In my last article, I wrote about third-party labels who lease masters from record companies in order to invest in a remaster and/or re-issue of that material that the original company either has no interest or see no value in releasing themselves. Brian Fuson brought up a very valid point – what if the masters are either in bad shape, can’t be found, or just flat out don’t exist anymore? I responded to his post with a link to an article I’d found written by Bill Holland (originally published in two parts in the July 12 and July 19, 1997, issues of Billboard Magazine, found here in PDF format). The article received a Special Citation from ASCAP in 1998.
In the piece, Holland interviews a large number of archival producers, engineers, and label vault personnel from many different record companies. Among the rather surprising revelations are:
- A large number of masters are improperly labeled (or not labeled at all).
- Some master tapes were recycled (taped over) with later material as a cost-saving measure (which led to the accidental discovery of previously-unknown Elvis Presley recordings while playing back another artists’ tape).
- RCA Records once demolished a warehouse, and buried the contents (decades worth of master recordings) in the Delaware River.
- Some masters have been found in areas ranging from hi-tech storage vaults to open-air sheds in various states of quality (including submerged in water).
Keep in mind, these are major labels, sometimes global corporations, and according to Holland’s article, they often struggle to find their own master recordings. If these massive organizations can’t keep track of their material, How does that bode for smaller, gospel-only record companies?
Granted, the catalog for southern gospel music isn’t as massive as, say, Universal’s back catalog (especially now with the amount of labels that are under the UMG umbrella), which on the surface means that there’s a good chance that it’s easier to take care of. That being said, because so much of gospel music was/is recorded in smaller studios, and a good portion of it is released independently, having a high-quality archive in an easy-to-find location may be much harder. While Universal or Sony (in theory) have access to multiple smaller labels that they’ve acquired over the years, finding the original multitrack tape for an independent album released by a group that no longer exists may be all but impossible. Many of those independent releases were never even meant to be anything more than a quick-turnaround table product that was only ever printed once, then forgotten, so the thought of saving these masters probably never crossed anyone’s mind at the time.
Which, going back to Holland’s article, is part of the problem with the music industry as a whole: what is worth saving? The owner of the material may not see any value in it, but to collectors and die-hard fans (or in some cases, the original artists themselves), those masters may be invaluable. The issue is that, at least in the eyes of the labels, there aren’t enough collectors or fans to make it worth a label’s time/effort/cost to do anything with those masters. That’s not even considering if the master was independently produced; why would an artist gamble on reissuing a B-line indie project that they probably were lucky to recoup costs on?
Gospel music is also a strange beast in that gospel groups have notoriously high turn-over rates. Sure, there is probably a market to hear some music from previous lineups of a particular group (especially ones that no longer exist, such as the Cathedrals or the Statesmen), but what if you are a currently-touring group with a long history? Yes, fans may still want to hear the older members’ material, but that could undermine the current iteration of a group that may be trying to market their own new recordings (unless you’re Gold City, in which case you just release the old stuff and have the current group sing it).
Every now and then, I’ll see something pop up on one of several “exclusive” Facebook groups dedicated to southern gospel history, and the response is often very positive (and frequently includes something like, “You won’t find this anywhere else,” because it’s “exclusive”). Obviously some of this material is available in SOME form, but a good chunk of it is not from original masters; they are often consumer-level products (if not bootlegs or multi-generational copies) that have been played and played over time, deteriorating the quality.
There are plenty of other points to be considered that are covered in Holland’s article, such as whether or not the master is able to be remixed if necessary (as many older masters were mixed and EQ’d for an analog format that doesn’t always translate well to a digital medium), and if the master that exists is a true master recording or a second- or third-generation copy. It’s highly recommended that you take the time to read through it.
Now just for argument’s sake, let’s say worst case scenario is that a large portion of southern gospel music’s recorded history is ultimately lost (aside from collectors who have obtained bits and pieces of history along the way). In that instance, what’s done is done, but what does this mean for gospel music’s future? Are artists and labels taking the necessary steps now to ensure that what’s being made today is being stored and saved for future generations? Bill Gaither has mentioned on several occasions that he has a fireproof vault filled with gospel music archives (and I’m sure his entire catalog of Homecoming titles, as well as all Spring Hill/Spring House/Gaither Music Group masters is likewise kept safe and secure), but do labels such as Daywind or Crossroads have archiving policies in place to save their recordings? What about labels like StowTown Records or New Haven Records that have distribution through Sony? Are they responsible for their own archives, or does Sony retain any of those masters?
Secondly, what format should they be saved in? New recordings are done almost exclusively in a digital format, and as Holland’s article points out, unlike analog masters that have been shown to last (in some instances) upwards of 100 years, we have no indication how long digital copies will last over a long term (although there may be SOME indication at this point, as the article was written in 1997). At the rate that digital technology is progressing, even if someone saved a hard drive full of digital material, there’s no guarantee that it will be compatible with future software or even hardware (just try getting Microsoft Word to open a document written 20 years ago without some sort of corruption). This is actually a concern regardless of the format – having a warehouse full of archives, analog or digital, is useless unless you have something to play them on, which in some cases, requires tape machines that are 40, 50, even 60 years old (and also is why I have several boxes of VHS tapes that I can’t do anything with!).
If Holland’s article is any indication, many of these questions may go unanswered, either from a true lack of information or out of embarrassment for the lack of foresight….