RG: As a long time fan and participant musician in the popular music scene in Champaign-Urbana, obviously, I had an invested personal interest in the scene. After a couple of years in archives, I said, “Where are all the materials related to this really awesome performing arts scene we have around here?” Nobody had collected very much. It was all sort of scattered. And I somehow convinced the director of the Sousa Archives that the University of Illinois was the place to do it. So we started collecting things in earnest in 2013... The Pogo [Studio] records was one of the first big ones. It was a long time recording studio in downtown Champaign that picked up and moved to Nashville. There was some concern about what was going to happen with all of the master recordings. They had things on two-inch multi-track tape. They had things on CD. There were mixes on micro-cassette, quarter-inch audio. It was literally tons of music. It wasn’t going to be smart for him to take it to Nashville. It just became a good idea to keep it with the university. So that was one of the first major acquisitions for the project. That one actually generated a lot of press. That acquisition was one of the first big things that did good things for the project in terms of attention from the media. People in the personal network of the owner of the studio -- not only through word of mouth but Facebook -- really brought a lot of attention to the project.
IP: Could you describe the conditions that some of the collections were in when you received them -- [and] the ones you’re still getting, of course?
RG: In general, creative people are not thinking like archivists. Collections come in all arrangements or no arrangement. So you could just imagine that. But on top of that, lots of small record labels and local recording studios are sort of fly by night operations. Things get stored in basements, right? Those master tapes that we talked about from Pogo Studio came out of a basement that flooded regularly in downtown Champaign. We had to go into dark, wet corners to get things out. There were things that were alive. There were things that used to be alive. We were very lucky to have the resources of the University of Illinois library behind us. A lot of stuff went right in the freezer at the conservation lab. They dealt with it over a period of weeks or months: mold, just vacuuming out things where vermin had been. If you could imagine, a 2-inch multitrack tape comes in a box that’s 12 inches by 12 inches and three inches thick. Things can get in there. There’s space in there.
Another good example I think of the thing that you’re trying to alleviate. Hammerhead Records was a rock n’ roll label that was active in Champaign-Urbana throughout the ‘90s -- I’m going to say ‘93 to 2000 -- whose owner has gone on to other things. The label was always sort of a labor of love. He’s still selling things from the back catalog, but it never made any money. He was a guy with an MBA, so actually he was treating it like a business. He was keeping receipts. He had contracts with people and he was keeping correspondence in files. So that was good. So the collection had some sort of arrangement. Unfortunately, all of his files went into the basement of, I believe, one of the apartment buildings that he manages. They stayed there for 15 years. It came out covered in black mold. I think there was a lot of stuff that we couldn’t recover. So that’s the first step. That should be the number one step in education even before you get to like arrangement and file formats is keeping the stuff stable, making sure things are not growing on it. That goes for the archives field as a whole, but I think especially with your intended audience. A lot of people are not doing this as their primary occupation. It’s not paying the bills. So it is a lot of fly by nights. They’re storing things wherever they can. It’s in their home. Just because you don’t have money to do it doesn’t mean you can’t do it right.
IP: Have any collections or specific materials been challenging to preserve?
RG: Part of that Pogo accession. There were a lot of DAT tapes in there. I was actually at a presentation last week by infamous A/V expert George Blood. The guy knows everything there is to know about A/V preservation and duplication. There’s all these machines that they just don’t make anymore. No one’s manufacturing DAT machines. No one’s servicing them anymore. Everyone that services them is a technician with high rates, but there’s a finite amount of spare parts for these machines. No one’s supporting it anymore. That’s one challenge and that goes for a lot of things especially for some reason especially in music because the technology evolves so quickly. There’s really a lot of formats that you can run across just in the last 40 years: magnetic tape in quarter-inch, in half-inch, and two-inch formats, DAT... Even beyond that, people are going to have things on VHS [and] Betacam. You literally can’t get those players anymore new. Pretty soon you can’t get them used. You won’t be able to get parts for your used ones. So that’s a challenge for the field as a whole for historical sound recordings.
RG: No, but that’s something to consider. U of I is sort of lucky in that there’s sort of a bottomless pit that the library can throw digital files into. That’s not going to be true for everyone that’s interested in independent sound recordings. I think the way that people work with digital sound recordings it’s easy to not see the back end of it. Whatever your favorite digital audio workstation is just saving things as a project so you don’t really know where your original tracks are and if you just dump a bunch of things on an archivist that can make it difficult for them to know where things are which is a temptation for them to never process it or not taken it in in the first place or things like that. So actually, one of the bigger challenges in preservation is getting things is knowing what you’re getting, which means that record creators need to know what they’re creating and where they’re keeping things and how things are arranged.
IP: So based on your experience with the initiative, what advice would you give record labels and musicians about preserving their stuff for themselves before they would turn it over?
RG: I would encourage people, just for themselves, to keep, and -- this is something that I work on in my personal life -- just be organized. That’s number one. Knowing where to store it and how to store is that’s what we just talked about. Think beyond the immediate use of what you’re creating. If you could find it later, that means that we can find it later. If it’s not covered over in mold later, then we can use it later. And then there’s that question a lot of people that we talk to [that] there’s this feeling of, “Oh, I didn’t know anybody would want that.” And that’s part of thinking beyond the immediate value of something. I made a lot of fliers for the bands that I played in and I always tried to keep one. [But] I’m just a bass player that makes fliers, unlike people that actually are recording and managing artists as a profession. And they have all kinds of things and they don’t think about anything beyond the immediate value to them. That’s one of the first things we learn as archivists that things have secondary value beyond the purpose for which they were created -- like an individual flier about three rock bands in Champaign-Urbana that don’t exist anymore. It’s maybe only a value to someone whose band is listed on that or someone who went to that show. That’s limited to an audience of maybe a hundred, right? But an entire collection of fliers for Champaign-Urbana venues over a period of 30 years. As a piece of that puzzle suddenly takes on another kind of value. So I would encourage people to think about that before they throw something away or decide that they’re done with something.
KN: Think like an archivist.
IP: What are the most important items that a record label or musician should preserve?
RG: You know what’s actually pretty handy in retrospect is a press kit. I don’t even know if that’s a thing that people do anymore. When I was coming up, you needed a couple of paragraphs to put in the mail with your demo recording. I think that happens on the internet now, so I guess your press kit is your website or your Facebook. People don’t think about the value of that down the line.
What else should they keep? Anything they ever published. I was talking about fliers earlier. That is a lot of the story of the live music scene and they’re ephemeral. They are produced to be thrown away. They’re made on the cheap, because we know that they don’t get posted for very long and people don’t think about what happens to them after. I would encourage people to keep those around.
RG: When it comes to digital materials, the potential secondary tertiary uses of future users whose wants and needs we haven’t even imagined yet, you’re going to get way more use out of the raw audio, then they are the mixed and mastered final thing. Like, the final thing is just what it is, and I’m sure it’s awesome whatever it is, but the ability to go back and pick apart the tracks and start over. It’s going to be valuable to somebody someday. I think the potential to do projects like that in the future is obviously dependent on someone keeping all of the digital masters, all of the individual tracks.
IP: Like the Let It Be... Naked project that came out in the last few years.
RG: Projects like that can’t happen unless you keep the masters, which is something that big record labels know, but maybe a smaller operation working in a completely digital environment. The digital audio workstation is doing so much for you that you don’t actually see what you are actually creating.
KN: I was going to mention when we got the Poster Children stuff [Poster Children and Salaryman Bands Records]. There’s like Rose [Marshack]’s diary, her log of all of their travel on one particular tour.
RG: Rose Marshack is an amazing, self-documenting person.
KN: So something like that would be incredible if everyone could do that.
RG: She was blogging before there was a word for it. That’s self documenting and I wish there was more of that around. Because we all know that a finished sound recording is not a part of the story of what happened to make that happen. More documentation of what you’re doing. Treat yourself like a business, because that’s what we know how to save.
KN: And they are businesses.
Rory Grennan’s Twitter handle is @rorasaurus, and Katie Nichols can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. To keep up with the Urbana-Champaign Local Music Preservation Initiative, follow them @SousaArchives and their website: go.illinois.edu/localmusic