Manage for Success: Recorded Media Preservation, Newsletter #111, September 2010


"Manage for Success" is a free monthly newsletter for record label executives who want to operate their companies efficiently and successfully. It's published by Keith Holzman of Solutions Unlimited, a management consultant, troubleshooter, and trusted advisor, and is based on his many years as a senior executive in the music industry.


Copyright 2010 by Keith Holzman, Solutions Unlimited. All rights reserved.


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With the exception of its artists, a record label's most significant and valuable asset is its masters, and that's something too frequently neglected when management is busy with quotidian details. I’ve addressed this subject before, but it's so important that I’m doing so again.


Master tapes, hard drives and other recording media are a key part of a label's intellectual property and as such should be treated with care and respect. However, I've observed that too many labels pay insufficient attention to these vital assets. For example, do you know where the multi-track tapes or hard drives are located for a project you released a year ago? Very possibly, you don't! It’s extremely important to keep a computerized log or database of all such materials that you own, including all variants and their storage locations.


All of your recorded media, whether used or not used in a released project, should be properly logged and stored (more on storage shortly), since you never know when an unreleased track may be important to you in the future. You’d be amazed how the odd, seemingly insignificant, out-take becomes of vital importance in later years. In fact, it’s these out-takes that make some of Rhino’s reissue projects so vital and exciting. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I received a call requesting information on some out-takes from a Tom Paxton session recorded live at New York's Bitter End in 1970!


It’s also important that tape or media legends, written in the studio during recording sessions, be kept in the original boxes, but it's a good idea to keep copies in the project's production file, which I also suggest be safely archived -- if not microfilmed.


You should also keep demo tapes, at least for artists you've signed, for the same reason you should keep out-takes -- they may be of significant use in the future.


Keeping backups is also important to your label's well-being. Working materials might be stored in a locked, cool, and dry location in your office, but it’s a good idea to keep archival backups in a secured, climate-controlled location off-site. There are a number of firms specializing in the storage of archival media. Contact me if you need such a resource or referral.


Tapes should be stored properly -- on appropriate reels, in their boxes with accompanying legends, and placed vertically on a shelf, never flat. They should be smooth-wound, with "tails" out. This reduces tape damage and print-through. The location should be moderately cool with low humidity. Both heat and humidity are significant enemies of recording tapes and excessive exposure can cause shrinkage or expansion of the substrate material, rendering them unusable.


This concern may seem like overkill, but many times over the years I've encountered problems, even with properly stored tapes. For example, many recordings made during the late sixties and early seventies were recorded on 3M (Scotch) 202 formulation, an industry standard at the time. In the mid-eighties, when we went back to these masters to prepare for CD release, we frequently found that the oxide had flaked off from its acetate backing, rendering them virtually useless. There are "last ditch" approaches that may temporarily restore such affected tapes, but their use is problematic.


Similar problems have occurred with Ampex 406 and 456, 3M 206, 207, 250, and 251. Even digital "standards" such as U-Matic 1620 and 1630 tape cartridges have shown that they're far from being of archival quality.


The Library of Congress recommends the following criteria for storage of recording media. For short to medium term storage, maintain tapes at a temperature between 65–70 degrees at a relative humidity of 45–50%. For long-term storage temperatures should be between 46–50 degrees (no lower than 46 degrees due to binder lubrication needs), at a relative humidity of 20–30% for magnetic tapes, and 45–50% for all other items — about the same as for fine wine.

<http://www.loc.gov/preserv/care/record.html>


A good resource, should you be interested, is "Magnetic Tape Storage and Handling, A Guide for Libraries and Archives" by Dr. John W. C. Van Bogart of National Media Laboratory. It's downloadable at

<http://www.imation.com/Global/Support/government/AP_NMLdoc_magtape_S_H.pdf>


Just a few years ago -- the era of DVD-Audio and SACD -- many labels were pulling some of their old multi-track tapes from their vaults in order to make brand new, very high resolution (96kHz, 24-bit) surround sound releases. There's additional potential income in your masters so it's vital that you protect them.


And if you're really lucky, one of your older masters may get requested for use in a feature film or TV show, thus providing additional income from previous material.


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If you'd like guidance in protecting and preserving your valuable masters, or need help dealing with other management or administrative problems, call me so we can discuss how I might be able to come up with a solution tailored to your specific needs.


I also recommend my "Complete Guide To Starting A Record Company" which can be ordered as a downloadable eBook in PDF form or as a printed, spiral-bound volume. You can read the complete Table of Contents and download the Introduction at <http://www.recordcompanystartup.com/>


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Another, and perhaps even more significant aspect of all of this -- and one to be very concerned about -- is the actual medium of recording and storage you're using. A device for recording sound that may be in common usage today may not be available ten or twenty years in the future.


There are many digital recording systems available these days. An advantage is that they allow for recording onto computer media, providing great flexibility and control. But the programs or equipment used may not be available in the future when you want to release your music in the then prevailing medium — whatever that may be!


For example in 1980 and 1981 we made a number of recordings for Nonesuch, in stereo two-track and sometimes in multi-track, using 3M's Model 81 Digital Audio Mastering System. Try to find one of these machines now should you want to do a remix for surround sound!


Many labels are now recording directly to computer hard drives, but some labels have reused their drives without backing the masters up to another medium, thereby erasing them from existence! It seems funny, but it's happened too many times, so don't let it happen to you. And don't leave the studio without ensuring that backups have been made and secured.


That's one of the reason I'm a great believer in recording -- or at least backing up -- using quality analog tape and equipment. Digital systems come and go, but analog tape decks tend to be around for years.


By the way, keep your eyes peeled for the release of standards for recording metadata that's expected to be finalized early next year. The Recording Academy's Producers and Engineers Wing, along with data management firm BMS/Chace, and partnered with the Library of Congress are creating a standardized approach and software model for gathering and managing metadata for recorded music.


The resulting standard, dubbed Content Creator Data (CCD,) is designed to be an integral part of the recording process from a work's inception. For example, it could include information about where the recording was made, which musicians were involved, what takes were used, who engineered, etc.


The resulting metadata can remain linked with a recording through subsequent filing of e-copyright and point of sale. It will also interface with other open standard systems in publishing and e-commerce.


To us technical types this is an exciting development, but it's one that should be important as well to all record label owners and senior management.


Until next month,

Keith Holzman -- Solutions Unlimited

Helping Record Labels Manage for Success.


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Copyright 2010 by Keith Holzman, Solutions Unlimited. All rights reserved.