4. How to start a collection

The definition of national record production

We have touched on the necessity of preserving examples of 'national record production' without defining this term. It is not as simple as it may seem.

Throughout the history of the industry, records have frequently been manufactured outside the country where the original recordings were made. A German record company makes recordings of a Danish artist in Finland, has them manufactured in Sweden and sends them back to Finland for sale. Are the records Finnish, Danish, Swedish, or German? It depends on the viewpoint and it is impossible to give a universally acceptable answer. Countries with a strong record industry may produce records that are intended for export only. Very small countries may have no local record industry and even recordings of their national music are made by foreign companies abroad. Sound archives may, with good reason, adopt quite different definitions of national record production.

To give an example, Suomen äänitearkisto (the Finnish Institute of Recorded Sound) considers every record manufactured in Finland to be national production. Most such records are, it is true, recorded in Finland by Finnish artists, but there are exceptions. In addition, all records published by Finnish companies are considered to be national production even if they are manufactured abroad. In this case, too, the records usually have a clearly Finnish character. In addition, the archive collects recordings made in the Finnish language (often by Finnish immigrants) in the USA, Canada, Sweden and the USSR, although they are not formally considered national production. This definition is practical in a relatively small country with a locally oriented record industry, but other countries will have to formulate their own definitions. The country of manufacture, the domicile of the record company, the recording site, the nationality of the performer, and even the language or style of the performance may all be involved in the definition of national production.

Complete or representative collections?

Should every record or only a representative selection of recordings be preserved?

The majority of commercial recordings feature popular music of various types. It may be argued that not all recordings are worth preserving. Certainly many popular recordings may be of ephemeral interest only. But it is very difficult to know what will be considered valuable fifty years from now. Folk music was once despised by many people; now it is studied seriously everywhere. Urban popular music was in turn considered by scholars to be inferior to folk music, but 1981 saw the founding of an international association devoted to the study of popular music. Many popular records made in the 1960s have already become eagerly sought collectors' items.

Very few countries publish more than a thousand LP records annually. It takes about three metres of shelf space to store a thousand records. In many countries the complete record production of many decades can be stored in one small room. In most cases there cannot be any real practical objections to preserving a copy (or better still, two copies) of every nationally produced record. In my opinion, it is far better to waste a little space on unimportant recordings than to risk the complete disappearance of some important ones.

If every country were to assume the responsibility for preserving copies of its national record production not an unrealistic or unreasonably expensive task -we could be certain that an important part of human creativity was being preserved for posterity. Later it will be much more difficult and often impossible to fill in the gaps.

New domestic production

The simplest task of archives is to obtain new domestic production. The obvious way to get started is to buy copies of new recordings as they are issued, either from retail stores or directly from record companies. In most countries the annual cost of purchasing one or two copies of every new domestic recording issued is quite reasonable.

The main objection to this method is not its cost but the problem of obtaining a truly complete collection. In countries where there are many small record companies, or where some records for national consumption are manufactured abroad, it may be difficult to keep track of new releases. By the time the archives learn about the existence of a new recording it may already be sold out.

It is therefore better to establish direct contact with all record companies in your country. IFPI, the International Federation of Producers of Phonograms and Videograms, has recommended that its members donate sample copies of their production to national sound archives. This system of voluntary deposit has worked successfully in several countries. Of course the receiving institutions must be clearly designated and have national status. Record companies cannot be expected to distribute free copies to all and sundry.

However, this system has many of the drawbacks of purchasing records. In many countries there are small companies that are not members of national record industry organizations. It may be difficult, therefore, to establish contact with all record producers. For this reason many countries have introduced the system of the legal deposit of sound recordings.

The legal deposit of printed works has a history going back several centuries. In numerous countries printers and/or publishers are required to deposit copies of their publications in one or more libraries. In Finland, for instance, printers are required to deposit five copies of all books and periodicals printed; the copies go to the Helsinki University Library and four other University libraries in other parts of the country. Several countries have already extended legal deposit to include sound recordings. Such countries now number about 30, although it seems that in some cases the legal deposit of sound recordings is based on the registration of copyright and the recordings received are not always properly cared for.

The details of such legislation naturally vary from country to country. In some countries the legal deposit of sound recordings includes both domestic production and imports (records imported in some quantity for sale). In countries where legal deposit is connected with copyright, it usually involves only new production and not reissues. In Finland, record manufacturers (both record pressing and tape duplication companies) are legally required to deposit two copies of every record and cassette manufactured. In addition, record companies are obliged to deposit copies of Finnish recordings they have manufactured abroad. Foreign recordings are not included unless they are actually manufactured in Finland.

The legal deposit of sound recordings is, in most cases, the ideal method of building up a national collection of commercial recordings. The absence of such legislation need not, however, deter any country from starting a national record collection. Some of the finest record archives in the world have acquired their collections through voluntary deposit, purchase or a combination of the two.

Historical recordings

The first commercial recordings were issued in the 1890s. A tremendous number of recordings had, therefore, already been made before the first national sound archives were established and in many cases these recordings were lost without a trace. Consequently, any serious sound archive is soon faced with the problem of obtaining out-of-print commercial recordings. Some may be only a few years old, some four-score, but the problem remains the same.

Why not go to the record company which originally produced the record? In the case of recent recordings this is often a good idea, and the company may be persuaded to find a duplicate or make a tape copy. But my experience is that most record companies do not have proper archives, and when a record is no longer commercially viable, even archival copies are destroyed. Even where record companies do have archives, they are seldom properly cared for (material borrowed by staff is not returned, etc.).

The introduction of microgroove records in the 1950s seems to have been a turning point for many companies. When the 78 rpm speed was abandoned, existing stocks of older records (including archival copies) were often destroyed. As far as I know there are only three record companies in the world with large archives dating back to the early years of the industry. (There may be others, and an important task for research is the inventory of the archives of leading record companies.) These companies are EMI Records at Hayes, Middlesex, outside London, and CBS and RCA, both in New York. EMI is the successor of the Gramophone Company, founded in 1898. The EMI archives are unusually well organized and include archival copies of most records made by the Gramophone Company (but not by other EMI subsidiaries). This means that the archive contains recordings made since the turn of the century in most countries in Europe, Asia and North Africa.

The RCA (formerly Victor) and CBS (formerly Columbia) archives are not as extensive as those of EMI. In many cases the records themselves have not been preserved, but only the metal masters which were used to stamp records (and can still be used to make test pressings). Columbia and Victor had business connections in many European and South American countries and the archives also contain material from these countries.

The EMI, RCA and CBS archives are not open to the public. They are inadequately catalogued and it is often very difficult to find out whether particular items have actually been preserved or not. All three companies have occasionally cooperated with sound archives and made copies of their holdings available. All three archives also contain a large number of recordings which have probably not been preserved in any way in their country of origin. It is to be hoped that in future some way could be found of making these archives more widely accessible. This would mean some kind of agreement which takes into account both the legitimate economic interests of the companies and the interests of sound archives and historical research.

When searching for historical recordings it is, of course, also advisable to contact other established archives, whether national, specialized or broadcasting. Over the years many archives have accumulated foreign material and in my search for old Finnish records I found many important items in Sweden. The British Institute of Recorded Sound is an example of archives which have material from many countries. Many archives are willing to copy material for other archives, especially if an exchange is involved, but it must be remembered that copyright may in many cases restrict copying unless the permission of the copyright owners can be obtained (see section 11 on copyright).

Sooner or later the archivist is also likely to come into contact with private record collectors and dealers. Before the establishment of public sound archives many private individuals were already collecting old records as a hobby. Ali Jihad Racy, a specialist in Arab music, was able to write an important article on the history of Arab music by relying on private record collectors in Egypt and Lebanon. 1 His material was obviously not available in any public archive.

Private collectors can be of considerable value to sound archives. They can often spend much more time searching flea markets, antique shops and other sources for old records than can the professional sound archivist and they are usually willing to sell, exchange or lend their material.

But how much are old records worth? So far there is no market for old records comparable to the market for old books, stamps and certain antiquities. In some specialized fields, such as operatic singing and jazz, there is an established network of mail auctions, dealers and specialist shops and in such fields it is also possible to speak of established prices. But in general the prices of old records are much lower than the prices of old books of comparable rarity. I have purchased hundreds of interesting historical recordings dating from 1900 to 1950 for prices ranging from $0.50 to $5 (US). Even well-known collectors' items can often be bought for prices ranging from $10 to S25. There are records that might sell for a hundred dollars or more, but they are few in number and specialists in these fields could easily list them. 2 I am mentioning these figures because the absence of established prices sometimes makes the uninitiated think that any old record must be tremendously valuable just because it is old. A record by a famous singer like Caruso must surely be worth a lot! In fact Caruso's records sold so well in their time that they are still quite common and, with a few rare exceptions, can be purchased from specialists at very reasonable prices.

The absence of an international collectors' market has tended to keep prices down, but it also makes finding some records very difficult. If I am looking for original US jazz records from the 1920s or German opera singers of the 1930s, I know dozens of people through whom my needs may be met. But if I am interested in finding African recordings made before the Second World War or other items which are not generally collected, I can only hopefully pass the word around to fellow collectors, ask archives in various countries or hope for a lucky find in the flea markets of some large city with an African population. The situation being as it is, I would advise all sound archivists to establish good relations with private collectors.

  1. Racy, A.J. 'Record industry and Egyptian traditional music, 1904-1932' in Ethnomusicology Vol.20, No.1; 1976
  2. 1915-1965 American Premium Record Guide published by L.R. Docks (P.O.Box 13685, San Antonio, Texas 78213) gives estimated prices of several thousand US jazz, blues, country and popular records. The prices range from $3.00 to $100.00 or more with the majority being under $10.00. Please note, however, that there are thousands of records in these categories which are not listed in the book because their value would be less than $3.00.