MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Preserving America’s Sonic History

Edison home phonograph, c. 1899

Edison home phonograph, c. 1899

William Hochberg takes a look at a new initiative to preserve important American musical documents that have fallen between the cracks as recording technology continues to evolve:

In this era where cultural products seem to live forever digitally, the fear of music becoming lost to time may seem distinctly outdated. But efforts to preserve America’s audio history have never been more active than they are right now. Jack White has become the public face of these efforts, recently donating $200,000 to the National Recording Preservation Foundation, affiliated with the Library of Congress. He sits on the board with producer T. Bone Burnett, Sub Pop label founder Jonathan Poneman, legendary engineer George Massenburg and other music luminaries. What, exactly, are they trying to save? Turns out, a lot: Their ambitions are nothing smaller than protecting the entirety of America’s sonic history.

…Untold tons of original recordings have fallen into the dumpster of history since Thomas Edison perfected the phonograph 125 years ago. “There are stories of early phonograph companies taking apart the masters used to press wax discs so they could be sold as roofing shingles,” White says. “They didn’t think a recording was a document of anything cultural. It was just a way to sell phonographs.”

…As Voyager 1 speeds away from our solar system carrying a gold-plated disc with music of Mozart and Blind Willie Johnson among others, the NRPF goes about its mission back on Earth. “We are charged with looking over the entire nation’s recorded history, and not only music, but interviews, radio news broadcasts, anything that’s ever been committed to a recordable media,” says NRPF executive director Gerald Seligman.

Filed under: recording industry, technology

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