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Library of Congress and Sony Music team for 'National Jukebox' free streaming of vintage recordings

May 10, 2011 |  8:30 am

Matthew Barton-Library of Congress-Carolyn Cole 
This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.

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major label groups — EMI, Warner and Universal music groups — has made available all pre-1925 acoustic recordings originally made for the Victor Talking Machine Co., the vast majority of which are not now in circulation.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 Victrola 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?”

[For the Record, 1:54 p.m. May 10: An earlier version of this post referred to the Victor Book of the Opera. The edition reproduced on the National Jukebox site is of the 1919 Victrola Book of the Opera.]

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— Randy Lewis

Photo of Library of Congress curator of recorded sound Matthew Barton holding one of the more than 3 million items in the recorded sound collection at the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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