Exhibitions of sound: The economics of salvation

Tim Duffy had heard about a one-man-band who played around towns throughout the South, a modern-day Jesse Fuller, playing for pennies on street-corners and sidewalks. This was what Tim Duffy does: he finds these guys. He tracks them down. Old bluesmen. Old guitars and old voices singing old songs; sounding as fresh as tomorrow morning.

So Duffy asked around. He looked. He searched. He listened and put out feelers. He even Googled for answers. And then, one day, there he was. Driving down a highway in Kentucky, going the other way. He wasn’t a legend after all. He was real. He was alive. He had a name. Right there, painted on the side of the van: Adolphus Bell, One Man Band.

Bell could easily have been forgotten, discarded along the backroads of Birmingham. Instead, he spent July playing to an upscale audience in Cognac, France at the Hennessy mansion while his performance was broadcast on national television. His is the story of American Roots music, perhaps the most influential sound the world has heard since shots rang out in Lexington.

In this, Playlist’s second in a series of stories on the preservation of our musical heritage, we’ll look at those who are trying to preserve our past and keep those sounds alive.

Go open the door, here come that collector man

Tim Duffy is a fast-talker. I’m a good note taker, I’ll put my words-per-minute up against any other reporter’s and come away with their lunch money. But I have trouble keeping up with Duffy. He speaks at a frenetic pace, filled with passion. He’s describing the organization he runs, Music Maker, to me. And it’s clear that, well, he isn’t just in this for the money.

“Music Maker started in 1994, it’s a nonprofit dedicated to helping the pioneers of southern music with their needs. Their worries are about how they’re going to pay the rent or get some food, living in sub-poverty of four to six thousand dollars a year. It’s hard to think about your music when the guitar’s in the pawn shop,” he explains. “We try to help them with prescriptions and get them a grant to make a CD. Then they have something they can sell in the community and work with.”

Most of the preservationists Playlist spoke with were engaged in preserving music that was recorded in the past. Duffy does something a little different. He travels the South, through Mississippi and North Carolina and Kentucky and Alabama, hunting down the lost practitioners of one of America’s greatest art forms, its vernacular music. But his problem is the same problem that all the preservationists we talked to have: resources. Preserving music—be it going out into the field to record an artist before he passes away or just transferring an analog track to digital—can be both expensive and time-consuming.

This is particularly true if you want to get it right. Archiving music for future generations doesn’t just mean storing it on a hard drive somewhere. It also means making sure that tracks are labeled properly. That decibel levels are corrected. Tapes have to be baked. Wax cylinders are scanned in optically. And then there’s the matter of liner notes.

Although there have been exceptions, digital music is typically sold without liner notes. For many musicologists, and even more fans, this represents an incomplete reproduction. They want to know the name of every singer, every producer, every engineer and guitarist and drummer and trombonist and triangle player. They want to know where it was recorded. They want to know about the context.

“Whenever I listen to ‘The Punch Line’ [by the minutemen] it consistently blows me away—not just because the music is so refreshingly different, and timeless, but because I know it was recorded live after they’d practiced the songs to razor-sharp precision; recorded to second-hand tape because they couldn’t afford a blank reel; and done in the middle of the night because studio time was cheaper,” Irish weblogger MacDara Conroy noted to Playlist . “If I only knew their music from mp3s, sure I’d still love it, but I wouldn’t have the context that makes it extra special.”

At Smithsonian Global Sound, however, where archivists are putting the entire Folkways catalogue online and making it available for download, context is king and the lowly liner note is making a dramatic comeback. Dan Sheehy, director and curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings who directs the Smithsonian Global Sound project is himself a former ethnomusicologist. He gets it. He hears you. He’s down.

“We walk and talk like a record label but we’re really fundamentally a museum collection. We have all the liner notes to be downloaded for all the recordings. I don’t know of any other place that has 2,700 album liner notes right there on the site. Our mission is educational, if we don’t provide these kinds of things we are not living up to our mission,” Sheehy tells Playlist . “It’s very labor intensive and costly because of that. And I might add that these materials on our archives are usually not digitized, and the kinds of metadata we need isn’t just sitting there waiting on us. It has to be created.”

As the library grows to include more partners from all over the globe, so, too does the scope of creating and digitizing it and then putting it online.

Lord, I ain’t got no money, but I’m the happiest man in town

“Obviously in order to be successful we’re going to have to keep growing and expanding and getting more archival partners,” says the Smithsonian’s Amy Schriefer “To do that is costly and we’re relying right now on grant money. We hope in the future to be completely sustained by revenues.”

It’s the same story at Music Maker, where spending money on preservation means paying not archivists, but musicians themselves. It means paying for rent and groceries. Although you can find Music Maker tracks online easily enough, like the Smithsonian Global Sound project, it’s a program that still relies largely on largesse.

“We help [artists] but the records don’t thrive,” Duffy tells Playlist . “It’s from personal donations to the cause. If someone like John Dee Holeman can’t go on tour because he’s taking care of his sickly wife and he needs a case of Ensure a week, we make sure he has a case of Ensure every week. Now I get the old members of Muddy Waters’ band, calling me up. Ruth Brown, the lady that made Atlantic Records, calls me up and she needs help. It’s kind of sad, there are literally thousands of artists who need our help, and it is very difficult.”

All of which would suggest that there’s very little in it for private entities to try to preserve our shared musical heritage. At eMusic, however, they’re making a go of it. The online music retailer is in the process of making the entire historic Sun Records catalogue available online. Although some Sun tracks are sold on iTunes, and others were available streamed, eMusic is going to put everything out there. Even tracks that have never before been released, in any format. To some extent, they’re relying on The Long Tail principle, which posits that products with a low demand can still rack up big sales with a large enough distribution channel.

“I can’t imagine any other digital service is going to want to put the same work into it,” eMusic’s Scott Ambrose Reilly, vice president of label relations, tells Playlist . “It’s not a catalogue that’s prepared to be exploited as it is, a lot of work needs to go into it and I’m not sure the economics of it will make it feasible for others to do it. I’m not sure that someone will want all the Warren Smith or Roscoe Gordon tracks. Maybe there won’t be that many people that care, but at eMusic people like to discover stuff. If it gets downloaded a couple times a quarter then everyone wins. Customers find some new gem, the labels get use out of it and we’re keeping people happy.”

Yet when I asked Sun Records president and CEO, Shelby Singleton, himself a music legend, why Sun has gone to the trouble of making its catalogue available online, he answers me as if I’ve just asked him what kind of kicks Carl Perkins wore on his feet.

“Because that’s the way it sells!” Singleton delivers this seemingly self-evident notion with an old-school Southern drawl that sounds like my grandmother’s, the kind you rarely hear anymore in Atlanta, Charlotte, or Houston. “The music industry is like most industries, as technology changes you’ve got to change with it. You go back to the cylinder disc to the 45 and it’s just a natural progression.”

Whatever you’re doing, go on, do it right

For Sun, it’s been a long progression. The company went digital in 1999, and quickly found that before it could even think of what formats to sell, or how to sell, or even (this is 1999 remember) if there was a market, there were other problems to solve. For example, how do you solve the mystery of mushy tape?

“As the tapes get older the emulsion starts coming off,” says Singleton. “They get mushy and you have to bake them before you can transfer them. You bake them in a convection oven for 45 minutes and it dries them out.”

From there it was a matter of learning by experience, Sun first went with DAT (digital audio tape) before it began storing its catalogue on hard drives. It experimented with streaming media and signed an early deal with Real Networks.

Much of the importance of preservation is doing it right. Making it count this time, so that it’s there for future generations to enjoy and learn from. That means different things to different people. For some, it’s including liner notes and album art. For others, it can be ensuring that music is recorded to the best available format, with the right gear. In every case, it’s a challenge.

“What I’m hoping we’re doing is setting a standard,” says eMusic’s Reilly. “Some people have been sloppy in the digital world in how they get stuff up. Sun’s been a good example of that. I hope we’re setting a standard for people to realize. We’ve signed some classical recordings that we’re holding for a month until we get our classical search features down. We want to do it right.”

“As for preserving the music, I go in with an audiophile, Mark Levinson,” says Duffy, describing the noted manufacturer of high end stereo and recording equipment, perhaps best known for his work with Lexus. “He donated one of the world’s finest recording systems for music and sent me out into the field to record the only Southern traditional music in true high fidelity. We have a huge archive of music that we’re trying to get out into the world. A lot of the work we do is preserving this stuff.”

The purpose of preservation, of course, is not just abstract. It isn’t just so that there can be a record. Or mp3 as the case may be. Rather, it also benefits us directly in the here and now. From the primitive structures that emerged from work songs, grew the complexities of Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, and Hip-Hop. The beats that modern artists like Danger Mouse or DJ Shadow traffic in were pioneered by Southern chain gangs.

“People say there’s Mississippi Blues or Piedmont Blues or Chicago Blues,” says Duffy. “But every blues artist has an individual sound. And when they go; their voice is lost. So it’s essential for us to understand who they are, and the music they’re making. Music that was created when the slaves came to America. Handed down from fathers to sons and grandsons. Black music from the South is a gift to the world. There’s not a popular form of music in the world that’s untouched by it. It proves that fact that in popular music today, such as Dave Matthews, Moby, whoever you want to point your finger at. They drank from a well, and the aquifer is the American music that I record.”

In the best cases, however, preservation is a two-way street. It’s Smithsonian Global Sound making sure that revenues go to the artists who recorded the tracks, sending money to traditional musicians the world over. Or, for Tim Duffy, watching his mystery man in the van step into the limelight.

“We just brought Adolphus Bell to Cognac France. There, at the Hennessy mansion, playing and being put all over French TV, is a guy who sleeps in his car. He had to break down at one point because he didn’t expect to see something like that happen in his life. He’d been playing street music for 35 years,” says Duffy. “People say he’s the next Jesse Fuller. When Jesse died, they thought the music died, but the music never dies. People die but the music lives.”

NEXT UP: Next time, we’ll delve into the techniques and technologies preservationists are using to hold onto our musical heritage.

Mathew Honan is a San Francisco-based writer and photographer. His work has also appeared in Macworld, Wired, Time, and Salon.

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