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