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Who Should Protect Our Music?

This month, The New York Times revealed the details of a fire in 2008 that destroyed an alarming number of Universal Music Group’s historic recordings.

UMG Word Cloud

This is not our first cultural loss to fire and, if history serves, this won’t be the last.  But it begs several questions:

  • What should our expectation be for the protection of our cultural artifacts?
  • To what extent are organizations obligated to protect the artifacts in their care?
  • How should we define cultural stewardship, especially by corporations?

The obligation of established cultural institutions is more clear.  Of course a museum should do all within its power to protect the precious objects entrusted to them (the argument for how to fund them more effectively is for a different day).  But what about corporations?  They are not in the business of being cultural stewards.  They are in the business of profit.  But if artists are contractually obligated to give the ownership of their art to record labels, isn’t there an implied obligation for the labels to care for these unique and fragile objects?

There is already a class action lawsuit against Universal in the works.  Will it take the financial impact of the lawsuit(s) to prompt proper oversight and care of an artist’s legacy?  What, if any, impact will this have on future record contracts?  And to what degree should we expect the labels to archive and protect the music?

As the NYT article states, large portions of a label’s vaults are filled with forgotten artists.  Even large museums like the Louvre or the Met undoubtedly have to make hard decisions about storage, curation, and restoration.  The Mona Lisa will of course take precedence over an obscure Italian painter that most of us have never heard of.  And we can argue that this is as it should be.  Culturally important artifacts require a high degree of maintenance and care.  Not only are they cultural touchstones but they are also a huge source of revenue for the institutions that own them.

But what if that obscure painting is a missing stylistic link between the Medieval and Renaissance periods?  Or it is the only portrait of an important historical figure?  Or even if it just brings joy to those who view it?  Should it be put at risk because Mona is more famous?  The equivalent is true about these lost recordings.  The loss of Nirvana, Sinatra, Holiday, and other notable artists’ masters are easy to see as significant.  The loss of more obscure artists is harder to quantify but is still important.  We will never know the value of what we lost and, more damning, thanks to poor archiving we don’t even know exactly what was lost.

The public attention this particular fire has garnered and the sheer number of artists impacted means now is the time for change.  No longer can corporations who are the legal owners of vast archives of music take a relaxed attitude toward their collections.  Like it or not, there is now an expectation that they will take full responsibility for the artifacts in their care.  And if they can’t or won’t, they should relinquish that responsibility (and the artifacts!) to the rightful owners:  the artists that created them.

I don’t envy the people who must find the real-world answers to these questions.  But I sincerely hope that the corporate stewards of our cultural heritage are finally willing to take their obligations seriously.  They owe it to the artists, to us, and to our cultural legacy.