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Think of It as a Pandora for the Past

Brett Moss is gear & technology editor.

Knowing my curmudgeon instincts, our editor Paul McLane thought it would be amusing (he’d describe it as something else …) to send me to the Library of Congress for its announcement of the National Jukebox project.

Hah! The joke’s on him! (Sort of.)

The National Jukebox is a co-op project with Sony Music Entertainment and the LOC. The concept is a website/streaming media portal, free to the general public. Think of it as a Pandora for the past.

The first installment contains 10,300 recordings “donated” by Sony Music Entertainment. It consists of nearly full catalogs of Victor, Columbia and OKeh recordings from the beginnings of those labels to 1925. Sony owns those back catalogs.

The iteration I saw at a press conference in Washington was quite impressive, not only in the breadth of recordings available but additional material. As the library recorded/digitized each record, it snapped a picture of the label. Bonus material was made available by the University of California at Santa Barbara, which has been building a database of information on old Victor recordings. Some missing links were provided by private collectors.

Good work all around and they should be commended.

The streamed recordings are as primitive-sounding — tinny, scratchy — as the day they were recorded. No electrical aid at all; this is pure “acoustical” recording. From what I can tell, no effort has been made to use digital processing to clean them up or even enhance them. That might be a nice experimental project for some ambitious audio engineer or school.

It will be interesting to see what kind of traffic this oldies Pandora generates.

Of course this project isn’t completely free. Despite the great gift from the Packard Foundation of the LOC’s “Culpeper” or “Packard Campus” National Audiovisual Conservation Center facility, which did and continues the work, there are costs of personnel, equipment, maintenance and continuing operations. One of the press conference speakers, I believe Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section, said it took 18 months to complete the mission. The recordings are made in real time. That can’t be speeded up appreciably.

Obviously Sony isn’t being completely altruistic here. The old catalogs — replete with everything from gems like Enrico Caruso (170 performances) and Fannie Brice to performances by Rachmaninov and Toscanini and less spectacular items such as cats meowing and spoken word recordings (poetry readings and political speeches for example) — just don’t move “units” like more current recordings. The bean counters don’t like such unproductive assets. Unproductive assets have a way of disappearing … lost forever, possibly.

So Sony deserves an immense amount of credit for not just dumping these archives into a landfill or parking them in a warehouse and making them unavailable (as is a staggering amount of old material).

Gene DeAnna as well as Sony’s man on-site Richard Story, the president of the Commercial Music Group at Sony Music Entertainment, and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington all indicated that this was the first installment and that more from Sony would be forthcoming. Additionally, other labels will be sought out along with alliances with institutions that have interests in audio.

This is a good example of a “public-private partnership” actually working. It would be good if other labels, schools, manufacturers, professional groups, et al joined in with material, elbow grease and funds. This is their industry and leaving it all up to the government won’t work in the long run.

Right now, however, Sony and the LOC are basking in well-deserved applause. Check it out.