[JPL] Library of Congress Gets a Mile of Music

Dr. Jazz 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 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 <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 
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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