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The Day the Music (or Art, or Writing, or Code) Dies

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digital_music_archive-626909-editedNot many people outside of historians and music experts remember Jenny Lind, but she was the closest thing the mid-19th century had to a musical superstar. A Swedish opera singer who had already become famous across Europe, she came to America in 1850 and, with more than a little help from showman P.T. Barnum, successfully toured the country for several years. Today, nobody has any idea what she sounded like. Though legend holds that late in her life Thomas Edison recorded her voice on one of his early phonograph devices, no recordings of Lind are known to survive.

Decades of recording technology have saved later musical stars from the same fate. A century from now, fewer people may know who the late pop star Michael Jackson was, but it’s a pretty safe bet that anybody who wants to hear (or see) his work will be able to do so through a little bit of research.

The same isn’t necessarily true, however, for lesser-known musical performers, including most unsigned artists and many standard bearers for so-called “underground” musical subcultures. This music rarely, if ever, gets played on the radio or receives any other popular exposure, aside from the occasional breakout song or artist. In the future, these artists and the musical movements they represent may be as forgotten as the unrecorded Jenny Lind is today.

The problem is that in today’s digital-native recording world, many of these artists and music scenes are organized and sustained through ad hoc streaming and music aggregation sites that fly below the popular music radar. Fans of the local music scene in a particular city, or even a particular neighborhood, gather on these sites to share, review, promote, and discuss audio and video clips: their own, those of bands they just paid to see, those of bands they’re hosting at their establishment next week.

The sites are a cornucopia of data for musicologists and other cultural researchers—until they’re not available. When one of the most popular of these sites, imeem, was purchased by MySpace in 2009, access to much of its content was soon lost. Some of the music and videos later reappeared on sites such as YouTube, but they had been shorn of their original context.

Many other smaller websites and online forums play similar cultural roles to imeem, but are even more vulnerable. As ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall recently told NPR, “ephemerality is a key problem—and that goes not just for the media objects themselves but all the discourse and metadata and meaning gathered around them.”

Musicians and musicologists are not the only groups whose work is affected by this threat. Websites that provide comparable storage, exhibition and distribution services—often free of charge—for artists, writers, open source software developers and other creators who are outside the commercial mainstream pose the same risks to the material they host.

Fame may be fleeting, but it sure does help extend shelf life. Unfortunately, most creators and their fans or followers can’t depend upon fame to preserve the work. Web archiving can. Web archiving services such as those available from Reed Tech are a valuable countermeasure to reduce the risk of online disappearance. A web archiving solution can indefinitely preserve a copy of any website —and all the media it hosts—in its original, contextualized form, just as it appeared on the day it was first collected by the archiving crawler.

If you’re concerned about the survival chances of your community’s online culture, whether it’s music, art, poetry or all of the above, there is a web archiving solution that can help. 

 

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