“Goodbye, 20th Century!”: How Stupidity, Incompetence, Obsolescence, Carelessness, Greed, Malfeasance, Lazy Lawyers And A Basic Misunderstanding Of Physics Are—At This Very Moment!—Eviscerating What’s Left Of Our Musical Heritage
(Text as delivered at the EMP Pop Conference, Seattle, 4/27/14)
The act of making music is inherently kinetic. You hit something. You pluck something. You force air into something. It makes a sound.
The act of listening to music is kinetic, too. The bones in your head vibrate. Your short-term memory holds the vibrations in sequence. You understand the vibrations as a pattern, and you react to the pattern and think, “I want to hear that again.”
“I want to hear that again” is the foundation of the entire music business. Making music and listening are simple. It’s everything that happens on the way from one to the other that’s the problem.
The process of how we store captured sounds is complicated, because we’re dealing with several things at once: recording technology and its artifacts; ownership and access to those artifacts; and the passage of time. Oh, and money. I’m not going to talk today about the mechanics of sound recording. Instead, I want to highlight some issues that arise at the intersection of artifacts, ownership and commerce that demonstrate just how vulnerable the storage process is, and how our ability to manage and maintain and utilize the last hundred years of sound recordings is under siege, in slow motion, from every conceivable direction.
It may seem to you that at this moment we are living in a utopian musical future of cloud-based, science fiction-y Celestial Jukebox instantaneousness, where all we’ve gotta do is whip out our tricorders and tell Lt. Uhura that we want to rock out to some Grand Funk Railroad and she will make it so. It feels as if music has been decentered and aerosolized, that it no longer has a physical correlative, that it’s evolved beyond the reach of objects–all that vinyl, all those cassettes and CDs, all that equipment spinning in circles–to take its place in the universe as some kind of intangible cosmic slop. Wrong. Right now, we are as anchored and earthbound and dependent upon lumpy, irritating physical stuff as we ever were. Let me explain:
Three corporations--Sony, Universal and Warners--now control most of the recorded music from the last century. That doesn't just mean that they get to exploit that music online or in TV shows or that they get to press up pseudo-collectibles for Record Store Day (although they do all of those things); it means that they own the physical corpus of that music: millions of reels of tape in a bewildering array of formats--albums, singles, demos, live performances, rough versions, alternate takes; the entire careers of artists we know everything about and artists we know nothing about.
At a moment where we’re becoming used to the idea of a song as something that can be duplicated and disseminated an infinite number of times, these corporations are in possession of the one thing you can’t replicate: the original source materials--the masters--from which all subsequent versions have been derived. These are valuable objects--in artistic, historical and commercial senses--but they are increasingly at risk of being lost. I don’t simply mean loss through destruction--though the biggest catastrophe in the industry’s history happened only six years ago and no one noticed--but loss through inaccessibility, through neglect, through greed, through ignorance and through laziness.
You might think: oh, everything’s digitized now. I’ve got Spotify Premium and 100,000 songs in my iTunes. Why do we need to worry about that old stuff?
Let me give you a helpful way of thinking about this: You don’t have to be Walter Benjamin to understand that there’s a big difference between a painting and a photograph of that painting. The photograph may be a high-resolution image or a low-quality snapshot, but in either case it can never replace the painting; it can only emulate it to greater or lesser degrees. As technology improves, there may be new ways of photographing the painting that allow it to be reproduced with improved clarity, but it’ll still only be an approximation of the original. The quality of the approximation might increase over time, but you’ll always need the original in order to create something better.
It’s exactly the same with sound recordings: all future improvements to a piece of music are inextricably tied to its original container. If you want to upgrade the sound quality of an album, you'll need the original master tape, not an LP EQ’d copy or a CD. If you want to create a new mix, or hear it in surround sound, you'll need the multitrack masters, not a safety. The future of all of the recorded music that we have ever heard--and, for that matter, all of the recorded music that we haven’t heard yet--depends on our ability to maintain these artifacts.
My very first illegal MP3--a 128k file of Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger”–took half an hour to download over a phone line. That was in 1999. At the dawn of the file-sharing era, lossy, low resolution, bad-sounding MP3s were the benchmark for online audio, because dial-up was still the way most people accessed the Internet. The best quality audio you could get online during the Napster era was maybe 192K. Today, with broadband as the standard, it’s 320K, which is the upper limit for lossy files. But as we take the next leap forward–-into CD quality and Neil-Young-approved better-than-CD-quality streaming and downloads--we’re going to need to do everything all over again. The commercially available mp3s that are available online everywhere from iTunes to Spotify all derived from a stack of CDs that got ripped by some intern and disseminated all over the internet. You can’t up-convert that stuff to high-resolution 24/96 or 24/192 so we’re going to have to retransfer everything at higher bitrates. Are you starting to see why we need to keep this stuff around?
Every analog-to-digital transfer is limited by the technology of its era; state-of-the-art resolution meant something very different in 1985 than it does in 2014. In 2029--assuming that you can find a way to play back a given tape (I’ll get to that part in a minute)--it will have improved yet again.
We need these materials, but we’re losing them in a variety of ways. I want to highlight the four primary things we’ve got to deal with:
First of all–and this may initially sound funny to you, but it won’t in a second–the tapes have to physically exist.
Unfortunately for us, tapes differ from paintings in one very important respect: they are inherently unsexy-looking objects. They’re heavy and bulky and housed in cardboard boxes that act as magnets for dirt and dust. They don’t look like something precious or valuable; they look like something your mom would yell at you for bringing home. It’s easy to take them for granted.
The people allegedly in charge of taking care of these tapes--people many, many generations of corporate ownership removed from the creative impulses captured on them; people whose backgrounds are more likely to be in marketing or finance than music--are often ignorant of their content, their historical context, their present and future value, even their most basic uses. (If you want a depressing illustration of this, try asking any senior executive at a record company: “What’s mastering? And why is it important?” 90% of them won’t be able to tell you.)
Even before we entered the present era, the music business had a long and proud tradition of treating its past with contempt: Metal stampers thrown away. Acetates thrown away. Album artwork thrown away. Session reels thrown away. Multi-tracks thrown away. Tapes bulk erased and recorded over. Tapes chainsawed apart so that so that the reels could be sold to scrap metal dealers. Because, hey, nobody cares about any of this shit, right?
In the mid-70's, an executive at ABC Records, attempting to reduce both the amount of real estate occupied by objects that were considered to be "useless," as well as the amount of money the company was paying in storage fees, ordered the disposal of most of the label’s tape library, including almost all of their multi-tracks--because, hey, there’s never gonna be a time when anybody’s gonna want to listen to all these hours of Mingus and Coltrane outtakes, right? Only a few years later, as the CD era gave rise to a wave of interest in catalogue releases, these tapes, had they still existed, would have generated millions of dollars in revenue. But by then, ABC Records and its affiliated labels had been absorbed by MCA, which, following a merger with Polygram in the 90s, became the Universal Music Group, which is now the largest record company in the world.
In 2008, on the Universal Studios backlot, a fire that began on a film set made its way, over the course of an evening, as firefighters exhausted their water supplies, to a media storage facility that was scenically perched on the shores of the lagoon where they used to film McHale’s Navy. Everything in the building was cremated. Most subsequent news coverage of the fire focused, incorrectly--because this happened at a movie studio--on the film prints that were being stored there. The really important story--which was largely hushed up–was that the building had been the west coast repository for most of Universal’s post-1950 album and singles masters.
In historic terms, the magnitude of the loss from the Universal fire was incalculable. There are now thousands of albums and singles--the complete discographies of entire record labels--for which we now--and forever--have no better sources than safety copies, clean vinyl, and whatever managed to get released on CD. Don’t go looking for any of that in the Pono store. (And here’s something for connoisseurs of sad irony: all of the ABC Records mono and stereo masters that had survived the purge of the 1970‘s were vaporized in the Universal fire.)
So archival problem number one is the basic existential issue of whether or not tapes exist. Here’s problem number two: assuming that they do exist, you have to be able to find them.
Record labels used to maintain well-organized tape libraries, but they are being dismantled and outsourced in ways that make access to material increasingly difficult. All the major music companies now store at least a portion of their tapes in facilities operated by a multi-billion dollar company called Iron Mountain. Iron Mountain is better known--to the degree it’s known at all--as a specialist in low-priority document storage for businesses; its fleet of white vans can be seen whizzing around most major cities, picking up boxes of old phone bills from dentist’s offices and whisking them to one of their many holding facilities, which are often in weird underground locations: decommissioned missile silos, played-out limestone mines, old train tunnels and so forth. In the last 15 or 20 years, Iron Mountain has made an aggressive--and successful--effort to get into the entertainment business; plenty of facilities management executives for record companies and movie studios have been wined, dined and flown to Sundance on Iron Mountain’s dime, and Iron Mountain has a lot of dimes.
Because of the way that record company libraries were assembled–slowly and more or less chronologically over the life of the label–if you went to pull some tapes pertaining to a particular album, and then spent a few minutes rooting around to see what was nearby on the shelves, you might discover other tapes by the same artist that you didn’t know about because they’d been catalogued weirdly–stuff you would’ve missed if you were just going by what was in the library’s database. The organic structure of these places--which accreted over decades--formed a kind of built-in safety net that helped insure that things didn’t go missing.
The possibility of making a fortuitous discoveries ends when tapes are locked away in Iron Mountain. Even if you’re allowed into an Iron Mountain facility--and you won’t be, because almost no one who isn’t Willy Wonka or an Oompa-Loompa is ever granted access--nothing is organized in any way that will benefit you. When tapes enter the Iron Mountain system, whatever organizing principles were used in their former homes are instantly nullified: Thousands of tapes are randomly dumped onto a loading dock. Someone puts a bar code sticker onto each box. The bar code number is then cross-referenced on a spreadsheet to whatever the box’s identifying number was in its previous place of residence. Then the tapes are sorted by the new bar codes in storage bays that can be five or six tapes deep. There’s no browsing, or pulling something off a shelf. The only way a given reel is ever coming out of there is if someone specifically requests it. That’s assuming that the person who did the bar coding and cross-referencing hasn’t made any mistakes; if they have, that tape will never be seen again.
But you don’t need iron Mountain in order to lose your tapes forever;
they lose themselves just fine. Over in England, there are thousands of formerly-labelled tape boxes in warehouses that are now un-labelled because the Sellotape that was used to attach the track sheets to the boxes disintegrates after a few decades and the sheets fall off, leaving the boxes completely devoid of information. No one is ever going to spend the money to play the tapes back to find out what’s on them, so they just sit there. And because they just sit there, and they’re functionally useless, someone will eventually throw all of them away.
You also don’t need to worry about losing tapes if you just let people steal them. The most notorious example of this is a legendary sociopath who worked for a big label and spent years pillaging its vault and stealing tapes. He stole multitrack session reels, hit singles, famous albums. Even, in some cases, entire artists’ catalogues. If I told you some of the things that this guy either had in his possession when he was finally caught or the things that were never recovered that he made off with and sold to private collectors, I guarantee that at least five people in this room would go into respiratory failure.
The thing that got him caught was also the thing that kept him out of jail. In addition to tapes, he was stealing old artist contracts and selling them for big bucks. The label discovered the sales, and then the missing tapes, but if the guy had been arrested and charged, the company would have been inundated with artists or their estates trying to renegotiate their agreements from scratch because they knew the label no longer had paperwork to prove or enforce whatever contractual agreements had been in place. Dealing with this would have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars--and probably the loss of some of their most valuable properties--so they made the decision to sweep everything discreetly under the rug. The guy was never arrested and continues to work in the music business to this day. Everyone loves a happy ending.
Problem number three: assuming the tapes exist and assuming you can find them, you’ve gotta be able to use them.
Even if you have all of your masters in perfect order, there’s the issue of how to play them back. Analog recordings alone can be in mono, stereo, three-track, four-track, eight-track, 16-track, 24-track and 48-track varieties. Here’s an exciting fact: every single machine that can be used to play or transfer recordings made in any of these formats is now obsolete. Just finding functioning equipment or people that know how to maintain it--is a huge challenge, made even more challenging by the fact that the kind of person who knows how to repair old tape machines also tends to be the kind of person who’s a fucking lunatic.
What about digital? It’s newer, right? That’s gotta make it easier to deal with, right? Wrong. Digital is inherently unstable. All of those ones and zeros are fragile and they’re subject to all kinds of disruptions. Unlike analog tape, where if there’s some minor damage, you can still retrieve most or all of the signal, if there’s damage to a digital tape, you’ll get nothing.
When the topic of historical preservation of music comes up, a disproportionate amount of attention is directed towards recordings from the early 20th Century. But while a lot of this material--wax cylinders, piano rolls, wire recordings, shellac discs--is scarce, most of it is also stable and not likely to deteriorate soon. Stored securely, it’s going to outlast all of us. What we should really be worrying about are digital recordings of recent vintage. As digital work stations have made tape obsolete, the majority of albums recorded in the last 20 years have their multitracks and outtakes stored on hard drives. And as we all know, the thing that hard drives do best is die. Maybe you made an album in 2001, sent your drives to the record company for storage, and decide you want to mix down some outtakes in 2014. Assuming you can convince someone at the new label that bought your old label to retrieve the drives from Iron Mountain--did I mention that in addition to the astronomical fees they charge for storing things, Iron Mountain also charges you each time they retrieve something?--the likelihood that any of those drives will power up when you plug them in is zero. It’s easy to imagine to imagine that much of what's been recorded in the last 20 years will someday just...not be there.
Labels have lately been making an effort to back up their masters by doing high-resolution digital transfers. The idea is, they’ll use those digital versions in the years to come instead of the old analog materials. Problem is, if you’re doing thousands of these transfers at a time, you don’t have time to do quality control, so you don’t know if the digital copy you’ve made is any good. (Sometimes they aren’t.) So you’re still going to need the true masters as a backup to the thing that was supposed to be the backup in the first place.
At the turn of the century, four technology companies attempted to solve future digital archiving issues by creating a technical standard for something called Linear Tape Open; LTO for short. LTO was designed to be stable and last for a long time, and it was also designed so that its data capacities and transfer speeds could be improved every few years, thus keeping the technology current and non-obsolescent. First generation LTO hit the market in 2000; we’re now at generation six. Sounds great, right? Wrong. LTO is only backward-compatible for two previous generations. That means that today’s LTO-6 drive can only play back to LTO generation four. Generations 1, 2 and 3 are out of luck. Theoretically, you should be constantly upgrading your archives from generation to generation, but LTO is both expensive and slow, so realistically that ain’t happening. In order to play back those earlier generations, you're going to need earlier gear that still works. Which gives us the exact same problem we already have with the analog formats--maintaining a shitload of archaic equipment in order to retrieve anything more than six years old. And that’s assuming that LTO isn’t replaced with something better. Or that it doesn’t disappear entirely. One of the four LTO manufacturers has already gotten out of the business. What if the remaining companies do the same? There’s an excellent chance that, in a few decades, this is going to end horribly.
The fourth problem, and I’m only going to talk about it briefly because it depresses me and you’ll be able to extrapolate all of it anyway, is that assuming you’ve got your masters and something to play them back on...you still have to deal with a bunch of corporate motherfuckers.
The labels are sitting on a Strategic Petroleum Reserve of unreleased material--hundreds of thousands of hours of it--that may never be heard because...well...it’s just too hard and it costs money. The people in charge of keeping this stuff around for future generations don’t understand it as anything more than abstractions on a spreadsheet, or as pinpricks in a vast constellation of stuff that their CEOs are hoping they can get lucky and sell to Marc Zuckerberg. They’re all certain that they’re going to be fired (which is probably true), and they’ve all been ordered to keep costs down. So they do stupid things because they don’t know any better--like sourcing a prestigious, El Giganto, hyper-deluxe reissue of one of the most famous records ever made from some CD-Rs of 192k MP3s that someone in the office sent directly to a manufacturing plant without mastering (remember what I told you about mastering?) because hey, it sounded fine on a laptop., and what’s mastering, anyway? They say no to things because saying yes means more work and nobody’s getting overtime. The advent of the Sarbanes/Oxley Act, a well-intentioned piece of corporate-transparency legislation enacted in the wake of the Enron scandal, has made things worse because it requires vast new amounts of bureaucratic t-crossing and i-dotting to occur before anything can get done. Easier to do nothing and re-write your resume.
There may be worse problems ahead. These companies at least have a semblance of organization. Instances of force majeure like the Universal fire notwithstanding, they’ve managed to hold onto lots of stuff for a long time. But maybe not for much longer. Loopholes in copyright law are now allowing artists whose careers began in the late 70s to regain control of their masters. (We’ve gotta hope that Prince isn’t storing his master tapes in the garage.) At the same time, Warners is in the process of quietly selling off a third of its massive catalogue holdings to indie labels, an unprecedented move in a business whose prime directive has always been: Never Give Up The Master Rights. But indie labels are just like hard drives; they die, too. What happens to the masters they’ve bought if and when they go out of business? The effect of this over the next few decades will be that an enormous quantity of formerly secure masters is going to be dispersed into the void.
It’s hard to answer the question: how do we fix this? Mostly, at this point, we can’t. But by making people aware of what’s been lost and what’s at risk, we might begin to make some incremental changes before more things vanish. I believe that great music will endure no matter how shitty it sounds, but just as we associate the 1920s with crackly 78s on hand-cranked victrolas, I would hate for people in 100 years to associate our present era with lossy digital files played through cheap white earbuds. It doesn’t need to. It shouldn’t have to. But making certain that when we say “I want to hear that again,” we actually can hear that again--it’s never simple.
Andy Zax is a Grammy-nominated music producer specializing in archival releases and reissues. Sometimes disguised as the mysterious @Discographies, his writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The Oxford American, The Daily, Yeti, Exact Change and on Twitter; the Village Voice hailed him as its music critic of the year in 2010, and received an ASCAP Deems Taylor award in 2014. In 2019, he completed a full-length reconstruction/restoration of all of the audio from the original Woodstock festival in 1969. He lives in Los Angeles.