Music Articles

Recorded Sound At Risk

78 rpm records

In the long haul, is the shellac single possibly more durable than its MP3 equivalent? iStockPhoto hide caption

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The Library of Congress released a study today which examines the state of American recorded sound preservation at large. It isn't optimistic; not only does it identify that a great bulk of old recordings is lost/out-of-print/unplayable/unaccounted for, but also notes that "Today's digital formats are not inherently safe harbors of preservation." Only an estimated 14 percent of pre-1965 commercial recordings are currently available, and only about 10 percent of music recorded in the 1930s is readily accessible to the public. Meanwhile, the study finds — somewhat counterintuitively — that older analog recordings are, on the whole, likely to survive more than 100 years more than today's born-digital recordings. (Hard drives crash, technologies become obsolete, etc.)

For a music like jazz, whose history tends to deeply inform the present day, this is rather unnerving. Miles Davis records will stay in print for a pretty long time, but what about all the other trumpeters between, say, 1945-1975? How are future generations to wrap their minds around pre-war jazz if we can only hear 10 percent of the records from the 1930s? It's a problem which the study's authors know intimately; Sam Brylawski edited the discography of Victor Records, and Rob Bamberger is host of the excellent Hot Jazz Saturday Night radio program. (Is this just a Washington, D.C. thing? I hope not.) Anyway, the study is worth a look, even if it will depress you. [Library Of Congress: The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States]



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