Laurel A Calsoni

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Unforgotten Songs

Historical audio: A specialist record label digs up old recordings and re-releases them in digital form to preserve them for posterity

The Economist
Mar 9, 2013


LANCE LEDBETTER’S interest in obscure music began in the 1990s with a college-radio programme he hosted on Sunday mornings. A lot of his listeners in Atlanta were on the way to or from church. Unable to find a large enough variety of gospel songs to fill the show (and fit his tastes), he started approaching collectors. Some dusted off old 78rpm recordings that he went on to play on the air. Much of the material had been unavailable for years. “I could not believe how much incredible music you couldn’t walk into a record store and buy,” he says.

This stoked an obsession which led to what Mr Ledbetter originally intended to be a one-CD collection of some of the rarer gospel recordings. Instead, in 2003, he ended up releasing a set of six discs—five of music and one of sermons. The collection, “Goodbye, Babylon”, costs $100 and comes in a cedar box packed with raw cotton, along with a 200-page book documenting the selection. It received two Grammy nominations. It sold well, too, and laid the foundation for a record label, Dust-to-Digital, which Mr Ledbetter now runs with his wife, April. Over the past decade they have issued dozens more anthologies and other works.

The Ledbetters focus on material that is unlikely to have been heard widely, or perhaps ever, since its release. They stick mostly to folk and gospel, with a smattering of world music. As its name implies, their firm sells its music in digital form, mostly on CDs, though it presses a little vinyl, too.

Dust-to-Digital’s most ambitious effort since Mr Ledbetter’s original gospel set received a Grammy nomination—the company’s seventh—in the “Best historical album” category in December 2012. “Opika Pende” comprises 100 recordings made on 78rpm records across Africa between 1909 and the 1960s. The collection is the dream project of Jonathan Ward, who blogs at the site Excavated Shellac about old recordings of folk and vernacular music. In November 2012 the firm released “Pictures of Sound”, an album of historical audio that had been encoded in a variety of ways, including drawings, barrel-organ rolls and early 19th-century recording technologies such as the phonautogram.

The label also publishes more recent material. For instance, it released field recordings from a Florida folklife project of the late 1970s, and an album by a contemporary improvisational (and unconventional) folk artist who went into a recording studio for the first time in his 30-year career in 2010. Dust-to-Digital’s releases are not blockbusters. But the label has built enough of an audience that it can always afford to pursue the next project. The biggest problem, Mr Ledbetter says, is cherry-picking among the many great ideas that come their way.

At the same time, Dust-to-Digital is trying to preserve the past on a larger scale through a non-profit organisation called Music Memory. Its goal is to digitise as much as possible as rapidly as it can, by placing equipment in the homes of record collectors who are methodically processing their own holdings. The group will assemble lyrics, liner notes, discographic data and audio in an online collection.

The challenge with all this cataloguing, digitising and assembling of material for release is the awkward status of audio (or “phonogram”) rights. Whereas musical compositions or spoken words are subject to copyright protection similar to that covering books and other printed materials, audio released in America between the dawn of audio recording in the 1870s and 1972 remains under protection until at least 2067. Some reform efforts currently under way might succeed in putting audio from the 1920s and earlier in the public domain, however, as well as shortening the limits for the rest.

The Ledbetters do not let rights issues deter them. They doggedly track down the current holders of composition, performance and audio rights required for release, wherever they are. And so, bit by bit, byte by byte, Dust-to-Digital will continue to expose modern audiences to forgotten gems from the analogue era.

posted by Laurel Calsoni at 1:59 pm  

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