Tracks to Our Music Heritage by Will Friedwald
The older a recording is, the historian Tim Brooks has shown,
the less likely it is to be commercially available. "Less than 4% of historically
important recordings made before 1925 are available from the rights holders,"
he found in 2005. But the Library of Congress has now taken a serious step toward
making historical recordings available onlinefor listening only, though,
not for downloadingwith the National Jukebox, introduced earlier this month.
Upon launch, about 10,300 tracks originally released by the
Victor Talking Machine Co. between 1900 and 1925 became available as streaming
audio at www.loc.gov/jukebox
. According to Gene DeAnna, head of the recorded-sound collection, in the first
two days more than a million people logged on; within a week, visitors had racked
up 600,000 plays. Listeners can play individual tracks or pre-compiled playlists,
or assemble their own.
No wonder people are so interested: The first 25 years of
the 20th century represent the birth of jazz, the blues, the Broadway musical,
the big band, country music, pop singing and the Great American Songbook, not
to mention a golden age of opera and a flowering of ethnic music. Superstars from
the era still loom large: Enrico Caruso, Al Jolson, Bessie Smith.
Mr. DeAnna says that the Jukebox had been in progress for
nearly a decade, having been developed by himself and his predecessor, Sam Brylawski,
the Library of Congress's David Sager, David Seubert of the University of California
at Santa Barbara, and others. "At one point, it was restricted to a hard
drive that researchers could listen to in the LOC reading room," he says.
The hardest part was not the technology or even the sheer labor of transferring
more than 5,000 78s and cylinders, but negotiating the rights issues.
"Most people assume these early recordings are in the
public domain, but they're not," says Mr. DeAnna. The majority of early records
were released by two companies, Victor Talking Machine Co. and Columbia Records.
The Library of Congress approached their corporate heirs, BMG and Sony Music,
even before the two companies merged in 2004. (The question why 85-year-old recordings
are not public domain will be examined in a public hearing at the Copyright Office
in Washington on June 2 and 3). WSJ 26My11
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