I recently attended the Keeping Tracks: a one day symposium on music and archives in the digital age one day symposium organised by the British Library Music team. The day was hosted by Andy Linehan, Curator of Popular Music at the BL.

The purpose of the day was to bring together British Library staff, independent record labels, music tech companies and a smattering of other interested parties such as myself who have an interest in popular music history, heritage and archiving. It was good to see the room full.

For the past six months the British Library has been working with a number of organisations to improve their relationships with the music industry to better develop the acquisition, preservation and archiving of digital musical materials, predominately audio and visual recordings, for its collections.

Adam Tovell, who is an AV scoping analyst (still not sure what that is!) kickstarted the day with an engaging presentation about his work in counting, quantifying and assessing the BL’s collections; from wax cylinders all the way through to digital files. It was illuminating when Adam stated that a relatively modern CDR is in as much danger of degradation as a 1940s lacquer disc.

He then told us about the BL’s holdings:

Courtesy British Library

Courtesy British Library

and the 4 stages of measurement they undertake:

Courtesy British Library

Courtesy British Library

Tovell then went through his 7 stages of archiving audio formats:

Courtesy British Library

Courtesy British Library

He estimated it might take them 48 years to digitise everything.

Alex Wilson, Curator of Digital Music Recordings at the BL was up next and gave a brilliant audio aid to his presentation by playing a mash up of every single national anthem. He did this, he said, to illustrate how difficult their job is in collecting and understanding the current climate and the plethora of music they have to deal with. Wilson then gave some insight into the collaborations they are developing with tech companies like Metable and Decibel in capturing and accessing data and metadata in order to make it easier to capture and then make more readily accessible their collections.

I really enjoyed the Decibel presentation and their Data Detectives title. Decibel are looking at deep data that could be understood as music culture data. They are interested in the band members, the session players, the sound engineers even the hair stylists and for me this was one of the most interesting presentations of the day as it chimed with my own work of uncovering those hidden histories and stories that often fall outside of the narratives of popular music.  

On the back of Lars Ganstad and Trond Valberg of the National Library of Norway, there was a lengthy discussion around the fact that there is no legal deposit in place in the UK (unlike Norway) of audio/visual material. Participants at the event, mainly record labels, seem quite shocked at this and there was a lot of support in the room for laws to be drawn up to enable legal deposits of sound files.

Another interesting panel was a Q&A with Lesley Bleakley from Beggars Group who is now their Archivist. Beggars have a huge back catalogue and while the move to properly catalogue, store and archive this is for commercial reasons, it was refreshing to hear Bleakley state that she was just as interested in archiving and telling the story of Beggars Group as an institution and its place in music history as much as the music itself. She was also keen to explore more fully the idea of fan involvement in the archive process. I’m hoping to go and visit them to find out more.

The afternoon sessions were more demonstration orientated with the BBC showing us the Playlister platform they are introducing and then there was a trans-atlantic element as we hooked up with Music Tech Fest‘s event in Boston. Finally there was a panel with Jonny Trunk (Trunk Records), Roger Armstrong (Ace Records) and Spencer Hickman (Death Waltz Recordings) in which the trials and tribulations of working with archive materials were laid bear in an often funny and entertaining end to what was a pretty interesting day of talks and presentations.

Next time it would be good to expand the audience out to include activist and citizen archivists who have a central role to play in the preservation and archiving of popular music.

All the slides and talks from the symposium are available on the British Library’s music blog site.

 

 

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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