The Lost Chord
Ever since it became possible to record music, it's been possible to lose "valuable" recordings. Tim Goodyer raises the question of responsibility.
IF YOU'RE NOT already aware of the intention of the major record companies to phase out vinyl LPs, consider yourself told. Certain classical labels have already ceased releasing material in the form of vinyl - your remaining options are CD, cassette or nothing. And regardless of any arguments about the fidelity of analogue over digital media, the old "12 inches of plastic" format is on its way out.
So you've accepted CD as an acceptable - possibly preferable - format, but what are you going to do with your LP collection? How long are your turntable and stylus going to remain serviceable? Will you be able to replace them when they're worn out? Are you prepared to buy the same music on CD so that you can still play it when you can't (and you've already paid for it once)? Is it worth the time and expense to transfer it all to cassette or DAT? If you find the time and the cash, how long will it be before cassette and DAT themselves are obsolete? Too many questions...
Looking back at the history of music reproduction, the message becomes all too clear. Music preserved on wax cylinders was also lost on wax cylinders. The same is true of shellac 78s. True, part of the old vinyl catalogue of music is reappearing on CD - for as long as that lasts - but plenty of it won't. Instead it will become increasingly forgotten as record turntables become collectors' pieces instead of household items. Perhaps the only reassuring observation you can make is that the longevity of each medium is greater than that of the one which preceded it.
The problem becomes more serious still when you consider the fact that multitrack and two-track masters of the records we buy are archived on magnetic tape of one sort or another. Tape is delicate stuff - it's prone to edge damage, damage from magnetic fields, damage from print through, damage from oxide loss... Right now people are starting to use DAT for mastering, but DAT is still an unproven medium. How long will it actually last? Last month Martyn Ware raised the question of responsibility for recordings lost through poor technology. I suspect that the situation will remain the same as with photographic film: the manufacturer's responsibility ends with the materials and manufacture.
Perhaps the best perspective on all these "media problems" is gained by looking at sheet music. Before you could buy recorded music, you had to either play it yourself or listen to someone else play it for you - from sheet music. The beauty of this system is that the medium on which the music is stored isn't dependent upon a single technology for reproduction. You can play it back using anything from a flageolet to a symphony orchestra. Recordings which are dependent upon a specific technology to retrieve them and which survive into the future may well find that the technology to retrieve them has become obsolete.
Me? I don't have any answers. Most peoples' collections are full of records they don't listen to any more, so much "old" music isn't going to be missed. But somehow, with the level of technology presently available to us, it seems wrong that any music should be lost forever.