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The Artifacts of Recording History:
Creators, Users, Losers, Keepers

by Tim Brooks

 

Adapted from a talk given by the author at the 13th Annual Convention of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Chicago, 3 May 1979. This article originally appeared in the ARSC Journal (Vol. 11, No. 1, 1980), and is reproduced with the author’s permission. The illustrations on this page were not a part of the original presentation or ARSC Journal article.

Editor’s Note: In the years since this paper was first published, many of the issues discussed here have become even more pressing. Note that some changes have occurred since initial publication, including the unfortunate of loss of several collectors’ magazines and the acquisition of the Columbia and Victor labels by Sony, in whose New York headquarters those files now reside.



INTRODUCTION

The first commercial phonograph records were put on sale in 1889, in the form of wax cylinders. They did not begin to have wide distribution, certainly not to private homes, until the middle of the 1890s. Yet in 1896, the Phonoscope, which was an industry trade paper, carried the following item: "Old records are now in great demand, by enthusiasts who aim to possess valuable collections.”

Even earlier than that, in 1897, the same paper reported on a Mr. Edgar Caypless of Denver, Colorado, who had accumulated a collection of 1,760 records. Other private collections of hundreds, and even thousands, of cylinder records were reported fairly regularly in the early 1900s. One gentleman in Detroit in 1903 was said to have more than 3,000 records including most of the Bettinis.

In case you're thinking of tracking down that great horde of wax treasures from 1897, you should know that Mr. Caypless derived great pleasure from playing his cylinders not only forwards but backwards. He said, "You get some very funny effects from this." No doubt it helped wear them out rather quickly too.

It seems that large collections of sound recordings were in existence even in the 1890's. But preservation was, and is, another matter. Preservation and dissemination of historic recordings, and the information regarding those recordings, are two of the basic purposes of this association [The Association for Recorded Sound Collections]. We are often berating, or cajoling, various institutions such as record companies and public libraries to do more in this regard.

I would like to suggest that good intentions start at home. There is more that we ourselves could be doing in some respects. We have in this association both private collectors and professional archivists. Each group has some very important functions it can serve in both preservation and dissemination.

First, let me back up a bit, and describe some of these "artifacts" — the original recordings, as well as the catalogs, printed literature, and company files. I'll describe for you what I've been able to learn about what and where they are, and how they are being used by researchers and collectors today.


THE CREATORS

The creators of recording history are, of course, the commercial record companies. Their documents consist of both the recordings themselves, and the written files and printed matter pertaining to them. The companies create this material, for very crass reasons—to make money, as much of it and as fast as possible. It is hardly a concern of RCA or Columbia that their files might be of value to historians in future generations, or even intelligible to them. The files are simply an internal management device. The master recordings themselves are a source of potential profit to the company — an asset on the ledger book, as it were. Yet the large recording companies are not necessarily antithetical to the concerns of the scholar. In New York I have personally made extensive use of the archives at both Columbia and RCA Victor. Both have been cooperative — on an informal basis — in allowing access to recording information, so long as such access did not interfere with their current operations.

Examples of the Victor recording ledgers and blue "history" cards

Neither company is interested in supporting such research, however, either directly or indirectly through maintenance of library-type facilities for researchers. There is no economic incentive for them to do so. Both companies maintain their recording files, which date back to the turn of the century, under the aegis of a Listing Department whose primary function is to prepare label copy for current releases or maintain files of those releases. So at both offices you will find original recording ledgers and other early files in the midst of a current work area. There are no trained archivists at either company, nor anyone particularly familiar with the early files, although some of the people there have picked up a general knowledge of file formats simply by exposure to them.

Fortunately both archives are in the hands of people who have a self-generated concern for their preservation. They do try to protect them as best they can from needless deterioration. Hopefully this irreplaceable documentation of recording history will one day be placed into a proper archival setting, either company-supported, or more likely public.

Incidentally, neither company has complete files. Columbia has no information whatever on the thousands of cylinders it produced in the 1890s and early 1900s, and information on its early discs is also very spotty. Victor is in better shape, but there too there are gaps.

Portions of both the Columbia and Victor files have been microfilmed, but in neither case was the work satisfactory. There are many tiny codes and colored inks used on the cards, as well as labels pasted to the backs of some. In many cases these simply did not reproduce. There is also a private project underway to publish a multi-volume set containing the complete recording data of Victor from 1900 onwards. The authors of this enormous, and so far unfunded, project are Ted Fagan and William Moran of Stanford University. [Editor's note: Both authors have since died, but work on the project continues at the University of California at Santa Barbara.]

In any event, there is a continuing danger that because "something" has been printed or microfilmed, some company executive may decide to bury or destroy the original files in the interests of short term economy. There is the ever present danger that the entire archives at either company might one day be closed, packed away, made inaccessible or even destroyed, by some less enlightened future management.

Recordings

As for the recordings, the companies take quite a different view. Information from the files is generally available, at least if you are a responsible researcher and if you are willing to go in and dig for it yourself. The recordings are not — partly because they are considered proprietary to the company, and partly because it costs the company time and money to access them through acetate pressings and the like.

Due to the rather well-established primacy of commerce over culture in our society, the companies have the legal right to do pretty much as they please with our recorded heritage. This includes withholding it — that is , refusing to allow access to recordings — or even destroying it.

Fortunately their treatment of it is not usually that harsh, though there have been exceptions. For example, about ten years ago, a British society approached CBS with a request for permission to reissue material by the Georgians, a fine and neglected jazz group of the 1920s. Columbia consented but only with the express stipulation that the British LPs not be sold in the U.S. This was so that Columbia could market its own LPs here. But Columbia decided not to do so, presumably because the reissue wouldn't make enough money. So we were left with the bizarre situation where historic American recordings were available to anybody except Americans, and they were expressly forbidden to be sold here.

Printed Matter

Besides creating recordings and the files concerning them, the commercial record companies have issued a wide range of printed material, catalogs, dealer lists, house magazines, and so forth. The first printed catalog was issued in 1890 by the North American Phonograph Company. Columbia began putting out regular catalogs later that same year. By the early 1900s there were many companies turning out catalogs and flyers, sometimes printing them in the hundreds of thousands. For example, Edison's New Phonogram magazine had a press run of around 300,000 in 1905.

Because these printed items were originally published in large quantities and distributed to the public, they tend to he more accessible to the researcher today than the master recordings or the files. Still, complete sets of catalogs and supplements are hard to find. Neither Columbia nor Victor have anywhere near a complete run of their own.


THE USERS

So far I've talked about the creators of the artifacts of recording history, the record companies — what they have in their possession and what they do with it. Next we look at who is using these source materials.

Librarians and archivists should recognize that most serious users of recording source materials are not professionals in the music field, or even degree holders in the fields they are researching. To the best of my knowledge, there are no Ph.D.s in discography. The user will very often be a professional in some other field altogether, either academic or business. A librarian, a Professor of Romance Languages, a former newsman, or a businessman. The quality of their work certainly varies, but it is sometimes very good by any standard. A great deal of important oral history, for example, is being gathered by non-professionals, especially in the fields of jazz and popular culture. Probably no area of cultural research is so "democratized" as that of recording history. This is a fact which should be borne in mind in the operations of any archive housing recording history artifacts.

As an extension of the fact that much of the serious research is being done by non-professionals, it is also true that the publications in which their work appears are not usually going to look like scholarly journals. There is a small, mimeographed magazine put out by a schoolteacher in Vermont, a hobby-oriented monthly from Brooklyn, which combines sales lists and articles, a publication called The Record Collector from England which is practically a one-man show, several jazz and contemporary rock publications which border on fan magazines. None of these might claim academic prestige in the usual sense, yet they often contain important and original research in the field of recording history. There is no pre-eminent national publication specializing in serious research in this field. Because of the scattered origin, irregular publication, and small scale of most of these journals, communication between researchers in different parts of the country is often rather poor.

And this is where both the archivists and private collectors among us can help a great deal. It is important for institutions to recognize the nature of this "underground press" and actively assist in its dissemination. This certainly isn't hard to do. Subscriptions to practically all of the jazz, popular and classical research publications of value would not cost very much.

I suggest that it should be the business of ARSC, and its individual members, to support and encourage those periodicals that do serious research into recording history. They are not in competition with us, or with the work done through our own Journal. They complement it. For our library members, that means stocking these publications on your shelves, at least the principal ones in each field; and encouraging other libraries with music divisions to do the same.

There are about 17,000 libraries in the U.S., according to Bowker's. Yet most of the research journals, including our own, reach only a couple of dozen, or less. Obviously the public, even the interested collecting public, is not being reached very well.

It should be mentioned that the users of material dealing with recording history often build up their own libraries of source material of necessity, since so few public institutions have adequate resources in this area. In addition to periodicals, there is an ongoing and active market among collectors for original record catalogs, pamphlets, flyers, trade newspapers, dealer lists and such. Much of this is difficult or impossible to find in most libraries. Where originals cannot be had, Xeroxes and reprints are circulated. Even some internal company files are now in private hands, a notable example being the recording ledger of the Gennett Company, a pioneer in jazz recordings in the 1920s.

Private collections of source materials are harder to locate and access than public archives, but they are an important and necessary resource for writers and researchers. I am encouraged by the project now underway to catalog and microfilm complete runs of record company literature, with the microfilms then being made available to other libraries. The more general availability of this material is a very important factor in facilitating research.


THE “LOSERS”

So we have the creators, the record companies, and the users. Who are the "losers" of the documents of recording history? Well, the very circumstances that have left so much unique material in private hands is bound to result in improper care or outright loss of both documents and recordings. I have seen extremely fragile documents, such as early printed flyers, disintegrating while in private collections. Most had never been properly photocopied. The. situation is even worse as regards early recordings. Brown wax cylinders of the 1890s, which are among the earliest recordings in existence, are quite susceptible to temperature changes and humidity as well as to breakage. Some very interesting material still exists in this format which would bear on the study of American folkways of that era. I have heard such things as contemporary recordings of small town band concerts, examples o£ long unused styles of singing and speech, humor, politically-related items and the like. These recordings were produced in small quantities in the first place, and many if not most of the surviving examples are probably unique. Every year we lose a few more of them to mildew and breakage. Very few of these primitive recordings have been taped, and a small percentage of those have been taped properly. An infinitesimal percent — perhaps one or two dozen selections altogether — have ever been disseminated in LP form.

Think about that for a moment. Of our entire recorded heritage of the 1890S — perhaps, as a guess, ten thousand items still in existence — a couple of dozen are available to scholars.

Let me pass along one illustration of the academic neglect of this most fragile era of recording. The Rockefeller Foundation recently funded a project called New World Records, with a grant of several million dollars. Its commission was to preserve on LP, for students and the public, a sampling of American musical history. It was to use authentic recordings wherever possible. But when the LPs dealing with the 1890s came out, everything on them had been recreated. Even with its lavish funding and scholarly purpose. New World chose to preserve nothing authentic from the first decade of commercial recording. When I asked an official of the organization why this was so, she said that it was "too much bother" for them to use the real thing. And so another chance was lost.

I don't mean to imply that the gradual loss of our earliest recordings is the fault of the private collector. In many cases private collectors have in fact saved irreplaceable material from even more imminent destruction. But private collectors are not trained in archival preservation techniques, nor would they have the time or money to implement them if they were.

A greater attention of public archives to the remaining recordings of the 1890–1900 era would be a very desirable goal — for example, a taping program of whatever is left in public and private hands.

To sum up, unlike rare paintings or books, early recordings tend to fare rather poorly in private hands — just by their nature. Much has been lost already. I would venture to guess that of that portion of our aural heritage of the 1890s which remains in private hands, virtually nothing may survive to the year 2000.


THE KEEPERS

As for my final category, the keepers, they are implied by the foregoing. In the sense that I mean it, that of preservers, the keepers will have to be our public, professional archives and libraries. It certainly is not going to be the creators, the record companies, who have shown little commitment to any program of preservation, other than that of their current profits. It cannot be the private collectors, who are least equipped to preserve or disseminate archival materials.

Some institutions, including those affiliated with ARSC, are doing pioneering work in the field of preservation and dissemination. I would hope that both the institutional and individual members of ARSC will pay particular attention to the first decade of recorded sound, which is about to disappear while in our hands, if we do not act quickly to make a permanent transfer of the surviving recordings. Sooner than you think there may be nothing left to preserve.

And as regards the other major purpose of ARSC, dissemination, we can individually and collectively do much to support and spread the serious, specialist journals which are struggling in this country. They are not contrary to our interests, they are consonant with them.

It may be that Mr. Caypless's fabulous collection of brown wax cylinders from 1897 and earlier, is by now gone forever. Along with the complete set of Bettinis which the Detroit gentleman had accumulated in 1903. Let's hope that in the year 2000 we aren't looking back on what was lost that we still had in 1979.


Tim Brooks is the author of Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, two volumes of the The Columbia Master Book Discography, and numerous articles on the history of the early recording industry and television. His Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present (with Earle Marsh) recently went into its ninth edition. For more information on Tim's books, and an interesting selection of articles, be sure to visit his Television and Record Industry History Resources website.



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