Thursday, February 17, 2011

For the Record

Driving to Davis a few weeks ago I popped a tape into the audio cassette player in my 1999 van and played Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come. After it was finished playing my son Noah said "Dad, you used to have good taste in music."

Forgetting about the jab at my personal music choices and focusing on the music and the media I thought about that "old" van I drive with 170,000 miles on it, the cassette player, and the cassettes I have from back in the day. How much longer would I be able to play those tapes? Do I need to start purchasing digital versions of this music? Most of these cassettes were created by transferring albums and CDs to tape during the 1980s. Who has the time (and the equipment) to do any of that anymore? Maybe I can get a better price for the van when I decide to sell it if I offer the cassettes as part of the deal!

About that same time I heard the Library of Congress announced the largest donation of audio recordings in its history. The Universal Music Group donated thousands of "master recordings -- the final metal discs used to press commercial releases; lacquer discs that were cut in the studio to capture full takes of tunes; and reel-to-reel tapes." 

The entire collection dates from about 1930 to 1950 and includes about 200,000 metal masters, 10,000 reel-to-reel tapes, and about 15,000 lacquer discs.

This material is considered so valuable it will be stored underground in facilities once run by the Virginia Federal Reserve and now is the Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

exterior view of the National Audio Visual Conservation Center
National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

The metal plates have ridges instead of grooves. They require a special stylus to play the sound. After about four months of shipping these materials via tractor-trailer the staff will begin the process of finding out what they have and eventually digitizing it all. 

What could be so valuable there and why would we want to preserve it? One example was the SECOND master recording of Bing Crosby's White Christmas. This recording from 1947 had to be created because Crosby's rendition of the song was so popular the record company was no longer able to make copies from the original 1942 recording. It was worn out.

What could be even more exciting is what we do not know is in this collection says Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress. "There is so much possibility here of discovery of recordings that have been off the sonic landscape of America. It's gonna be a treasure to mine for many years for the archive."

You might ask why should the United States government fund the storage, restoration, and eventual publication of material that a large corporation like Universal Music Group no longer values. According to DeAnna "90% of what we're taking in here is not commercially viable." In a recent study the Library of Congress found that only 14% of recorded music from between the 1890s to the 1960s is  commercially available to the public.

Perhaps that's just this issue. The Library of Congress isn't interested in making money. They are in the business of archiving, preserving, and providing access to the wealth of information that makes up the American Memory. If businesses come and go this material can go along with it . . . if we don't preserve it.

And this is true of our own personal treasure trove of images and sounds. Here is a picture of my Mom's elementary school class in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. 

Besides me, and my family, who else cares about this image? What makes it valuable and why and how would someone want to archive and preserve it? I'll talk more about that in future articles.

No comments: