Library of Congress and Sony Music team for ‘National Jukebox’ free streaming of vintage recordings.
The Library of Congress is flipping a switch Tuesday that will open a large chunk of the national archive of more than 3 million music and spoken-word recordings for public online streaming as part of a new National Jukebox project, a joint venture between the library and Sony Music that will give free access to thousands of Sony-controlled recordings long out of circulation because of commercial or copyright issues.
Some of the 10,000 titles streamable at the new National Jukebox website have been unavailable for more than 100 years, a significant chunk of them because of complex laws controlling ownership of sound recordings, which did not become subject to federal copyright laws until 1972.
Among the highlights are vintage performances by celebrated classical musicians, including Enrico Caruso and Fritz Kreisler; the first blues recording, “Livery Stable Blues,” made in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band; a comedy skit by the Vaudeville team of Gallagher and Shean; speeches of President Teddy Roosevelt; piano performances by jazz-ragtime pioneer Eubie Blake; and music of the John Philip Sousa Band conducted by its namesake.
“This really blows the top off of a lot of stuff, doesn’t it?” said Chris Sampson, associate dean of USC’s Thornton School of Music. “There are so many angles from the academic perspective of how this would be a resource. Just in my small corner of the universe of teaching songwriting, the ability to be able to go to the source so students can see the tradition of American music and American songwriting, to see this lineage and to be able to draw upon it is going to be enormous…. To me that’s just gold.”
Sony, which claims to control more historical recordings than any other of the three existing major label groups — EMI, Warner and Universal music groups — has made available all pre-1925 acoustic recordings originally made for the Victor Talking Machine Co., the vast majority of which are not now in circulation. The next phase of the project, announced Tuesday morning at the Library of Congress’ offices in Washington, D.C., will add early discs made for Columbia Records, which also is under the Sony umbrella. The project offers no direct financial gain to Sony, although the company will retain the rights for the commercial release of anything newly coming available.
“We’re going to release this site with more than 10,000 sides,” said Gene DeAnna, head of the library’s recorded sound section. “For this project, we’ve had to pull every copy of our Victor acoustic recordings, examine them all and select what we thought was the best and send it upstairs for possible digitization.” DeAnna said he estimates there are roughly an equal number of Columbia discs that project officials expect to add to the Jukebox this year.
One major component of the project, which has been about two years in the making, is a digital discography of every Sony-owned acoustic 78-rpm recording, organized in a searchable database, prepared at UC Santa Barbara; each entry contains extensive information ranging from personnel on each recording, the date and locations they were made down to which take from the recording session is on each disc. The library’s files also will be the source for thousands of pages of documents and images of original labels, artist biographies and other text and photographic material.
Of the recordings from the late 19th and early 20th century that are now streamable, “Only the Caruso stuff is currently available,” DeAnna said.
“The only artist whose work has remained in print since it was recorded is Caruso,” added Matthew Barton, the library’s curator of recorded sound. “You’ve always been able to get Caruso, in whatever the current formats were. But he wasn’t the only star of the day, he wasn’t the only opera singer recording — but he’s the only one that has been consistently available from the rights holder.”
That speaks to copyright issues that have kept thousands of recordings off the market even when there have been small labels that would be interested in issuing them to the niche audiences they appeal to.
Because sound recordings didn’t get singled out for federal copyright law protection until 1972, ownership of pre-1972 recordings is complicated by an often impossible-to-unravel web of state or common laws governing them. A proposal is making its way through Congress to bring earlier recordings under the 1972 law to enhance public access and ensure that at some point the recordings go into the public domain. As the law stands, many recordings dating as far back as 1890 will not enter the public domain before 2067, 177 years after they were made.
“It’s extremely exciting if even a corner of this starts to break the dam and get these things beyond the walls of Library of Congress,” USC’s Sampson said.
Library and Sony officials hope the streaming access will create new audiences for the old recordings. In the event the National Jukebox creates a breakout hit recorded in 1909, DeAnna said, “We have an agreement with Sony that if anything is reissued for the commercial market, we’ll take them down” from streaming on the Jukebox site.
Library of Congress staff and guest programmers will create playlists by genre, time period, artist and other themes, and members of the public will be able to submit their own playlists for consideration for publication on the Jukebox website. Users also will be able to share their playlists and embed the audio player on social media websites such as Facebook and MySpace.
The collaboration between Sony and the Library of Congress is intended to keep any cost to taxpayers to a minimum and to make the streaming files available quickly. In return, Sony will receive data on which recordings are streamed most frequently to help determine which may have commercial potential.
The Jukebox Project also will include a digitized version of the Victor Book of the Opera, a guide the Victor label published with opera plot outlines, illustrations and other aids to expand opera fans’ knowledge and appreciation, along with offerings of their own performances of the works described.
“We’ve scanned the whole book and you can page turn through it, and when you roll the cursor over the a particular recording, you can play that selection,” DeAnna said. “For instance, there’s the famous quartet in [Verdi’s] ‘Rigoletto.’ The catalog lists 11 versions, and you can compare Caruso’s to [Irish tenor] John McCormack’s, or the Six Brown Brothers’ saxophone sextet version. There’s also an accordion version.
“You really get the sense there wasn’t such a distinction between high-brow and low-brow; opera was really part of popular entertainment then,” DeAnna said. “Can you imagine Lady Gaga singing [Mozart’s] ‘Queen of the Night’ on her next CD?” — Randy Lewis, LATimes, 10 May 2011
Library of Congress builds the record collection of the century.
The sounds of everybody from Duke Ellington to Jelly Roll Morton to obscure surfer dudes are preserved at a Library of Congress facility in Virginia. Access is limited, but that is about to change.
RECORD COLLECTION: Gene DeAnna displays some of the Library of Congress’ musical holdings. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
About an hour south of Washington, D.C., deep beneath rolling hills near the verdant Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, lies a storehouse filled with bounty.
At one time, during the Cold War, that treasure was cash — about $3-billion worth — that the Federal Reserve had socked away inside cinderblock bunkers built to keep an accessible, safe stash of funds in case of nuclear attack.
Now what’s buried here, however, is cultural rather than financial: The bunkers are a repository containing nearly 100 miles of shelves stacked with some 6 million items: reels of film; kinescopes; videotape and screenplays; magnetic audiotape; wax cylinders; shellac, metal and vinyl discs; wire recordings; paper piano rolls; photographs; manuscripts; and other materials. In short, a century’s worth of the nation’s musical and cinematic legacy.
This is the Library of Congress’ $250-million Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, a 45-acre vault and state-of-the-art preservation and restoration facility on Virginia’s Mt. Pony. It’s here that a recent donation from Universal Music Group, nearly a quarter-million master recordings by musicians including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby, is now permanently housed. Some staff members busy themselves daily cleaning and gluing fragile 100-year-old films back together; others meticulously vacuum dust from the grooves of ancient 78 rpm discs, which are washed before being transferred to digital files that can be accessed by scholars, musicologists, journalists, filmmakers, musicians and other visitors.
As part of the Library of Congress, this trove is available to anyone, free. But because of the complexities of copyright law, access is restricted to the library’s reading rooms in Washington and Culpeper. Library officials, however, are poised to unveil a new program that will significantly expand public access to a big chunk of the library’s goods, even if it won’t provide carte blanche availability to everything stored there. A news conference is scheduled for Tuesday to announce the details.
The library’s main storage facility induces a chill, literally: It’s kept at 50 degrees and 35% relative humidity to prevent materials from degrading. It’s even frostier at the opposite end of the property in the vault for volatile nitrate film, which is cooled to 35 degrees.
The long hallway also can spark images of the closing scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” although it’s not a single airplane hangar-sized room full of crates packed with who-knows-what treasures. Instead, the second-floor hallway leads past 17 vaults, each of which yields shelf after shelf filled with platters of vinyl, shellac or wax or magnetic tape in various formats: open reel as well as audiocassettes, four- and eight-track tape cartridges and digital audiotapes. There also are a good number of vintage wax cylinders as well as metal master discs.
The breadth of the library’s stock is impossible to summarize. But in addition to copies of every published recording registered for protection in recent decades with the U.S. Copyright Office, the library has acquired personal collections from classical music giants such as Leonard Bernstein, composer Aaron Copland and pianist Wanda Landowska, in some cases including never-released test pressings, as well as every 78 rpm disc recorded by jazz titan Jelly Roll Morton.
It possesses tens of thousands of lacquer discs from NBC Radio, including the network’s complete archive of World War II coverage; documentarian Tony Schwartz’s trove of audio recordings from the streets of New York; and half a million LPs, among which are dozens of surf and hot-rod music-themed discs that Capitol Records issued in the ’60s to capitalize on those crazes, including “Hot Rod Hootenanny” by Mr. Gasser & the Weirdos, with cover art and songs co-written by fabled car designer Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
The sound vault is so extensive that when Universal Music Group’s gift was announced, Gene DeAnna, who heads the recorded sound section, didn’t bat an eye. The new donation, which takes up a mile of linear shelving space, is one of the largest single gifts to the library ever. But it represents only about a 1% expansion of the audio collection, which typically grows by 120,000 to 150,000 items per year, about two-thirds of which is sound recordings. And within are essential recordings of the American experience.
When producers at Sony Music’s Legacy division were working on the new box set “Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings: The Centennial Edition,” for example, they tapped the library for some metal masters and shellac discs that were better than what the label had in its own archive.
But records and tapes aren’t the only musical recordings here. Preservation specialist Larry Miller pulled out some rare wax cylinders about 4 inches in diameter, much larger and thicker than the standard 2-inch cylinders that proliferated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries until flat discs took over.
“Back in those days, there were patent wars,” Miller said. “Everyone was trying to not pay money to someone else for use of a particular format.” Like the Beta-VHS videotape wars in the ’70s and ’80s, or the Blu-ray versus HD-DVD battles more recently. “It was a higher fidelity version and had longer playing time too,” DeAnna said. “It was kind of like the Blu-ray of its day.”
Universal’s donation upped the total 2010 acquisition for the recorded sound division to more than 300,000 items. The final truckload of recordings that had long been housed in Universal’s vault in Pennsylvania was scheduled to arrive in Culpeper on Wednesday.
The question is how many people will have access to it.
Beyond the library’s mission of physical conservation and restoration of its vast archive, providing public access to it is both a driving goal and key hurdle these days. Physically converting aging films or recordings to contemporary playback media is a breeze compared with navigating the copyright clearances that would permit broad access.
It’s a byproduct of copyright law, which characteristically lags several steps behind changes in technology. This reality is particularly challenging when it comes to music: Although music compositions have been under the purview of federal copyright law since 1831, sound recordings didn’t get that protection until 1972. Before that, ownership of recordings was determined by state and common law — something the 1972 federal law didn’t change.
And there’s the rub for DeAnna. The shift to digital technology that makes streaming access possible will inevitably push the boundaries of current copyright law. Deanna added that, if nothing else, academia should have access to the music.
“We should be able to have Internet streaming access on secure sites — and more than one, not just our reading room,” he said. “We should have partnerships with universities around the country — we should have at least that” ability to allow researchers and students remote use of the library’s materials.
Matthew Barton, the recorded sound section curator, points out: “Anything else from before 1923 — a book, a movie, a published song, sheet music — is public domain now.” Not so for the music in that same time period, and as a result, many recordings, even those that have been digitized, can’t legally travel beyond the library’s walls unless a morass of ownership issues can be unraveled. “The whole idea of copyright,” DeAnna said, “is that eventually it does become public domain.”
DeAnna points to so-called orphan works, for which the rights holders are not readily identifiable, as evidence of the confusion. A prime example is the Savory Collection of nearly 1,000 live recordings made by recording engineer William Savory in the late ’30s, discs now residing with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. They encompass previously unknown extended performances by such musical luminaries captured in their prime as Ellington, Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, Artie Shaw and Chick Webb.
Museum director Loren Schoenberg said, “My goal is to have all of it, every last second of it, available on the Internet. If it was up to me, I’d just throw it on the Internet, let everybody sue each other and happy new year. But you can’t do that, because you’re dealing with [musicians’] estates, labels, record companies and publishers.”
A proposal that Congress bring all pre-1972 sound recordings under federal copyright law is in the public comments stage.
“There’s a considerable body of sound that could come under orphan work legislation if it was controlled by federal copyright law,” DeAnna said.
“It seems to me not to have worked taking all this century’s sound recordings off of our soundscape,” DeAnna said.
Indeed, according to a 2005 survey conducted for the library’s National Recording Preservation Board, of 1,521 recordings made from 1890 to 1964, only 14% has been made available to the public.
Before the Packard Campus was built, the Library of Congress’ collection was scattered among seven storage sites across four states and the District of Columbia.
But in 1997, Congress approved a public-private partnership that, in exchange for an initial $10-million grant, transferred the former Federal Reserve facility, which had been decommissioned four years earlier, to the Packard Humanities Institute, a private organization spearheaded by David Woodley Packard, the son of Hewlett-Packard cofounder David Packard.
Upon completion of the $150-million construction project, Packard donated the buildings back to the Library of Congress in July 2007, making it the largest private gift to the U.S. legislative branch and one of the largest ever to the federal government.
Congress has kicked in about $90 million for equipment, staffing and other costs of opening and operating the facility, which consists of four main components: the three-story conservation building with staff offices and film and audio preservation labs; two underground vaults for safety film, video, sound recordings and nitrate films; and a central plant that houses equipment to maintain temperature and humidity in the vaults.
Members of the public can listen to virtually anything from the audio collection already converted to a digital file on demand at the library’s offices on Capitol Hill.
Whether a curious researcher will actually be able to play back what’s stored in the vaults depends not only on copyright law, though, but also on the format.
“I love to give the example that the cylinder from 1900 may be easier to play back than the DAT [digital audiotape] from 2001,” sound curator Barton said. “Seriously. There are a lot of DATs that just won’t play now.”
The most enduring formats? Not CDs or MP3 digital files.
“Vinyl discs properly stored will last hundreds of years,” Miller said. “Shellac too.”
Producer T Bone Burnett, a vocal champion of analog vinyl over digital audio, visited the library not long ago to discuss the issue. “He testified in front of us and said, ‘I would encourage the Library of Congress to preserve to vinyl,'” DeAnna recalled. “We all kind of leaned forward, and my colleague said, ‘So, Mr. Burnett are you preserving your own collection to vinyl?’ He said, ‘Nah, I’m doing all digital.'”