Vault Of Horror

unravelling-tape

No not the Amicus 70s bad fashion frightfest featuring Joan Collins being assaulted by a giant mutant rubber plant (I might be getting my portmanteaus mixed up here) but something far worse – the loss of archive recordings and and masters from the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.  This article lifts the lid on the careless archive policy of the major labels for many years which has led to the loss, damage and destruction of a sizeable amount of classic material.  As with all aspects of popular culture (television especially) the story is one of a gradual realisation of the importance of the raw material over and above penny pinching.  This is why policies such as tape re-use, wiping and junking from storage are very rare today.  When it’s estimated that only about 10-20% of all recorded popular music is currently available either retail or second hand the amount either MIA or gone forever can only be guessed at.

The article is quite long so I could pick out the choice WTF moments.  A 1978 fire at the Atlantic records storage facility in NJ laid waste to virtually their entire unreleased archive (names like Aretha Franklin, The Coasters, Dusty, Stax catalogue).  a small mercy was that this was work in progress and material deemed unsuitable for release not the main archive but still a major blow.

In the early 60s RCA demolished their archive warehouse without clearing the thousands of pre-tape metal stampers, acetates, test pressings etc stored there.  Some archivists gained access to rescue what they could after which the building was dynamited sending all the music up in a cloud of dust.  In this case there is at least less doubt that the material was doomed as such a trove could not have survived into the digital age to be converted and saved without someone picking up a vast storage bill on the way.

As mentioned before, the closure of various recording studios left huge quantities of source tapes in limbo.  Ideally, the record company that owned them should take delivery but not always – the entire library of multitrack reels at Olympic studios at Barnes was thrown in a skip in 1987 on the orders of new owners Virgin Music, condemning all future remasters of albums recorded and stored there to be made from first generation copies at best.  When the Record Plant went under some labels passed on the opportunity to reclaim their master reels and some famous big selling artists albums from the 80s were junked as a consequence.

Things are better now, but you have to worry about the new industry practice of supplying digital mixdowns and not stems of a song or album; these are kept on hard drives by various producers working in various locations.  If they hit delete…

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