was a mistake.


Im defending that you accused me of scraping emails from somewhere. I emailed most of the list because I'm not looking for any specific type of help, and its not like people are mentioning classical music interests in the bios. I need technical and business people.

You do not mass email people with a BCC to find a cofounder. You find someone you like individually and write a response to them based on the strengths in them that you saw.

Finding a co-founder should be treated with as much care as dating.

Sending spam to me via the cofounder list makes your idea, company, and any/all entities you so much as breathe on get the instant waste basket.

I don't know what's happened since 2000 to make people believe spam is somehow acceptable when there's an individual rubber-stamped on the front of it. Being a "startup" doesn't excuse spam either.

Let alone the efficacy of it.

This is like mass emailing women on craigslist trying to get an easy lay, except being stupid enough to mass-email them all at once instead of serially, and then they get into a reply-all mess.

There is a lack of consideration and ignorance present at every possible dimension of what you did that I don't begin to have time or patience to enumerate here.

Very bad form, the only good thing you could've done is "Sorry, I boned up, won't happen again.", instead you act like an adolescent and try to defend your rude behavior.

I doubt I'm the only person who got emailed who feels this way. Do I need to publish the reply-all furor in this thread to demonstrate that I'm not alone in being disturbed by this or are you going to apologize?

Note: this isn't the first time someone's made this mistake, just the first time they've had the cajones to follow it up with

1. A post on HN

2. Trying to defend their spam in a comment reply

As for removing my information, most people are sufficiently socially aware enough to send me a personal email. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't stop the propagation of my personal information as there are many web apps and clones of that info all over the internet that I have zero control over.

You might as well tell EA to go pull all the pirated copies of their software.

These guys spammed me (and another hundred or so HN members) this morning in a very annoying way.

Addressed above and apologies Michael

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