Inspired by Wheat's New York Times post concerning MIDI programs and Broadway
ANOTHER CAUTIONARY TALE ABOUT "VIRTUAL ORCHESTRAS"
A few months ago there was a thread on one of these Forums, I think "Tips Techniques and Tutorials," about a teacher assembling a GPO based "virtual orchestra" for his school's production of Sondheim's "Into The Woods."
I contributed a tangent on that thread, bringing up questions about copyright and the legalities of using computers in amateur stage productions. I also told the story of how a community theatre in my area got in serious trouble using a MIDI generated sound track for one of their productions.
Several Forum members were quick to say that theatres all over the country use MIDI as either an adjunct to small bands or for completely replacing orchestras. And at least one member said he'd been producing tracks for his local theatre for many years. The general feeling expressed was that it's not a problem. The teacher politely thanked me for the advice and then went ahead with the show as planned, using GPO for the Sondheim score.
Sondheim, by the way, has said that he will never allow his music to be performed via synthesizers and/or computers. Ignoring legal issues for a moment, I would much rather respect the composer's wishes.
I myself have produced "virtual orchestras" for amateur theatre. I have had my adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan done all over the country. But because of the legal run-in our theatre had with New York publishers, nobody in this area is allowed to MIDI-fy Broadway musicals still under copyright.
Several years ago I managed to get special permission for doing two well-known shows this way, but it was very difficult to get permission granted. In fact, it was only through the direct involvement and intervention of a Broadway composer that one of these shows was able to get on the boards. He instructed his publisher to allow me to do a MIDI version of his score, waiving the usual copyright protection which doesn't allow such a thing. But that battle was only won after a tremendous amount of time, sweat and tears.
The advice from the publishers in question was to not ever do MIDI scores again, because as legal representatives of the composers whose music they publish, they have no choice but to bust theatres which choose to ignore the copyright laws.
The sanctions are very severe--at least a $5,000 fine to the theatre, and ban of 5 years duration which prevents the theatre from producing Any shows in their catalog.
--NEW HORROR STORY--
Last month, our community theatre decided to again use pre-recorded tracks for the production of a musical. It had been a few years since the legal hassles mentioned above, and the decision makers thought it was safe to again do a show this way.
A website was found for a new company providing recordings of musicals for small theatres to rent. Here is the site:
It's a legitimate looking site, and the theatre was quickly assured by this company, "Aztec Show Trax," that everything was perfectly legal.
THE DAY OF THE SHOW'S OPENING--The theatre's business office received a phone call from the musical's publisher in New York. "Cease and desist" was the message. The show would not be allowed to open without the severe penalties mentioned above being put into effect. The volunteer who answered the phone is an excellent communicator. She begged, she cried, she spilled out the sob story of the hard working cast, of how the show's run was already sold out, of how having the show not open would put the theatre out of business etc.
The publisher rep on the phone asked for detailed information about this company, Aztec Show Trax. It came to light that Aztec stated in writing, in an email, that their business had a legal contract with the publisher, and that there was no danger at all in using their services. The rep said this was all a blatant lie.
Hours went by, several calls were made--The rep was digging up information about Aztec, and talking to her superiors at the publishing house. Finally the matter was resolved--The publisher didn't want to do damage to this community theatre, so would not press charges.
But they guaranteed that Aztec would be shut down and sued. The fact that Aztec had blatantly misled the theatre in that email was the deciding factor in the theatre's favor.
(--I'm surprised to see that website still online. I expect to see it disappear and for their to be a story in the show-biz columns about the suit against them.--)
NONE of the New York publishers have given permission to Aztec or any other company to record and provide recorded versions of the shows they cover. Things have NOT changed. To produce one's own MIDI version of a Broadway musical, or to do business with a company doing the computer work is simply not legal. Perhaps worse--it's very dangerous.
Knowing that small theatres often have difficulty finding musicians for their stage productions, the publishers are slowly making computer materials available--There are MIDI rehearsal aids, and some shows have been worked up into virtual orchestras that can be rented through the publishers. But as with all materials connected to Broadway shows--the librettos, the piano score, conductor's score, individual parts etc---all of this is through the publishers exclusively. They are able to make new contracts with their clients for including MIDI materials--but they will never be providing contracts that make it legal for independent companies or individuals to produce their own recordings.
I know I know---"people do it all the time." But I am compelled to tell you that as rare an event as it may be, in our area, New York has come down with a sledge hammer on this matter. Several years ago a High School in our state was severely penalized for re-writing a Broadway musical. It's plainly stated in the contracts theatres sign that NOTHING can be changed in the script or score, that no recordings of any kind can be made of or for the show--and when infractions of those contracts come to light, the publishers are severe with their penalties and sanctions.
Foot note--You may wonder how the publisher in New York became aware of the theatre's plans to use Aztec's services. Because in the local paper's preview article for the show, the director mentioned that the orchestra was to be a recording. Dumb dumb dumb. Publishers have clipping services scouring the nation's papers for indications of copyright infringement. Hence the call--and hence the nightmarish opening day of this show when a very real disaster almost put the theatre out of business.
Take care all.