Music

Universal Music Group donates vintage recordings to Library of Congress

Randy Lewis
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — There's good news, more good news and some nebulous news for anyone interested in the nation's musical heritage in Monday's announcement that Universal Music Group is donating a cache of some 200,000 vintage master recordings to the Library of Congress for preservation and digitizing.

They include Bing Crosby's original recording of "White Christmas" and thousands more by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, the Andrews Sisters and other lesser-known musicians who recorded from the late 1920s to the late 1940s for labels now under the UMG umbrella.

The good news: The public will eventually have some degree of access to everything in the collection, the vast majority of it long-mothballed and out of print commercially, once library staffers get going with organizing the metal and lacquer discs and tapes and transferring them into digital audio files.

More good news: The head of the library's recorded sound division says funding is secure and he and his staff at the library's Packard Campus for Audio Visual Preservation in Culpeper, Va., have already begun the gargantuan task, expected to take years to complete.

"We have an impressive facility that's very well equipped," Gene DeAnna, head of the library's recorded sound division, said Monday. "We didn't take this collection in hopes of using it to help raise more money."

As part of the agreement, Universal retains ownership of the recording copyrights and the right to exploit the cleaned-up and digitized files for commercial purposes. Participants characterize it as a win-win for a company that wouldn't otherwise expect to generate much money from the vast majority of the collection and a public institution with the resources and expertise to carry out the preservation and conversion of the aging material.

DeAnna noted that while Universal owns the copyrights on the recordings themselves, it does not own all the copyrights to the music on them. "If it was written in 1923 and later, it's copyrighted, and you need clearances from the musicians, artists and composers associations — ASCAP and BMI. So there's a double whammy in the rights issues."

Those issues leave a giant question mark over how many, or which, recordings might ever become available outside the library's listening room, which is accessible to the public.

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