Music History

This Upsets Me: A Lot of Music Is Just…Disappearing

Every time anyone talks about streaming music services, the same numbers are cited: 25,000,000 songs are just a few pokes and swipes away from your ears. That seems like a lot, but the truth is that it’s not enough. A lot of music is just…disappearing.  Vox explains.

In 1903, Huddie William Ledbetter was one of the strongest voices in American folk and blues. Known as Lead Belly, Ledbetter was known as the King of the Twelve String Guitar, but he also played the piano, the mandolin, the harmonica, and the violin. He wrote songs about racism and politics. His songs have been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Nirvana. They tell hard stories about what it was like to be black and a musician in the early 1930s. They are treasures.

But many of Lead Belly’s original recordings no longer exist. The tapes that held his last sessions were beyond saving after the oxide on the top of the record fell off rendering it unplayable. Because conservators couldn’t get to them earlier, those songs are lost forever. Let’s repeat that — some of these songs, among the most significant in music history, are less than 100 years old but still lost to us for all time.

All sound recordings are equally at risk of disintegrating. Before digital technology, record companies created reels for albums by recording different sections of songs, then splicing those sections together using tape. Some of those original tapes are stored in several collections at the Smithsonian Museum.

“You can only imagine what has happened to these pieces of tapes,” Jeff Place, an archivist for the Smithsonian Center for Folklike and Cultural Heritage told me. “Over time, every one of those tape breaks is going to break, and it’s going to take an hour to transfer three minutes of a recording into a digital format where we can store it. So there are albums that take a whole day to save.”

Place’s job is to save sounds by whatever means necessary, so that recordings from 50 years ago sound as clear as they did when they were made — and sometimes even better. This means preserving the original recordings in the best possible condition, and for many albums, it means transferring the sound of the original recording to a digital format that will be easily accessible in the future.

Without sound archivists, we would not only lose access to early recordings of Elvis and R&B, as albums decayed and technology changed, but we’d also lose radio broadcasts from 50 years ago and oral histories of lost neighborhoods of New York City. Without archivists, we would be losing sound rapidly; instead, we’re gaining it.

Read the whole thing. It’s worth it. And you think record collectors are just weird obsessives? Hardly.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38346 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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