Digital storage has been revolutionary — but the consequences of mishandling it can be severe.
Anyone who owned or managed a studio in the analogue era (raising my hand here) will remember that storage of bulky 24-track tapes would periodically become a problem when a sizable number of them left at the studio “for a few weeks” turned into months and then years. This was an especially annoying problem in places like Manhattan where space for anything has always been at a premium. Studio managers would call clients and ask them nicely, and then with increasing degrees of intensity and finally exasperation, to please come and collect their hefty square boxes. It was perhaps the quintessential quandary of the media age: a box of Ampex or BASF two-inch tape might have cost $150 or so blank, but once it held two or three songs it was the manifestation of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of creative and financial value.
Dave ‘Roz’ Rosner, the longtime manager at Quad Studios in New York, says in some ways only the media have changed — the mentality that expects studios to act as warehouses remains alive and well. “The producer comes in with a two-track, cuts vocals and walks out with a rough bounce; then, six months later, calls for the session files,” he says, the incredulity palpable in his voice. “We back everything up as a courtesy and as a safety net. We email files at the end of every session and encourage clients to bring hard drives or a USB key and take backups with them. But it has just become expected for us to be there with the files forever. I had a client on Friday call looking for a master from 1982. Really?”
That’s more charitable than most managers might be. Zoe Thrall, director of the Studio at the Palms in Las Vegas, and before that the GM at Avatar Studios in New York, strictly limits the amount of time client files can be stored on premises. “I ship them out to them after three months,” she says firmly. “There is no long-term storage at all.”
“Studios have long been held to a standard that was often difficult for them to live up to,” commiserates Ron Bienstock, a New York attorney who specialises in intellectual property. “It was the presumption that they were the repository for various tapes comprising whatever the artist, producer or label has left behind for the studio to store, and under various case law, particularly in New York, not to [dispose of] without notice or agreement, as [the studio] may be liable for damages.”
The shift to digital moved storage away from tape, but not to a completely virtual world; instead, hard drives have become the detritus of the 21st century. And their convenient form factor also allows them to go astray much easier, creating a new and much more complicated problem in the age of content.
The problems associated with handy little hard drives was driven home earlier this year, when the estate of the late artist Prince moved to prevent the release of six songs he had recorded with an engineer and producer who had collaborated with him at Prince’s Paisley Park studios in Minneapolis. The songs date back almost a decade, and the situation underscores the potential problems that unsecured master recordings can become the root of. A judge’s restraining order directed the engineer to turn over “all of the recordings acquired through his work with Paisley Park Enterprises, including original recordings, analogue and digital copies, and any derivative works.” But of course this was a matter of horses and stable doors by then. So even though it’s much easier to store the physical elements of music production today, their very ease of transport, combined with the pitfalls that all digital media are inherently prone to, makes storage and custody a greater concern now than ever.
The liability potential for media elements became exponentially greater in the digital domain; the damage escaped track files could cause ranging from financial losses to piracy to image impairment as a result of unprocessed tracks revealing what could be viewed as an artist’s flaws.
More recently, cracks of media elements have taken an even more sinister turn. Media pirates are becoming that much more like their actual counterparts by hacking finished files and then holding them for ransom. This impacted the film industry first, with the 2015 hack of Sony Pictures; more recently, pirates accessed the episode files of the next season of Orange Is The New Black, a popular Netflix series. The ‘kidnappers’ (their nom de guerre is ‘thedarkoverlord’) made good on their threats, releasing the episodes when the streaming service failed to meet the ransom requests, adding, ominously, “We’re not playing any games anymore.” What’s also notable here, though, is that the hack likely occurred through a Los Angeles post-production studio. As the music business becomes concentrated on a smaller and smaller group of elite recording artists, it’s inevitable that their media elements will become targets at some point.
Recording studios have been a flashpoint for content leaks in the past for the same reason that dogs are blamed for flatulence: they’re both easy targets and it’s not easy for them to fight back. Setting cut-off limits for the storage of all client-owned media, establishing a clear and documentable process for getting media back into the hands of those clients, plus upping a studio’s Internet firewalls, can go a long way to alleviating the potential for leaks and hacks. Bienstock recommends creating and using agreements between studios and clients limiting studios’ liabilities regarding media left behind. “Templates for these agreements should be on every studio’s computers, along with plug-ins,” he warns. All this goes for private studios, as well — more of them than can be counted are used commercially, a little or a lot, depending on the owner’s fancy and finances, and are thus subject to the same potential for trouble, even if it’s the owner’s friends that are the clients. If the last presidential election taught us nothing else, it’s that content will find its way out of almost any box. Do what you can to make that box someone else’s problem.