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Faculty of Law | University of the Western Cape

Research Portal

Faculty of Law | University of the Western Cape


Music of the future, or old hat?

Published: 26 January 2020 | Written by Darcy du Toit

Imagine Cape Town City Hall on a Thursday night A symphony concert is about to begin. Fifty musicians in evening wear are on stage, tuning their instruments. There is a round of applause as the conductor, resplendent in tailcoat and white tie, strides to his place and takes a bow. Then he turns, baton raised, to start the first movement.

All is as it should be and always has been. It is a scene that has played out countless times in countless concert halls over countless generations.

Or is it?

For in front of each musician on our imaginary stage is not a stand with sheet music but a flat computer screen. When taking their places, all musicians clicked ‘OK’ on the screen to confirm that, as independent contractors, they have accepted the terms and conditions for their services over the next 90 minutes.

The company with which they are contracting, Music Ltd, is located in the Bahamas and its sole contribution is to provide each musician with access to a digital programme, which will display on screen precisely which notes the musician must play and when.

The musicians will be paid by a second company, Money Ltd, registered in Liechtenstein. A third company, Concerts Ltd, is based in Singapore and has a contract with the Cape Town Municipality to lease the City Hall for the evening and market the concert, both live and in various digital formats, online streaming as well as recorded.

The profits from this evening will be relatively puny. But in the course of the next 24 hours Concerts Ltd, in association with Money Ltd and Music Ltd, will market dozens of similar concerts in dozens of famous venues, from the Carnegie Hall to Sydney’s Opera House. The consortium dominates the world market in live classical music.

This imaginary scenario raises many questions. For example: what happens if a musician doesn’t click ‘OK’? Answer: the same as when a musician in a traditional orchestra decides to walk out at the start of a performance. He or she won’t be paid, will be sued (see the small print in the contract) and won’t easily find work again.

Or: why have musicians at all – why not simply have the music performed electronically? Answer: it’s been happening for years via numerous media, from gramophones to YouTube. But concerts are different. Audiences go to concert halls to be seen, to mingle with others, to absorb the atmosphere and, above all, to hear live musicians play. So it’s an established market.

Or: if a computer is telling the musicians what and when to play, why have a conductor? Answer: because audiences expect to see a conductor – it wouldn’t be the same without one. It doesn’t matter if he or she is only going through the motions or if the musicians are concentrating on their screens and ignoring the conductor. Like the musicians’ evening dress, the conductor is part of the scene.

Finally: if this could work with orchestras, what about factories? Imagine the following model:

  • Break the production process down into a series of separate tasks – for example, designing the product and each of its parts; ordering parts or making them with 3D printing; and assembling the product.
  • Sign on workers (in different countries) as independent contractors to perform specified tasks on a piecemeal basis.
  • Orchestrate the process through a digital platform.
  • Locate the different components of the process (design, assembly etc) as well as the platform itself in different jurisdictions.
  • The product is then acquired and marketed by one or more different entities, located in appropriate jurisdictions for tax and other purposes. Contractual arrangements and, possibly, reciprocal shareholding could ensure the coherence of the whole.

Is this music of the future, or is it old hat already?

New Dutoit 

About the author: Darcy du Toit is an Emeritus Professor and former Dean of Law at the University of the Western Cape. Read more