Meet the people preserving music

Simon Button 8 September 2021

Meet the music custodians whose life mission is to preserve forgotten recordings for posterity

Deep in the vaults of the British Library lies a veritable treasure trove for pop music lovers. Housed across the main building in St Pancras and the Library’s Boston Spa site are more than 350,000 CDs and 250,000 LPs, as well as around a quarter of a million 78rpm discs and numerous reel-to-reel and cassette tapes.

Throw in an array of wax cylinders along with old issues of the NME, books, newspaper clipping, catalogues and recorded interviews and you have a vast collection that Andy Linehan, the Library’s Curator of Popular Music Collections, is understandably very proud of.

Every genre is covered, from music hall to metal and jazz to grime, and Andy feels he and his team are not only preserving pop, they’re honouring history. “One of the British Library’s functions is to be the cultural memory of the nation,” he says. “We do that with books, journals and newspapers and it’s absolutely right that we should also do it with music.”

Collection of 78s records at the British Library

They rely on donations from record labels, artists and members of the public because as Andy notes: “If you publish a book, newspaper or magazine in the UK you’re legally obliged to send a copy to the British Library but that law does not apply to sound recordings.”

Among the treasures are an early voice recording of Florence Nightingale and a cassette tape that was sold at gigs in the early 80s by a sixth-form band called On A Friday, who eventually reformed as none other than Radiohead. There are also old blues 78s, rare LPs from the 1950s where the covers were designed by a pre-fame Andy Warhol and promotional copies of Beatles singles that only had a couple of hundred pressings.

When it comes to preservation, the team is tirelessly transferring music from media that’s vulnerable and digitising it for posterity. “So long as it’s stored correctly most media remains stable, but certain types of tape can deteriorate faster than others,” Andy elaborates. “But if anyone can salvage anything from a battered old tape it’s our engineers because they have the know-how as well as the equipment to play back everything.”

"If anyone can salvage anything from a battered old tape it’s our engineers"

Private companies and specialist record labels are also doing their bit to ensure music is safeguarded for generations to come.

Iron Mountain Entertainment Services has branches in the States, London and Paris, offering digital transfer and preservation services for music as well as other media.

Principal Studio Engineer and Preservation Specialist Kelly Pribble leads the company’s Media Recovery Technology Program. Among the projects he has worked on is a partnership with the Bob Dylan Archive to save more than 60 original recordings that were suffering from so-called adhesion syndrome.

With this problem,” Kelly elaborates, “the tape is in a state of decay or degradation and starts binding to itself. If you don’t know this is happening, you can instantly and permanently damage the tape the moment you try to rewind or play it.”

Kelly Pribble at work at IMES

Having already developed a process to safely unbind affected tapes, he was able to apply the process to the Dylan masters and archive the entire collection.

He recently helped Mariah Carey with the curation of her Rarities album, going through countless mastertapes of unreleased songs from the last three decades, and IMES has also partnered with the Prince estate to preserve and digitise all the unreleased music from the artist’s vault.

Over at Cherry Red Records, Chairman Iain McNay describes the label’s work as “historical R&R” with a mission to treat catalogue music with TLC.

“When we buy the tapes it’s that initial process of discovery because we know roughly what we’re going to get but there are all kinds of things that aren’t listed,” he says. “Then it’s about looking after all that material and letting it see the light of day. We’re music fans who are also custodians.”

Musicians are often involved in the process, such as Level 42’s Mark King who has recently been promoting a boxset of the band’s first five albums that also includes extended versions, B-sides and bonus tracks.

And releases are handled with great care, with Iain adding: “For example, we have someone looking after Howard Jones reissues and he’s a huge Howard Jones fan. We try and use experts in the field who are really engaged and want the releases to best reflect what a real fan would like.”

Close-up of tape adhesion

Mastering engineer Alan Wilson from Western Star Records is currently hard at work going through nearly 2,000 items from the Joe Meek’s ‘Tea Chest Tapes’ (so called because they were stored in 67 tea chests), which have been acquired by Cherry Red and include such finds as previously unheard music by David Bowie’s first band The Konrads alongside songs the legendary producer worked on with the likes of Tom Jones and Billy Fury.

The tapes date back around 50 years and they’ve been carefully stored by their owner, former musician Cliff Cooper, otherwise they might have deteriorated too much to be usable.

But they’re dirty and have mould on them, so they need to be painstakingly cleaned before they can be played back and transferred from analogue tape to digital files. Once it’s been decided which material from the vaults will be released, the selected tracks will then be restored and remastered.

"It’s about looking after all that material and letting it see the light of day—we’re music fans who are also custodians"

It’s a mammoth task that will take 18 months but lifelong Meeks fan Alan is thrilled with the assignment. “It’s a massive chunk of British rock-and-roll history and important in so many ways because Joe Meek was such an innovative engineer and producer who took on the music industry and beat it at its own game on a shoestring budget in a flat above a leather goods shop.”

Alan Wilson, Cliff Cooper and Iain McNay with the Joe Meek's "Tea Chest Tapes"

Another record company that carefully curates reissues and restorations is Demon Music Group, with Head of Product and Marketing Ben Stanley saying: “I’m a big music fan and I’m disappointed when things are reissued and they don’t sound or look up to scratch. We’re all about creating premium, definitive versions.

Vinyl is a growth market, especially amongst fans of 90s music when vinyl pressings of albums by acts like Pulp and Oasis were hard to come by. Impulse buys of supermarket CD compilations may be on the decline, because those buyers are migrating to digital.

“But then you have a person who wants to own a 24-CD Donna Summer boxset,” Ben adds of the mammoth Encore tribute to the Queen of Disco which came out on the company’s Driven By The Music label and took more than three years to compile.

"Impulse buys of supermarket CD compilations may be on the decline, because those buyers are migrating to digital"

“There are huge challenges in bringing these things to market, whether it’s dealing with estates, record companies, licensing issues, publishers etc,” he says. “But the heritage and history of popular music is so important. People will still be playing Revolver and Bowie’s Station To Station in 50 or 100 years time and it’s important they’re taken care of.”

Kelly Pribble over at IMES agrees. “We can go to a museum and see a book or painting that is 500 years old and is in amazing shape, but we have music recorded on formats 40 years ago that is rapidly degrading. It keeps me up at night pondering how I can help ensure that all of this recorded history is saved.”

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