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Universal Music Group's vintage recordings head to Library of Congress

January 10, 2011 |  6:54 pm

Bing-crosby There's good news, more good news and some nebulous news for anyone interested in the nation's musical heritage in Monday's announcement that Universal Music Group is donating a cache of some 200,000 vintage master recordings to the Library of Congress for preservation and digitizing.

They include Bing Crosby's original recording of "White Christmas" and thousands more by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, the Andrews Sisters and other lesser-known musicians who recorded from the late 1920s to the late 1940s for labels now under the UMG umbrella.

The good news: The public will eventually have some degree of access to everything in the collection, the vast majority of it long-mothballed and out of print commercially, once library staffers get going with organizing the metal and lacquer discs and tapes and transferring them into digital audio files.

More good news: the head of the library's recorded sound division says its funding is secure and he and his staff at the library's Packard Campus for Audio Visual Preservation in Culpeper, Va., have already begun the gargantuan task ahead of them, one that's expected will take years to complete.


"We have an impressive facility that's very well equipped," Gene DeAnna, head of the library's recorded sound division, said Monday. "We didn't take this collection in hopes of using it to help raise more money." He added that the Library was able to take the entire collection without purchasing any new shelving to accommodate what he said requires about 5,000 linear feet of space. The 200,000 discs increase the library's recorded music collection of some 6 million items by a little more than 3%.

Ella-fitzgerald "We're still getting a handle on what's in this collection," he said.

As part of the agreement between UMG and the library, Universal retains ownership of the recording copyrights and the right to exploit the cleaned-up and digitized files for commercial purposes.

Participants characterize it as a win-win for a company that wouldn't otherwise expect to generate much money from the vast majority of the collection and a public institution with the resources and expertise to carry out the preservation and conversion of the aging material.

"Under the best of times this would have been difficult to financially justify," said Vinnie Freda, executive vice president of digital logistics and business services for Universal Music Logistics. "At least nine out of 10 of these masters aren't going to be commercially viable, and there is so much we would have had to wade through.

"Even in best of times 10 years ago this would have been difficult, if not impossible," Freda said. "Now, 10 years later with the state of the business as it is, it's just not a viable option. This [agreement] allows us to get digital copies of the most commercial [recordings] and make them available for sale, while the library gets them for academic purposes."

DeAnna noted that while Universal owns the copyrights on the recordings themselves, it does not own all the copyrights to the music on them. "If it was written in 1923 and later, it's copyrighted, and you need clearances from the musicians, artists and composers associations — ASCAP and BMI. So there's a double whammy in the rights issues."

Those issues leave a giant question mark over how many, or which, recordings might ever become available outside the library's listening room, which is accessible to the public.

"The absolute bottom line we've always had in the library is that we can make everything accessible in the library reading room for research," DeAnna said. "It's the Internet access that needs to be negotiated. But certainly a lot of this material has been off the sonic landscape for 50 years. Nothing's been done with it since it was recorded and issued one time."

That's reason for excitement among historians and fans of music from the first half of the 20th century. Barry Hansen, a.k.a. veteran radio show host Dr. Demento, is both.

Andrews-sisters"We still don't know what the public is going to have access to," Hansen said Monday, "but in general it's good news for the eventual preservation of these recordings. Remember Universal had that bad fire a few years ago. We don't know exactly how much was lost, but there's a feeling among collectors that they lost a lot more than they are letting on."

Freda said that the 2008 fire Hansen referred to at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, which destroyed many thousands of master tapes and other recordings originally issued by Decca, MCA and ABC Records, wasn't a major factor in the decision to turn over this batch of masters, long housed in Pennsylvania, to the Library of Congress.

"The much larger concern," Freda said, "was that the material itself would deteriorate over more decades, more than that there'd be any act of God that would affect them."

Indeed, in a statement issued Monday announcing the acquisition, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, "A surprisingly high percentage of America's recording heritage since the early part of the 20th century has been lost due to neglect and deterioration." The library's release also cited results of a recent congressionally mandated national study showing that only about 14% of recordings made before 1965 are currently available, and that only 10% of music recorded in the 1930s can be easily accessed by the public today.

"Hopefully," Hansen said, "this [donation] means there will be a chance somewhere down the road for people to hear not only Bing Crosby's hits but all the [Universal-owned] country stuff like Milton Brown, Ernest Tubb and Webb Pierce. There's also a lot of great blues singers — Leroy Carr comes to mind.… This somewhat enhances the chances of that."

Randy Aronson, UMG's vice president of studios and vaults operations, said it's the songs most people don't know about that may ultimately represent the real value of the donated collection.

"It does include Ella Fitzgerald's 'A-Tisket, A-Tasket,' Judy Garland's 'I Didn't Want to Do It,' 'Dear Mr. Gable' and 'Over the Rainbow,' and obviously Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas,' which has been mentioned," Aronson said. "But it also includes [Bob] Hope and Crosby's recordings when they were doing the 'Road' pictures, so it has 'The Road to Morocco.'

Tommy-Dorsey "What's most important," Aronson added, "is not only does it have those songs, what's most impressive with the Library of Congress, is that when I went over those titles with them, they were certainly happy about it, but they're interested in the whole catalog. It's such a nice marriage: You've got these hits and the actual masters of these this, as well as all the songs it took to make those hits; all the cuts that didn't become hits."

Universal, a subsidiary of Vivendi, the French media giant, now controls recordings originally issued on the Decca, Mercury, Vocalion, Brunswick and other labels. The master recordings that are being donated encompass not just pop, jazz, country, folk and blues music, but light classical performances by artists such as violinist Jascha Heifetz and Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia and spoken-word recordings by actors including John Gielgud and Charles Laughton, DeAnna said.

Many of the discs contain alternate takes or other recordings never released, which may ultimately shed light on the creative process of the musicians who made them.

"There's a lot of archaeology to do," DeAnna said. "To me, that's the most exciting part of the work."

It's work that UMG, the world's largest music company, is outsourcing from the private to the public sector.

"I do think it's important for people to remember that there is a place for an organization that's not seeking to make a profit, one that has the public's best interest in mind, where profit is not the bottom line," DeAnna said. "Frankly, it would be very difficult to get this done if you were looking to make a profit. That’s the reality of the music business today."

-- Randy Lewis

First photo: Bing Crosby. Credit: Associated Press.

Second photo: Ella Fitzgerald. Credit: Herman Leonard / PBS

Third photo: Andrews Sisters. Credit: CBS

Fourth photo: Tommy Dorsey. Credit: L. Maxine Reams / Los Angeles Times

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