Question: What do consumer electronics, the automobile and American popular music have in common?

Answer: They've all been taken over by the Europeans and the Japanese.

You'll get arguments about Detroit-made cars, of course, and maybe even about domestic TVs, though it's not easy to find one these days. But when it comes to preserving and celebrating America's rich musical heritage, there's no doubt who does it better. Except for a number of ambitious jazz programs and a few small labels concentrating on old-timey and blues music, the vast majority of that heritage is not currently available from domestic manufacturers.

Many important figures -- including such giants as Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Louis Jordan, Lefty Frizzell, Howlin' Wolf and Bill Haley -- are represented by only a handful of American recordings, often hits-only compilations; the breadth of their repertoire is represented only on imports. And the situation for less well-known artists, of course, is much worse.

"If I had to rely solely on what the American companies keep in print, I couldn't do my radio show," says Steve Hoffman, host of "The Blues Experience" on WDCU. "Nowadays, most classic blues are available only on European or Japanese imports."

The people at California's Down Home Music are intimately familiar with this problem. Down Home has for years been the nation's leading seller of folk, blues, country, bluegrass, vintage jazz, roots rock (R&B, rockabilly, early rock 'n' roll) and other indigenous American music. With a store, a huge mail order business and a distributorship that serves stores around the country, the El Cerrito-based company has sustained past musics often ignored by the major labels. Within the categories of music it handles, it stocks virtually every record in print -- domestic and foreign. But now, not content simply to ignore their musical backlists, some American labels have taken steps to shut off the overseas supply.

One of Down Home's solid sellers in recent years has been a series of Japanese reissues of Chess recordings. But MCA Records recently purchased the entire Chess/Checker catalogue and in March, through its attorneys, directed Down Home to cease selling the Japanese imports -- including a boxed set of the complete Chess recordings of Muddy Waters, which won last year's W.C. Handy Award for best blues reissue.

MCA's position is certainly easy to understand: It is trying to protect a considerable investment. After all, if the Japanese Chess records were available, hard-core fans would buy them and dry up the limited reissue market.

This particular story, as it happens, has a somewhat happy ending. Last week, MCA -- recognizing Down Home's "special role in exposing and promoting" this music -- gave it permission to import and sell records that MCA is not planning to reissue, and to sell off others it has already acquired. Down Home will also serve as a consultant on future Chess reissue and compilation projects.

The first of two MCA/Chess reissue sets will appear in August. Between them they include obvious artists (sets of Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters, as well as albums by Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James and the Moonglows), as well as less commercial names (Memphis Slim, Washboard Sam, Jimmy McCracklin, Walter "Shaky" Horton). There is also a gospel series with the Salem Travelers, the Harmonizing Four, the Violinaires and six albums of sermons by the Rev. C.L. Franklin.

This sounds wonderfully ambitious. But even if it all works out as planned, the unfortunate fact remains that American labels -- the majors in particular -- have a dreadful track record when it comes to reissue programs. They seldom sustain the initial commitment, and even then often opt for the most basic packaging. The first MCA/Chess reissue, a two-album Chuck Berry set assembled from alternate takes and mixes, is a case in point: two records slipped into a single (ugly) jacket, with no notes, on an adequate pressing.

By contrast, Japanese and European pressings, particularly new compilations, usually contain more songs than their American counterparts, on better pressings, in better packaging and with better research and discographical information. Or they come out as facsimile copies of the original packaging.

Do consumers have the right to buy such superior imported products? Legally, no. Under Article 602A, Title 17 of the U.S. Code, the American copyright holder has the right to allow or disallow records of foreign manufacture being imported, whether they are in the catalogue, in release or in the planning stages. And most record companies, preferring to avoid competition with their own current releases, choose to restrict domestic use of the wealth of material in their vaults, even as they license it to overseas entrepreneurs. The major exception has been California's Rhino Records, which has a 300-record catalogue built around licensed reissues of eclectic '60s rock music. Companies such as Murray Hill, Kent and Collectibles work on a much smaller level championing vintage R&B. County, Old Timey and Rounder do a decent job with traditional country music (though the largest country reissue program comes from West Germany's Bear Family).

Perhaps the best example of archival commitment is England's Charly Records. Begun in 1974 by a Frenchman, a Dutchman and an Englishman -- all devoted to "essential" American music -- Charly has now put out 450 albums of vintage rockabilly, R&B, doo-wop, country and other '50s and '60s roots musics. The company has direct licensing deals with a number of historically important independent labels -- Sun, Vee Jay, Goldband and Gusto (which owns King and Federal), as well as some special deals with the majors.

"The independents are at the core of our operation," says Charly's Cliff White, adding that "none of the majors are doing an adequate job with their back catalogue. That music gets ignored because most American record companies are looking to tomorrow and forgetting what they did yesterday."

As a result, it's been foreign companies like Charly (and other British labels like Ace and Edsel or Sweden's Route 66) that have picked up the archival ball.

"To me that's simply not right and proper, but that's the way it's been," says Greg Geller, head of artists and repertoire at RCA Records, and the man responsible for several excellent Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke packages. "Maybe [foreign labels] have a greater ability to appreciate us from a distance, have a healthier perspective on our music. And they tend to operate on a smaller scale, where it's not necessary to sell the huge numbers on individual releases."

Charly's releases, for instance, sell an average of 5,000 to 10,000 copies over a three-year period. "We can make a healthy living on that," says White, adding that "there's no loss on any record we put out" (the break-even point is usually 2,000 copies).

Some Charly records sell much better, of course. A recent reissue of Nina Simone's '50s Bethlehem work sold 15,000 copies (it even spawned a hit single in England). And Charly's outstanding 12-record Jerry Lee Lewis "Sun Sessions" box sold 12,000 sets. (Sun Records is still in operation in Tennessee but has done very little with its catalogue domestically; of course, it continues to receive royalties from Charly.)

One thing that's immediately noticeable about Charly (which exports 60 percent of its records from England) and most of the foreign packages is their richness -- in discographical information and liner notes, and in number of cuts (up to 20 per record).

Part of the problem is that in this country, the royalty structure generally limits the use of copyrighted cuts to 10 per record (after 10, the rates rise sharply). In Europe, royalties are paid per side, rather than per song.

The 10-cut limit can lead to what Bob Pinson of the Country Music Foundation calls "defensive programming." Pinson recently helped put together the two-record "60 Years of the Grand Ole Opry" for RCA and was directed to find 16 public-domain songs to augment the collection's 20 copyrighted songs.

There's a different marketing attitude overseas as well. In America, very little marketing is done, and reissue programs -- while they last -- tend to be budget priced (and budget built, though Rhino is again an exception here). By contrast, says Charly's White, "if we compile and reissue what we consider great music, then we treat it and sell it as a new record."

It's tempting to blame the major American labels alone for the lack of archival materials on the market. But record stores (which are reluctant to carry older, eclectic selections) and consumers (who seem obsessed with what's new) contribute to the problem as well.

"Blues, R&B, country and rockabilly have no honor in their own country," says Peter Guralnik, author of the new book "Sweet Soul Music," and a frequent contributor of liner notes on historical reissues. Jazz, he points out, has been the one significant exception, partly because "it's given a cultural respect that isn't accorded" to those other musics.

"Jazz is more 'respectable,' " says Down Home's director, Nancy Noennig. "It's thought of in same way as classical by a lot of people, while vernacular music is not taken seriously. Which is true in all countries. We can't claim the U.S. is uniquely bad in this."

As any visit to a well-stocked record store will confirm, jazz reissues are abundant and expanding. Capitol/EMI has already revived the fabled Blue Note label. MCA is reviving Impulse, RCA the vintage Bluebird catalogue, Muse the Savoy. Atlantic is resuscitating its jazz legacy. Polygram is importing several European labels and has revived the Verve catalogue. Fantasy, which pioneered the "two-fer" reissue format, has more than 200 titles in its Original Jazz Classics line, selling an average of 10,000 copies.

"In the view of many people, jazz transcends all generations and age groups and all musical preferences," says Bruce Resnikoff, head of special markets and products for MCA. "Rhythm and blues, classic rock 'n' roll, blues -- they appeal to a particular generation; jazz seems to cross over the boundaries. Although it has never been a music that sells in huge volumes, it sells consistently across the board to various age groups and ethnic groups."

But when it comes to other American music, says Guralnik, "we're living in a disposable culture" -- a culture in which something's value is often quickly outweighed by considerations of newness. He believes that vintage music could sell if record companies knew how to reach the market, but that "ours is a cultural legacy that can't be recognized within the industry as it's currently set up."

Despite the minimal costs of reissue programs, the lack of effective marketing has meant all too many hit-and-miss series -- all of which, it seems, have disappeared. There have, of course, been some bright moments for American reissues outside of the jazz field: Atlantic's recent celebration of its R&B history, Rhino's rock reflections, Columbia's Okeh reissues and its Historic Editions of country music. But the Okeh series died after eight releases and the country series is in limbo.

Greg Geller, who was involved in the Okeh series and in a fine Jackie Wilson collection for Columbia, says it may take a new generation of record company executives to turn the situation around.

Geller has sinced moved on to RCA records, where he did the Sam Cooke packages -- in his spare time. The "Live at Harlem Square" record sold more than 100,000 copies, while a new two-record collection, "Sam Cooke: The Man and His Music," has already sold 75,000 here and 100,000 overseas. "For once we've done it to them," Geller notes, referring to his overseas competitors. "But has anybody come to me and said, 'Would you like to do this on a full-time basis?' No, and I'm not so sure that's what I want to do with my life.

"I think you'll find that reissues get done by people who have certain interests or passion for a certain kind of music. Down through the years, there've been a lot of jazz reissues because there have been people in positions of power and responsibility who have a passion for jazz and could effect reissues, whatever the bottom-line result. Bruce Lundvall, when he was at CBS, wasn't concerned with how many Lester Young albums got sold, just that they be available for sale.

"Maybe it's a generational thing. I'm one of the first generation of record company executives that grew up with rock 'n' roll, so rock and its antecedents are of particular interest to me and I'm sure there'll be other like me at other record companies."

That's certainly the case at Rhino, the small independent label focusing on reissues of mostly '60s rock. Rhino's Harold Bronson says sales of his 300 records may be as low as 2,000 or as high as 60,000 (for a "Turtles Greatest Hits"). As an American licenser, he's found major labels to be somewhat arbitrary in their licensing attitudes, reflecting "the philosophy from many years ago, when rock 'n' roll was perceived to be something very ephemeral and not really worthwhile . . . 'it's not going to last, it's teen-ager music.' "

This kind of attitude has influenced the care given to tapes sitting in record company vaults. While many people are aware of the precarious state of nitrate film and of archival efforts to transfer old film to videotape, few realize that a similar deterioration is affecting magnetic tape, with material from the late '40s and early '50s most affected (by slow demagnetization and by drying and flaking of coating as a result of changes in temperature and humidity). As for material from 1900 into the '30s, much of it has simply disappeared -- thrown out, lost or recycled.

Most of the majors have begun transferring their magnetic tapes to digital storage for archival purposes, but the process is slow and the emphasis is on tapes that are being readied for release on compact disc (in the last year, Polygram has transfered 1,000 album-length recordings, out of 80,000 reels of tapes). And given tight CD release schedules, new music tends to be adapted before old.

Bob Altshuler, corporate spokesman for Columbia Records, suggests CDs as an avenue for future reissue programs. "I think a lot of archival material will be turning up on CDs. That's where we'll be seeing a thrust in this field. The CD will be the place that will accommodate some of the more vintage catalogue material."

He points to shorter press runs for CDs and to the buyer profile: upscale, older, the kind of consumer who is less interested in hits than in substance. "The kind of people who buy compact disc players will support issues of that kind," Altshuler says. Whether this will do for vintage music what videocassettes have done for vintage films (or for that matter, the paperback format did for older books) remains to be seen.

In all probability, as long as American record companies (the majors in particular) operate on the profit principle, we'll keep having to turn to Europe and Japan for archival relief. Bruce Resnikoff, however, maintains that MCA is approaching its overall reissue program with a mixture of pragmatism and idealism that could signal an esthetic turnaround.

"We're the only major company with a catalogue marketing committee that meets regularly, just like with top-line products," Resnikoff says. He also subscribes to the philosophy that has sustained jazz reissues. "You do not do huge numbers out of the box. But this product is consistent. If it sells 15,000 this year, it will sell another 15,000 next year. It will hold a prominent place in a record store years after its release. You don't anticipate getting huge profits up front; what you anticipate is steady sales. The catalogue becomes important because it's a consistent flow of income."

As for the Chess and Impulse programs (MCA also owns the ABC-Dunhill, Paramount, Dot and Decca catalogues and is reportedly looking at more acquisitions), "it's not our intention to dump product with the sole intention of maximizing profits immediately. It's important to get the right titles out there in the right packages and spread them out over the right period of time; you can't put out 600 titles and expect the consumer to accept that. We are a still-growing company and we have a lot of time ahead for expansion. Nobody is going to milk the catalogue for what it's worth today at the risk of what we're losing tomorrow."

If MCA's attitude doesn't take, Peter Guralnik argues, then vintage music "ought to be disseminated by nonprofit but smart organizations, or divisions within record companies like Red Seal used to be for RCA, as much for prestige and public relations as for profits."

*Or there might be a radical legislative alternative similar to the one in Sweden, where copyright law says that if a record company does not activate the material it owns in 25 years, anyone can put it out -- as long as the reissuer pays the proper royalties. In America and most other countries, that period is 50 years.

"Ideologically, it's a great way to get the music out," says Guralnik. "These records should be permanently in print, like Scribner's keeping Ernest Hemingway in print."

Of course, adds Charly's Cliff White, such enlightenment would be bad news for companies like his. "If all the majors started suddenly getting responsible about their back catalogues," he says, "then we'd probably be out of business."

He doesn't sound worried yet.