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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News
By Dan Daley

Preserving over a century's worth of audio recordings is a mammoth task — but one organisation has set about doing just that...

At the turn of the 21st century, the US Congress passed the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000. The legislation was intended to unify the scores of independent organisations who have aimed to preserve the last 130 years of audio recordings. Like a lot of legislation, the Act outlined broad visions for the future, but offered little in the way of guidance to accomplish them. Sure, Thomas Edison's first recorded words — a recitation of 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' — have been preserved through ubiquitous ownership (meaning that Disney didn't get a chance to copyright it), but millions of other seminal recordings haven't been as fortunate. Thirteen years hence, we now have some details.

The Plan

The National Recording Preservation Plan (NRPP), announced last December, is the culmination of a series of study groups — a process that should be familiar to anyone who has worked on standards committees for organisations like the AES and SMPTE. Although the people involved are mostly from academic circles, there are names among them that should be familiar to pro-audio readers, including George Massenburg (via his affiliation with McGill University) and mastering engineer Marcos Sueiro Bal, of Masterdisk in New York City.

The Library of Congress, under whose auspices the program has proceeded, has some experience of such things. It oversaw a similar (and still-ongoing) undertaking to preserve America's film heritage, the work for which began in 1994. Nonetheless, preserving sound is a far more extensive undertaking, simply because of the vast amount of material that has to be considered — the Preservation Plan estimates that just the institutional archives at libraries and museums store some 46 million sound recordings, and that millions of additional recordings, often unique and also in need of preservation, are held by record companies, performing artists, broadcasters and collectors. The work that will have to be performed is staggering. And keep in mind that this is only about preservation; restoration is a different matter entirely.

So the NRPP developed recommendations for implementing a coordinated preservation effort, which fell into four inter-related categories: preservation infrastructure, preservation strategies, access challenges, and long-term national strategies for preservation and access. Some recommendations, they say, can be achieved in the near future; long-term initiatives may take a generation or more to accomplish.

The Plan's recommendations are twofold: digitise as much as possible, as quickly as possible (the plan sets a time frame of up to 20 years before degradation prevents useful preservation), and establish environments that can slow down the degradation process, using well-known techniques such as humidity and temperature control, to buy more time for the digitisation process. Preservation strategies include finding ways to keep digital formats accessible as far into the future as possible, using open-source formats whenever they can (early digital audio formats, like F1 and DAT, are already becoming difficult to read).

Access Granted?

Gaining access to material in the first place presents its own complex challenges. For example, anything recorded prior to February 15th 1972 is no longer under copyright in the US, but without clear provenance, trying to preserve these 'orphan' recordings can run foul of the many state and local laws that prevailed before more uniform Federal copyright laws were put in place. This part of the Plan calls for three initiatives, the first of which is to create a national discography and directory of recorded sound collections (good luck!) and to establish best practices for audio cataloging. The second initiative is to reform copyright legislation so that federal copyright protection can be applied to sound recordings produced before 1972. Finally, the NRPP recommend finding ways to make more sound collections available to the public — including, crucially, drawing up licenses for streaming.

Hope For The Future

What sets this initiative apart, I think, is the emphasis on including the public in the awareness of the process. Streaming is rapidly becoming the way we consume music, and it is the ideal way to keep everyone informed of the NRPP's progress. Instead of hiding the entire preservation process behind technical and institutional doors, the Plan embraces the idea of public collaboration. That's further expanded via the publication of The State Of Recorded Sound Preservation In The United States: A National Legacy At Risk In The Digital Age, the first comprehensive survey of recorded sound preservation in America ever undertaken, which has been written in plain English to make it accessible.

During the period when the Preservation Plan was being created, consumers became far more integrated into the process of music production. That hasn't always been a good thing for those who create music professionally — the studio-on-a-smartphone syndrome has contributed to the perceptual devaluation of music, at the same time as its economic value has been catastrophically lessened by piracy and over-saturation. Saving and then making accessible the universe of recorded music, especially tracks beyond the clutches of the media conglomerates that have locked up so much music and other content over nearly half a century, could go a long way to restoring the sense of music's value.

In our pop culture, it's hard to think of anything but the moment. Reminding people that Katy Perry and Psy will someday be considered 'legacy' artists might seem culturally, if not intellectually, dissonant — but it's the truth.    

Published June 2013