UMG donates trove of recordings to Library of Congress

Universal masters include Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong

In a musical donation without precedent, Universal Music Group has gifted the Library of Congress’ Recorded Sound Section with a mother lode of 200,000 master recordings. The masters — a trove of mono metal parts, lacquers and quarter-inch tape recorded by the Decca, Brunswick, Vocalion and Mercury labels between 1928 and 1948 — represent the largest single contribution ever received by the library’s audio-visual division and the first major collection obtained by the institution.

The UMG recordings — comprising both previously released music and unreleased outtakes — encompass material by Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, the Dorsey Brothers, the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Jimmy Lunce­ford, Louis Jordan, Judy Garland and other crucial American artists.

Individual tracks in the collection include such seminal recordings as Crosby’s bestselling 1947 version of “White Christmas,” the Mills Brothers’ “Paper Doll,” Armstrong’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and Les Paul’s “Guitar Boogie.”

More than 5,000 linear feet of physical material — about a mile, in terms of shelf space — will be housed, catalogued and digitized at the library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, established in Culpeper, Va., in May 2007.

UMG will retain the copyrights on the recordings and will be entitled to exploit the music commercially.

According to Eugene DeAnna, head of the recorded sound division at Packard, plans call for some of the out-of-print and rare material to be streamed on a website to be established by the library this spring.

Vinnie Freda, exec VP of digital logistics and business services at UMG’s Universal Music Logistics division, said the idea for the donation arose after he surveyed the company’s Iron Mountain vault facility in Boyers, Pa., five years ago. “I saw a bunch of material that had not been touched by human hands for decades,” said Freda, who realized it would be cost-prohibitive for UMG to digitize the material. “Two years ago I visited with the library, and we found we had complementary goals here. Our goal was to get it preserved and perhaps have some of this (music) available commercially…Given the economics of the music business, it’s hard for us to do this. This is a perfect situation for both of us.” UMG’s objectives are much in line with the library’s: Last year, the latter issued a report excoriating the dire state of musical preservation in this country.

Librarian of Congress James Billington said in a statement, “A surprisingly high percentage of America’s recording heritage since the early part of the 20th century has been lost due to neglect and deterioration. The donation of the UMG archive to the Library of Congress is a major gift to the nation that will help maintain the inter-generational connection that is essential to keeping alive, in our collective national memory, the music and sound recordings meaningful to past generations.”

The first of some 20-25 semi-tractor trailers full of UMG’s material have started to arrive at the Virginia site.

“There’s a lot of inventory work to do,” said DeAnna, who says that much of the information about the long-bunkered music had to be recovered from one of UMG’s antique mainframe computers.

Eight engineers will be working on the project full-time at Packard. The lacquer masters – including some glass-based lacquers cut during World War II – will be the first to be worked on; the Library may have to manufacture special styli to track the early metal masters.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see what’s there,” said DeAnna, who spoke excitedly about one find: an unreleased master that may be a hitherto unknown collaboration between Crosby and the early doo-wop group the Jesters.

DeAnna said, “I’m confident we can start getting some stuff out this year.”

Freda said, “Some of (the music) — even the Crosby and the Andrews Sisters — is not exploitable,” but he added, “We hope to find some hidden gems.”

He continued, “Our hope is that this is the first phase of future donations.”