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June 2011

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 online—for listening only, though, not for downloading—with 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 . 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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