March 1, 2013

Amoeba Music and the ethics of reissuing records

Last month, Amoeba Music — one of America's largest independent record stores — announced their “Vinyl Vaults” program, in which they’d go back through their massive vinyl library and release out-of-print titles digitally. On the surface, this sounds like a music lover’s dream come true. But some are concerned that Amoeba’s approach might pose copyright violations, even with the precautions that they’ve taken.

Through putting in place the escrow system, it appears as though Amoeba have sought to establish themselves as the de-facto owners of the music. By doing so, they ignore the well-established process of re-releasing music that a host of dedicated reissue imprints have been practising for years, and are also taking profit from the sales, payment that gets shared only when and — perhaps more crucially — if the actual owners come forward.

“Much as I love Amoeba, I think this is a bit odd,” says Jonny Trunk, owner of Trunk Records, a long-running reissue label. “I have looked at their Vinyl Vaults section, specifically in the area I specialise in — film music, TV music, library music, electronics — and many of the albums they have for download are easily licensed. This is done by phoning up the libraries and doing a simple licensing deal. All theses libraries are still operating and easily found and contacted (e.g. Selected Sound, De Wolfe, Kpm). Some of what they have up for sale digitally should not be there, unless they have a license, but what they have up for sale (that I can see on a quick scan) is so random that it looks like it has not been licensed at all.”