Sunday, October 3, 2010

Who Will Save America's Vanishing Songs?

1859 drawing of an phonautograph, the first device capable of recording sound. You can listen to some of the first recorded sounds here. Illustration from Wikimedia Commons.
NPR recently ran an interesting piece, Who Will Save America's Vanishing Songs? The story was inspired by a paper from the Library of Congress' National Recording Preservation Board [huge PDF warning].

Both pieces report that in some ways it is the most recent musical tracks that are the most endangered. "Older recordings actually have better prospects to survive another 150 years than recordings made last week using digital technologies," according t the report. Many smaller bands only release their music digitally, sometimes via a MySpace page or similar site, with no thought to digital preservation. Modern copyright laws have become so restrictive that "Were copyright law followed to the letter . . . it would brand virtually all audio preservation as illegal." And don't even get us started on the multiple digital tracks, alternate versions, and bonus tracks that make up modern music releases.

The report is not optimistic about preserving older media either. "Public institutions, libraries, and archives hold an estimated 46 million recordings," the report tells us, yet "degree programs to train professional audio archivists are nonexistent."

I found the report a discouraging read. Popular music is one of the best sources that we have for getting into the mindset of people in the past. Popular music is an invaluable source for social history and a great teaching tool (see this post on teaching with digitized music from Edison cylinders).

What is to be done? "This study will be followed by publication of a national plan developed on the basis of the recommendations of task forces convened to discuss the findings presented here," we are told. Apparently it cannot happen soon enough.

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