Deleting Music revisited

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Peter Jesperson inspects the tape vaults at New West Records

A few years ago, I was obsessed with an idea. This is nothing unusual. It happens a lot. It had to do with music, copyright and technology – so no surprises there.

It was going to be a book, but I wasn’t ready to write it. It was going to be a campaign, but I wasn’t ready to lead it. It was going to be a major project, but I wasn’t ready to undertake it.

Starting to think that I might be now. Or at least – I’m increasingly surrounded by people whose set of parameters about what is and isn’t possible in the world is much grander than I’ve been used to, and it’s starting to rub off.

The obsession was something I called Deleting Music. The basic premise is this:

There are millions of songs on iTunes, Spotify, Deezer, Pandora, and so on. Tens of millions. But as impressive as that seems, this is just the tip of the iceberg of our musical heritage.

Most recorded music is not available for sale, is completely unavailable to listen to and does not generate income for anyone. It sits in vaults, unreleased. We’re talking decades of back catalogue master tapes. The history of both popular music culture and unpopular music culture.

95% or more of everything ever released by record labels is utterly inaccessible to the public, and makes no money whatsoever for the music industries or, for that matter, musicians. That number again: 95%. And that’s a conservative estimate.

But what’s worse is that most of this stuff exists in a form that decays over time. Magnetic tape does not last forever, and no matter how well looked after this stuff is, it is becoming irretrievably damaged. All of it. And we’re letting that happen.

We have the capacity and the technology to stop that from happening. Tapes can be digitised. It’s not a trivial problem and there are hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of person hours involved in the task of retrieving, indexing, cataloguing and digitising those tapes. But we can do it.

We can do it with the whole history of books. We can do it with cinema. I’m interested in doing it with music.

But here’s the big problem: even though this music is not commercially valuable to the record labels – or rather, because of that – there is no reason for them to actively preserve this music.

Some companies are more proactive than others – major labels are more of a serious problem than independents simply because of catalogue depth and the primacy of corporate profit motive over all other considerations.

They own the recordings as assets of the business, which means that nobody else can have access. But they do not see a commercial upside to investing in preserving or making available recordings that nobody has been interested in for 30, 40 or 50 years, so they simply do not bother. Why would they?

Other than the fact that the tapes fall apart…

For want of a dividend to investors, the vast majority of our recorded music heritage is being systematically deleted through neglect.

Like I say – I don’t think this is a trivial problem to solve. It’s a complex one. There’s a tangle of legal rights to deal with. There’s a technological and workflow solution to devise. There is a case to be made at a policy level as well as an entire industry to get on board.

But I think that there’s a way to begin to address this problem. To save much of what hasn’t already been lost. I believe a case can be made at a policy level. I think that a solution can be devised that intervenes and arrests that deterioration process. Most importantly – and this is the thing that has changed for me – I’m beginning to think that a profit incentive can be developed through innovation, which will start to remove the blocks that currently prevent this from happening.

It is not up to us what is of interest to the cultural archaeologists of the future. We can’t select to preserve only music recordings on the grounds of their popularity or commercial viability, because we don’t know that this will continue to be the criteria by which our culture’s musical history will be measured.

Museums will tell you they are as interested in the artefacts that ancient cultures discarded as they are in those that were treasured.

Our responsibility is to make sure that as much of our culture is preserved as is possible. We can learn from it. We can build on it. It can inspire new works. It can be studied and used to illuminate understandings of who we are and what we value.

Because even though we don’t necessarily have an obvious commercial incentive to save everything, and nor do we currently have the technological and legal means by which we might achieve this aim, we sure as hell have the storage capacity and the moral imperative.

Music is not just entertainment commodity. It speaks to who we are as a society and a culture. It’s time to stop sitting on our hands while we watch the vast majority of our musical history simply crumble to dust.

Let’s solve this problem.


Thanks to Craig Hamilton of Harkive, Jez Collins of the Birmingham Music Archive and Simon Grigg of Audio Culture for reminding me just how strongly I felt about this. Time to get to work. I’ll let you know as soon as I know just exactly what that work might entail…

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