Jez Collins, the originator of the Birmingham Popular Music Archive chaired a panel consisting of: Dr Marion Leonard, who was the curator of Liverpool’s The Beat Goes On, and who oversees on ongoing project to examine how museums collect and preserve (or not) popular music; Alison Surtees of the Manchester District Music Archive; Eve Wood, the director of the documentary Made in Sheffield (2001) and Mike Darby of Bristol Archive Records.
Speakers offered insights into each of their projects, revealing the variety of practices in this field, the public appetite for music heritage and the innovations and connections that curation has been making. Surtees for instance outlined how the online MDMA had generated input from around 2000 individuals, half of which regularly posted material on the site. Some of these were members of the bands featured and indeed, these explorations of music past also connected with the present scene in ways that avoided the potential necrophilia of such work.
The dynamic aspects of each of these projects was evident in the way in which they plugged into and galvanised cultural memory and generated positive responses from users and contributors. Each of course was located very firmly in the character of its respective location and had a part to play in civic and community identity. Many of the core activists worked on the archives as a labour of love (there was very little financial support available here) and a belief that music and its attendant cultures and meanings transcends the demands of the industries alone. This was an important point as one of the potential problems of work in this field is presented by copyright issues, not only around recordings but the attendant artefacts – album covers, posters, photographs etc. For many projects, the involvement of so many ‘forgotten’ bands and their good will means that these challenges can be overcome. Indeed, it is interesting to note that while one would expect such projects to feature more well-known (and potentially litigious) bands, public interest has tended to focus on some genuine retrieval work in digging up lost names, venues and events.
As a filmmaker, Eve Wood had some interesting points to make however about the cost involved in repurposing archive footage in her work. This was particularly striking with regards to the BBC and she quoted a standard rate of £3000 per minute for the use of footage (and that is exclusive of any further rights complications that may arise).
In addition, Wood also outlined some of the problems filmmaker-historians have with commissioning bodies. This related to the way in which there was an expectation that narratives should revolve around famous names and faces, although it was often the case that in pursuit of interesting stories, obscure yet interesting material would demand attention and explanation. Notwithstanding the paucity of funds available for the archiving projects, Wood’s experience also raised questions around the other kinds of pressures impacting upon these projects. Where they seek alliances with city agents and established museums and so on, there were potential demands on the nature of the stories one could tell.
All of these points of course highlighted the ways in which any kind of historical work is always inflected by a politics of practice -whether between contributors and users (why is X and not Y covered), or even by greater institutional powers.
Certainly, the growth of heritage projects around popular music is part of a challenge to the more formal and conservative ways in which archives and museums are perceived to have pursued their agendas (although I think this was a little over stated at this event). While the projects discussed on this panel have sought to expand the domain of the archive, where they have also proven to be innovative is in their participatory nature and use of online sites. In this, and given their ad hoc, enthusiast-driven origins, they have something important to impart to established institutions.
Overall, there was much to take away here for further discussion and thought.
The Bristol project for instance offered an intriguing model for collecting and making available its artefacts and of course, Leonard’s academic research activities were of great interest to me.
This handful of projects is indicative of a much more widespread international practice that has a relationship with the music and leisure industries but also operates independently of them (sometimes at odds with them), demonstrating the value of what Interactive Cultures researchers label music as culture. In light of the loss of so much material in the archives of the music business, the activities of the enthusiast, and fan, in informal (sometimes semi-legal ways online in file-sharing sites), performs an important job and indeed does much to underline the importance of popular music to communities to us.
A fuller version of this report can be found on Paul Long’s blog Media, Culture, History.