Saturday, March 22, 2014

'Keeping Tracks: music and archives in the digital age' at The British Library

This symposium was dreamed up by Alex Wilson, the curator of digital recordings at The British Library, and I went along partly out of curiosity and partly because I lecture in the history of sound recording and also try to work out the future employment prospects for the engineers that we teach at the University. Lots of reasons.
After an introduction by Andy Linehan, the curator of popular music who I know from yonks ago, the Av scoping analyst Adam Tovell gave a very measured and informed presentation about preservation, conservation and storage; he was followed by Alex Wilson who showed a series of slides to the soundtrack of all 164 of the world's National Anthems being played together. he showed us the metadata templates for storing the information about the millions of recordings they have there, that are scheduled to take 15 years to digitise but will probably take 42 years. Metadata comes in from fans, record labels and many different sources, and it was interesting to see Marianne Faithfull credited as a songwriter on one of the Rollings Stones' tracks. I never knew that, no I certainly didn't. And there also were the players on the tracks- people like Ry Cooder.
Lesley Bleakley from The Beggar's Group followed, in interview with Rory Gibb from The Quietus. She has access to the whole of the Beggars Group archive, and she is foraging through it and beginning the process of catalgueing it before digital storage cane even be started. As she said, for a commercial organisation like them who make money from copyright, 'There is a pull between limiting what people can have and letting them have everything; we operate somewhere in the middle'. Streaming systems don't care so much about quality as labels do, and they are working out the highest practical bit-rate for their archiving and the best ways of the engineers re-mastering the music with suitable EQ for the format. They have to think about temperature control in the physical part of the archive, weed out duplicates, all sorts of things. This is all as insurance against the future collapse of the record industry.

I went home to rest my brain and picked up copies of Records and Tea: the best of The Chefs, and Footsteps at my Door, to give to Andy later on. He was astonished, but High Barnet's not far from King's Cross and I'm glad I went home because Offsprog One had locked herself out so I was able to provide a useful rescue service.

I missed part of the afternoon session but walked in on a Skype session from Music Tech Fest at the Microsoft Research Lab. It was rich with ideas: music as 'social connective tissue' whose sociality we can now see in the post-internet age. After that, Jennifer Lucy Allen from The Wire chaired a panel with Jonny Trunk from Trunk Records, Spencer Hickman from Death Waltz Recording Company (both one-man operations with quirky output) and Roger Armstrong from Ace Records. I'd taken the Ace catalogue home to read at lunchtime and even the catalogue is fascinating. For instance, there are CDs of various artists performing songs by songwriting duos like Goffin and King. I mentally noted to buy so many of them that I'd spent a head-grand before I got to my tube stop!
It seemed at some points during the the discussion that there was tension between the panellists, but this brought forth all sorts of interesting material: Hickman's conversations with David Lynch, Trunk's visit to Oliver Postgate's basement, and a wealth of information from Armstrong about not only business but also standards in archiving and data transfer that was fascinating.
I particularly liked his 'Pile 'em low, sell 'em high' motto, which he used to demonstrate the desire for a good quality CD representation of vintage material alongside specially-commissioned essays in the booklet that are unique to the release.
The final flourish was Mark Fisher's impassioned speech about the lack of innovation in music in the 21st Century. Now, I have a completely different perspective on this because I am the mother of two young women for whom music doesn't just mean 'now', it also means 'then'. I feel that if we don't understand the audio and lyrical 'now' messages in what young people listen to, then that is a problem with us, and not with them.
Did our parents understand the nuances of the music we listened to? No, they didn't. We have grown too old to understand certain aesthetic criteria; many of us have simply grown out of pop.
I was reminded of the way I could be obsessed by a song to the point of distraction as a teenager: it would hold magic, sex, emotions, a spiritual resonance and seem to contain all the answers to all the questions I could ever ask. Then one day, I would listen to it and all that would have gone in an instant. Pop music is ephemeral; one of the speakers earlier said that you were originally supposed to play a record, wear it out, get rid of it, and buy some new music.
Collecting and archiving is incredibly important, but allowing moments to pass unrecorded or allowing them to vanish is quite exciting too.
If we don't have some space in our cupboards, we can't see what's in there, can we?

A circular window and a circular CD- the first ever, released by the Jacksons.


Wilky of St Albans said...

That sounds like a good day out. I sometimes wonder how much of the stuff in the archives hasn't been listened to for years and will never be listened to again, and how much of that is truly wonderful stuff. Do the archivists sneak in in the early hours and listen to seemingly unloved recordings? I know I would. Like getting a random article on wikipedia when bored.

And Jonny Trunk deserves a knighthood anyway

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