Saving America's Treasures

Since we’re in Nashville, of course our first keynote is Saving America’s Treasures: Preservation of Rare Acetate and Vinyl Recording Transcriptions, featuring speakers from the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum.

John Rumble spoke, with Alan Stoker and Steve Maer to answer content and technical questions.

The Hall of Fame is run by the non-profit Country Music Foundation. Originally it just had a few costumes and instruments; a library was started in 1972. A record company and a collector donated the initial archive holdings, including never-played discs and rare recordings. Through judicious trading and selling of duplicates, the archive has been able to expand its collection on a shoestring.

Now they have records, CDs, tapes, and many old and rare metal-based acetate discs, even glass-based discs and cylinder recordings. Some of the oldest discs are chipped, peeling, cracked, even moldy. Some were never intended to last — they were recorded as temporary or demo discs.

In 2003 they got a preservation grant from the NEA. Preservation includes cleaning and repairing a disc as much as possible; playing it, and recording the sound into high-definition digital format and analog tape; entering a detailed description into a local database; and storing in an acid-free case.

The whole process is much more expensive and time-consuming than they had expected. They need to include detailed metadata about each recording — since often they’re the only source in the world for the information, and since their long-term intention is to make the data available to everyone from record companies to libraries to the general public. A big concern is continuing to get enough funding to preserve all the recordings before they are too far gone.

Q & A

Q: How do you identify the performers, songs, instruments, etc. to provide the detailed descriptions?

A: It can take significant research. Several of the people on the project have considerable expertise! But they also sometimes play the sound to other researchers, etc. It is harder to identify the session players than the well-known ones.

Q: How do you get current materials from the record companies?

A: On CD, but they expect to get them online in the future. Music distribution on CD is on its way out.

Q: Copyright issues?

A: They have ’em. One thing they have to consider is, in many cases someone has copyrighted a particular arrangement — even if the original song is in the public domain.

Q: Prioritizing?

A: Items in worst condition and the rarest items. Sometimes the rarest items can wait because they’re in perfect condition, while if they have a slightly less-rare temporary disc, and its acetate peels off, that audio is lost forever.

Q: Do you have any fundraising program, in case you don’t get enough in grants?

A: Yes, a relatively recently added development department. Sometimes artists will donate the proceeds from an entire concert. They also take donations online on the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum web site 🙂