As Voyager 1 speeds away from our solar system carrying a gold-plated disc with music of Mozart and Blind Willie Johnson among others, the NRPF goes about its mission back on Earth. “We are charged with looking over the entire nation’s recorded history, and not only music, but interviews, radio news broadcasts, anything that's ever been committed to a recordable media,” says NRPF executive director Gerald Seligman.
That’s a lot of cylinders, discs, tapes and hard drives. For instance, when Michael Jackson recorded his Thriller and Bad albums, “you wouldn’t be surprised to see 10 shelves floor to ceiling full of two-inch tape,” Massenburg says. To house every piece of tape from every important recording session might require renting storage space the size of Rhode Island, “But I wouldn’t trust Rhode Island with the tapes,” Massenburg says.
Boston-based Iron Mountain today maintains underground fortifications around the country where precious recordings from Elvis and the Beach Boys share shelf space with sensitive media from corporations like Boeing. But such expensive digs are only available to a select pack of heritage tracks.
“Less than 18 percent of commercial music archives are currently available” through iTunes, Spotify and other legal portals, Seligman says. “We’re concerned with the other 82 percent languishing out there somewhere, that’s culturally important while maybe not commercially viable.”
Take Maine country music recorded in the 1920s with a regional Down East accent. “Now most people singing country music affect a kind of southern drawl even if they’re from Canada or Australia,” says ethnomusicologist Clifford Murphy. “People forgot about regional country music recorded before Nashville became the power center of the genre.”
The NRPF is hunting down recordings taken off of local radio stations during the 1960’s civil rights protests, which could offer lost glimpses of that era, Seligman says. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Massenburg helped save recordings from heritage radio station WWOZ, some of which were underwater or in the muck. Those that were not beyond recuperation were baked in a “pie oven” at a low temperature and then could be played back only once. But on that one play many were successfully saved to digital media.
Whoever filled a trash can with Elvis tapes over five decades ago doubtless couldn’t imagine the notion of “digital media”—nor compact discs, downloads, re-issues, computer-assisted remasters, or rhythm-based video games. But neither did Howe, and yet luck would have it that he saw fit to save those tapes from destruction. White & co. are hoping that they can take luck out of the equation so that while formats and business concerns change, someone’s always watching to make sure the music survives.