[JPL] Library of Congress Gets a Mile of Music
drjazz at drjazz.com
Sun Jan 9 21:26:18 EST 2011
January 9, 2011
Library of Congress Gets a Mile of Music
By LARRY ROHTER
The Library of Congress <http://www.loc.gov/performingarts/> 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
<http://www.universalmusic.com/history>, 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
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
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
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
<http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/arts/music/17jazz.html> 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 <http://www.mosaicrecords.com/>, 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
<http://www.komonews.com/home/video/7661937.html>, 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 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 <http://www.history-of-rock.com/chess_records.htm> (and its
subsidiary Checker, Cadet and Aristocrat labels) and Motown Records (and
its Tamla and Gordy subsidiaries) are excluded from the agreement, at
"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
Besides music by towering figures like Crosby, Louis Armstrong
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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