A mile of recordings for the Library of Congress

Here’s a column from the NY Times earlier this month.  I’ll post a few thoughts in the comments section below.

-Peter

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Library of Congress Gets a Mile of Music
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: January 9, 2011

The Library of Congress has begun taking possession of a huge donation of recordings, some 200,000 metal, glass and lacquer master discs from the period  1926 to 1948 that have been languishing in the subterranean vaults of Universal Music Group, the largest music conglomerate in the United States.

The bequest, which is to be formally announced on Monday, contains music representing every major genre of American popular song of that era — jazz,  blues, country and the smooth pop of the pre-rock-’n’-roll period — as well as some light classical and spoken-word selections. One historic highlight is the master recording of Bing Crosby’s 1947 version of “White Christmas,” which according to Guinness World Records is the best-selling single of all time.

Bing Crosby + Horse

"Cowboy" Bing Crosby

“This is a treasure trove, a mile-plus of material on the shelves, much of it music that has been out of circulation for many years,” said Gene DeAnna, head of the recorded sound section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. “You can’t get any better copies than these, so this represents a major upgrade.”

Under the agreement negotiated during discussions that began two years ago the Library of Congress has been granted ownership of the physical discs and plans to preserve and digitize them. But Universal, a subsidiary of the French media conglomerate Vivendi that was formerly known as the Music Corporation of America, or MCA, retains both the copyright to the music recorded on the discs and the right to commercialize that music after it has been digitized.  “The thinking behind this is that we have a very complementary relationship,” said Vinnie Freda, executive vice president for digital logistics and business services at Universal Music Logistics. “I’ve been trying to figure out a way to economically preserve these masters in a digital format, and the library is interested in making historically important material available. So they will preserve the physical masters for us and make them available to academics and  anyone who goes to the library, and Universal retains the right to commercially exploit the masters.”

The agreement will also permit the Web site of the Library of Congress to stream some of the recordings for listeners around the world once they are cataloged and digitized, a process that Mr. DeAnna said could take five years or more, depending on government appropriations. But both sides said it had not yet been  determined which songs would be made available, a process that could be complicated by Universal’s plans to sell some of the digitized material through iTunes.

Universal’s bequest is the second time in recent months that a historic archive of popular music has been handed over to a nonprofit institution dedicated to preserving America’s recorded musical heritage. Last spring the National Jazz Museum in Harlem acquired nearly 1,000 discs, transcribed from radio broadcasts
in the late 1930s and early 1940s by the recording engineer William Savory, featuring some of the biggest names in jazz.  Michael Cuscuna, the jazz record producer and historian who runs Mosaic Records, a label specializing in jazz reissues, said of the Universal donation, “This is very crucial material for us, and we’ve been assured it will be an active archive that is not going to be tied up in bureaucracy, and that we and others will have access to it.”  “Having lived in the vaults for many years,” he added, he is aware that “there has been a lot of attrition” to the archives of major labels because of “stupid decisions, acts of nature, and material that has been lost, stolen, or never saved,” so a transfer to the Library of Congress is theoretically welcome.

Much of the material has been stored at Iron Mountain, the former limestone mine near Boyers, Pa., that also holds numerous government and corporate records.  Universal began delivering the material to a Library of Congress site in Culpepper, Va., just before Christmas, so it is still too early for archivists to know what historic recordings, rarities and curiosities may be lurking in the collection. But a quick look at the lacquer recordings, which are being examined first because they are the most vulnerable, has already given hints of the riches that might be there.  Many of the lacquer discs appear to be backup recordings of studio sessions, including the chatter of performers and producers between takes. “Certainly there are many, many takes, 8 to 10, of some songs,” Mr. DeAnna said, “so that you can track the decisions made in the studio and get some sense of what they  were deciding, the criteria they were using” to determine how a song should sound.  One such sequence of studio  recordings has Bing Crosby instructing backing musicians and singers how he wants to shape a song. Other discs feature Crosby and the guitarist Les Paul. Mr. DeAnna said there was even one session, which would have to be from the 1950s, of Crosby’s encounter with the New York City doo-wop group the Jesters.

The Universal Music Group, today the largest group of labels in the beleaguered recording industry, began its life in 1934 as Decca Records, the American  affiliate of the British recording company of the same name. Over the years as it was melded first into MCA and then Universal, it acquired or established subsidiary labels like Brunswick, Coral, Vocalion and Mercury, whose recordings from the era of 78 r.p.m. discs are also part of the archive.

The collection bequeathed to the Library of Congress does not, however, include recordings from the vaults of some of the important blues and soul labels that MCA acquired on its way to becoming the largest of the “big four” record companies. For example master recordings of both Chess Records (and its subsidiary Checker, Cadet and Aristocrat labels) and Motown Records (and its Tamla and Gordy subsidiaries) are excluded from the agreement, at least initially.

“We’re hoping this is a long-term relationship that could span decades,” Mr. Freda said. “If all goes well, our hope is to eventually deliver another  tranche, maybe the 1950s and into the early 1960s, and cherry pick from that.”  The exact monetary value of the collection is not known, and a formal assessment has not yet been made. But in addition to the savings that will be gained from no longer having to store the discs, Universal could be in line for a substantial tax write-off as a result of the donation.

“That’s a complicated question for a lot of reasons,” Mr. Freda said. “It’s not a yes or no answer. Universal is a subsidiary of a much larger company, so it’s got a lot of complications. But I can absolutely tell you that without a doubt that was not a consideration of why we did this. To the extent that we get a tax benefit, that will only be an extra plus.”  Besides music by towering figures like Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland, the collection includes songs by stars like the Mills Brothers, Fred Waring, Guy Lombardo and the Andrews Sisters. For connoisseurs of American roots music, there is also country music from Ernest  Tubb, bluegrass from Bill Monroe and a wide variety of guitar and piano blues, gospel and jug-band music.

“This is going to be the gift that keeps giving, that keeps our engineers and staff here busy for years,” Mr. DeAnna said. “Our challenge right now is to  decide where to start, because the sheer numbers are just staggering.”

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About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs. Peter founded Santa Barbara's Old Time Fiddler's Convention (1972), UCSB's Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps - three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled "The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music" (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 - 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, "BlueGrass West!", based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California. Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America's musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.
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One Response to A mile of recordings for the Library of Congress

  1. Pete says:

    So, the “UMG” (Universal Music Group) has donated more than a mile of record masters to the Library Of Congress. I suppose that’s a good thing. It certainly is for UMG, since storing recordings is a very expensive business, and they’ve just transferred that expense to us taxpayers. Note that *they have not relinquished their copyrights* to any of this material. So, in that sense, they still own it and reap the financial benefits while not being responsible for maintaining the physical “property”.

    Indeed, due to the draconian, pro-corporate terms of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (the “DMCA”), it is extremely difficult to access and use the materials now owned by the LOC. Under international copyright law, valid almost everywhere *except* in the USA, once a commercial recording has been released, it becomes public domain after 50 years. This is one reason you see so many excellent reissue sets coming from Germany, Japan, The United Kingdom, etc., as it is legally possible to do this without getting hammered by copyright lawyers.

    Understand that any modern corporation, with its “obligation to stockholders”, is loath to incur any expense not directed to its immediate bottom line. Older recordings, having lost their immediate appeal, are often dumped into trash containers, even while the corporate legal department keeps other from reissuing the material.

    Not a pretty sight.

Your comments are always welcome!