The National Recording Preservation Foundation is finally up and running, thanks to a $200,000 gift from the Grammy-winning rocker Jack White.
The inaugural gift, which is being announced Monday, allows the foundation to award grants and begin work on the National Recording Preservation Plan, which was issued last year. The foundation was created as part of a 2000 congressional act to organize and preserve the nation’s radio, music and recorded sound history.
“It’s thrilling,” Executive Director Gerald Seligman said, to be able to publicly launch the foundation. He cited White and foundation board members as extremely committed to preservation.
“Here we have a whole nation of cultural heritage in recorded sound [and] a lot of it is in precarious shape,” Seligman said. “Some was recorded on very fragile media — like old cylinders, acetates, reel-to-reel tapes — and it’s turning into shards.”
Now that preservation is underway, he said, time is of the essence: “Some of these things have got to be saved quick.”
The foundation is the third component of the National Recording Preservation Act, which involves a partnership with the Library of Congress, which has long worked to preserve recordings.
The act first established a national recording registry for music, radio broadcasts and sounds on any media — including recordings of the “NBC Chimes” and AOL’s “You’ve got mail” — that have become part of the cultural consciousness.
The second component, the National Recording Preservation Board, debates the registry. The board issued its plan in December after conducting research and consulting with experts.
The foundation was chartered in 2010 as an independent, nonprofit charitable organization that is authorized to raise funds for nonprofit groups, archives, libraries and cultural institutions. As part of this mission, Seligman said, “I even see where a commercial collection” might be included — especially if it has significant cultural importance and funding is needed to preserve it.
Seligman said that the foundation can secure private funds and that it has a government commitment to match. “It’s kind of an ideal middle ground,” he said, “where we have this collaboration, and we have independence.”
Seligman, who heads an international arts consulting firm, has worked part time with the foundation, but expects to go full time within six months. The foundation’s board and executive-director appointments are made and approved by Librarian of Congress James Billington.
The gift from White — the Detroit musician who formed the White Stripes and the Raconteurs — shows a serious “commitment by a really busy songwriter and performer donating both his time on the board, and money to preserve our national song recording heritage,” says Eric J. Schwartz, the founding director and board member of the National Film Preservation Foundation, upon which the National Recording Preservation Foundation was modeled. Schwartz’s group has raised nearly $6 million to fund about 2,000 film preservation projects across the country.
Schwartz calls the donation a great start that he hopes will prompt others to join the effort. “It takes money to both preserve [films and recordings] and make them available to the public — to transfer items onto digital format and pay for Web site traffic,” Schwartz said. “The longer this stuff doesn’t happen, the more recordings get lost to history.”
In the late 1940s and early ’50s, the recording standard was magnetic tape, which is vulnerable to humidity. Most sound archives are on analog tape, which doesn’t fare well in the kind of flooding that devastated New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said foundation board member George Massenburg, who is a record producer, engineer and educator.
Massenburg cites efforts to recover archival tapes — including historic jazz recordings — that were damaged in New Orleans, as well as recovery efforts that he has participated in at libraries and radio stations. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” he said. “We don’t know what objects are important until we see inside collections, look and listen to them and identify what they are.”
Massenburg said that White’s donation is critical not just to the preservation of popular music, but also to the full spectrum of our national sound archives, including old radio shows.
“It’s a modern assumption that everything is digital,” he said. “Everything is something that can be stored in the cloud. But it’s not.”
His personal passion has been to preserve recordings made on the bulky and deteriorating four-track and eight-track masters, which are expensive to store and which record companies have been trying to convert to digital.
Massenburg noted that White is a fan of analog recording and methodology. “He doesn’t take advantage of the speed and utility of digital methodology, and loves the warmth and immersive character of analog,” Massenburg said. “He is a traditionalist in that sense.”
The engineer said that the United States has a “throwaway culture,” but he feels motivated every day “to just find a solution” as more cultural artifacts disappear.
“I hope the [donation] touches people and that they’ll respond,” he said.