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.