October 2005

To Preserve and Protect

The Library of Congress gets busy with our recorded heritage

by Paul D. Lehrman

Should you ever encounter the words "recording industry" and "legislation" in the same sentence, your reaction—usually—should be to run away as fast as possible. For those of us trying to make an honest living in this business, most of the bills that affect us which have made their way to the floor of Congress in the last couple of decades have not been our friends. From the failed tax on blank tape in the early 1980s, to the more successful Mis-communications Act of 1996, the Sony-Bono-and-all-his-Descendants-unto-the-Seventh-Generation Term Extension Act, and the Dismal Millennium Copyright Act (my names, not theirs), these bills have been designed to promote and protect the interests of the major corporate players in the entertainment world, at the expense of just about everyone else.

But there are exceptions to every rule, even this one. In November 2000, while the world was enthralled by Florida’s inability to distinguish between a dimple and a hanging chad, a bill was quietly signed into law by President Clinton called the National Sound Recording Preservation Act. The NSRPA stipulated that the Library of Congress was to establish the National Recording Registry, which would contain recordings that "are culturally, historically or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States." Beginning in 2002 and each year following, 50 recordings—out of scores of nominations—have been added to the registry. The idea for the Recording Registry follows on the success of the National Film Registry, which was established four years earlier, and which includes 25 new entries each year.

The sound recordings in the registry cover a tremendous amount of territory, from Edison cylinders to rap records, from ethnological field recordings to political speeches. The most recent list, for example, includes Sophie Tucker’s first recording on a 1911 cylinder; Woodrow Wilson’s Armistice Day broadcast of 1923, believed to be the earliest surviving electrical recording; Glenn Miller’s 1939 recording of "In the Mood"; 1953’s low-budget smash "Songs by Tom Lehrer"; a set of 1989 recordings of Asian elephants by Cornell University scientist Katharine B. Payne, which revealed that the animals use infrasonic sounds to communicate with one another; Public Enemy’s "Fear of a Black Planet"; and Nirvana’s "Nevermind." The only rules are that a nominated recording be at least ten years old, and that a copy of it actually exists.

The selections are made by a standing advisory committee, known as the National Recording Preservation Board, which is made up of members from some 17 organizations involved with music and sound recording. These include NARAS, ASCAP, BMI, the RIAA, the musicians’ union, the Society For Ethnomusicology, the American Folklore Society, and the Audio Engineering Society. Each organization gets to name a committee member and an alternate, and there are also five "at-large" members appointed by the Librarian of Congress, among whom are such luminaries as Mickey Hart, Michael Feinstein, and Phil Ramone.

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, and over 100 jokes, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman