Keep It On Wax?
by Chris Hibbard, Music Lover
(Originally written for http://www.labeat.ca, Nov. 2010)
Previous centuries saw songs memorized orally and poems rehearsed with body language. Decades ago, we stored music on Victrola theory paper, wax vinyl, then reel to reel, then 4-track recordings; all leading to our more familiar mediums: 8-tracks, vinyl, cassette tapes, compact discs and now digital audio. Discreetly, as the twentieth century progressed, our society transformed itself, with the help of radio, television, and computers. Before we knew it, we were living in a new world, one in which the media that is all around us, is essentially acting as a recorder for our collective memory. However, have you ever stopped to consider what might be happening to the recorded evidence of our North American musical heritage?
Radio and television recordings are reflections of our everyday lives; “bringing the world into every home, mixing information with fiction, entertainment with culture, and becoming the window through which we now access our environment.” Through the immediacy of audio and video, we began building a historical record of our human events that has accumulated over time – so much so that we now have an almost infinite repository of our collective memory. While previous generations used pen and ink to record their arts and culture, our generations used cameras. Yet as happens with our own human minds, over time; that memory gets more difficult to hold on to. We often take for granted all of our modern technologies; and the contributions they lend to archiving or library services are no exception. We assume that somebody, somewhere, is collecting all of the information that we produce – storing it just in case. As it turns out however, our audio heritage has already begun to disappear – lost forever – musical art that will never have the chance to be heard again.
A report was released last year from America’s Library of Congress; their National Recording Preservation Board department. This report, known as The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age”, was the first of its kind – meant to assess our modern infrastructure’s capacity to save antiquated audio recordings. This report was startling, detailing how many of our old master tapes have been disintegrating over time or have been lost to fire and flood. Even worse, many master tapes and original works were once transferred to digital mediums, but have since been lost to corruption and file degeneration. Information for the study was gathered through interviews, public hearings and written submissions with people working in the audio and archivist industries. The main purpose of the report being to answer some very serious questions: exactly where is all the music, and how do we ensure it’s stored safely somewhere – somewhere other than in a cardboard box in the back of a closet or behind glass in a museum?
In his introduction to the study, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington noted: “Sound recordings have existed as one of the most salient features of America’s cultural landscape for more than 130 years. As a nation, we have good reason to be proud of our historical record of creativity in the sound-recording arts and sciences. However, our collective energy in creating and consuming sound recordings in all genres has not been matched by an equal level of interest, over the same period of time, in preserving them for posterity.” What he was referring to was the fact that during the 70’s and 80’s, little thought was given to the maintenance of storage of our musical heritage; pushed out of our minds as it was by an ever-increasing amount of new material. “The arrival of digital systems somehow reinforced the idea that these media were eternal. The fact that a digital signal was less susceptible to the ravages of time and that it could easily be cloned without loss of data gave rise firstly to the belief that digital description would prove more durable and, secondly, that, thanks to the emerging concept of ‘migration’, a solution to overcome the deterioration over time of magnetic tapes was within our grasp.
Consequently, the report continued; we developed a mistaken belief that our analogue material was in no real danger, because ‘some day in the future’ all the analogue tapes would be saved and transferred somewhere safe. So we turned a blind eye, waiting for the perfect ‘miracle medium’ or format to arrive, guaranteeing happy archiving. Finally, initiatives were struck in the mid-80’s to look into the situation. Now, while our modern archivist groups and organizations attempt to collect it all, they are also being constantly inundated with millions of terabytes of new audio files. Said one recording engineer to the author’s of the Congress report, “I am trying to bring the past up to date around here. I am trying to keep the present under control. I’m slowly losing my mind.”
Presently, our public institutions, libraries and archives hold an estimated 46 million recordings, but few institutions have the funding and staff necessary to fully inventory and evaluate their holdings. We are at a point now, in which what is not known about our sound-recording collections in North America is a much larger percentage than what is known. Some of the statistics released in the report were very interesting to consider. It is estimated (as of 2009), that 14 per cent of all commercially released recordings created before 1965, are actually available from their copyright holders. Of all the music released in the United States during the 1930’s, the percentage is even smaller. And while many record companies have begun remastering and re-releasing many classics from eras gone by, there is no policy in place stipulating any requirement to hold on to the original master recordings.
In the U.S. alone, libraries and other archives in public instititutions house over 46 million recordings; many of which are not properly stored, maintained, or made accessible to the public ear. A little more research unearthed a similar figure from Europe – over 100 million hours of audiovisual input are already missing, while only two percent of all analogue recordings are preserved, with an even smaller portion than that being digitized and accessible online in any way. Additionally, a far vaster amount of our stored audio material resides only in private collections, by way of single records, tapes and sheet music that are largely uncatalogued and thereby untraceable. As music collector’s age, their collections are handed down, discarded, stored somewhere or purchased by other collectors. We have come to a point in our lives in which we simply do not know where a lot of our old music is anymore – or if it even still exists. Moreover, if we do manage to locate and gain access to the material, there comes another snowball of an issue – the copyright conundrum. If your grandfather has the only surviving copy of a Norwegian folk song, does that mean your grandfather owns the rights to the piece of music? If a 1960’s record label based out of Vermont released 500 copies of an obscure psychedelic rock album, before going bankrupt five years later, who owns the material that was on those 500 albums?
In a slightly broader context, the report finds that “our unpublished sound recordings are among the most culturally important resources entrusted to libraries and archives…Many of these recordings are unique, and in nearly all cases, the primary responsibility for preserving unpublished collections eventually falls to publicly funded institutions.” One of the main categories causing concern is the entire audio catalog from the first decade of radio broadcasts – those years in which families would gather around the radio as their only source of ‘tech’ innovation. Gathering to listen to shows like The Shadow, Abbott & Costello, and Gunsmoke. An era before television and telephone – when the radio was the only source of public information, public music and public culture. We should be worried about losing this ‘”irreplaceable piece of our socio-cultural heritage” ; for if we choose to not care; the 20’s are next, then the 30’s, and so on. Where do we draw the line?
Another troubling fact the report raised involves the decay and temporary nature of some of our more modern technologies. “Those tapes and 8-tracks are just time bombs waiting to go off,” said one of the Congress report authors in the interview with AP. “That magnetic tape doesn’t hold information forever, certainly if it’s not stored properly.” The report’s authors mention that analog recordings made more than 100 years ago are more likely to survive a long time than are our digital recordings made today. While most older analog formats, such as vinyl records; may be physically more stable over the long term than are more modern mediums; we can’t guarantee what shape they’re in if we don’t even know where they are. The same goes for floppy discs and compact discs, used in most households and businesses throughout the last 30 years. For example, compact discs and DVDS have an expected life span of 1500 uses, or 150 hours – once a CD or DVD is scratched, chipped or dinged beyond repair; the information it contained becomes irretrievable. Meanwhile, a range of digital issues show that our now common digital-born material, such as MP3s and other file formats, are not reliable at all. Between constantly evolving file formats, copy and conversion errors and erratic kinds of storage; our more recent podcasts, digital-only releases and Internet radio broadcasts have become nearly impossible to accurately track down, preserve and catalogue.
There are no easy answers to this situation, but it is something that I found thought provoking. How exactly do we ensure that our musical heritage doesn’t just disappear from under us? Because if we’re not careful, one day our idea of Classical music may only refer to anything that was made between 1960 and 1985.
Based on the report: The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age; The Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board with the Council on Library and Information Resources. Check it out by copying this address into your browser window