Study says music at risk in digital age

Concern is over preservation of music, cultural heritage

Even as the music business deals with the myriad challenges of the digital age, another huge problem may be sneaking up behind it.

While the industry is beset by more immediate concerns over new platforms and digital copyright protection, its slack preservation efforts — complicated by technical, operational, fiscal and copyright challenges — risk imperiling its legacy, according to a study released recently by the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board.

The 169-page white paper, subtitled “A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age,” concludes that nothing less than congressional revision of copyright law will help alleviate the many issues facing overtaxed, underfunded, technologically inadequate institutions involved in preservation work.

The major sectors of showbiz are working to preserve iconic works (Variety, Aug. 2-8) and U.S. music labels have taken steps to ensure preservation of their catalogs, but, crucially, “It is uncertain whether master recordings are being maintained or preserved when there is no prospect for their reissue or for monetary gain from their digital distribution,” according to the NRPB study.

Some masters have been junked or destroyed by the labels to reduce costs. Furthermore, many artists themselves now hold their own masters, which are at risk because of improper storage.

Though public institutions, libraries and archives hold some 46 million recordings, few of them know the extent of their holdings or their condition or have the technical means to preserve them, the NRPB says.

And while digital releases would seem to be more easily stored and transferred, they actually may be as endangered as antique wax cylinders. “Current programs to systematically preserve (digital) recordings are inadequate,” says the NRPB.

Funding for preservation is “decentralized and inadequate,” the study says. And the problem has only grown with the steep music-industry downturn of the last decade: The study notes, for instance, that the Grammy Foundation’s preservation awards totaled $441,000 in 2008 and just $150,000 in 2009.

Analog-to-digital archiving is beyond the scope of most institutions. The study takes a dim view of recordable CDs as an archival medium, noting they have “placed preservation programs at great risk.”

Copyright statutes have largely complicated efforts.

“Were copyright law followed to the letter, little audio preservation would be undertaken,” the study says. “Were the law strictly enforced, it would brand virtually all audio preservation as illegal.”