A Universal Problem: How do Philly indie labels keep their work secure?
The 2008 fire at the Universal Music Group’s LA warehouse that destroyed precious, rare master tapes and demos from the world’s best known and beloved artists still has no exact tally, beyond heartbreak and loss. And lawsuits. Still being added-up and reported – the fire’s initial damages weren’t readily relayed to the artists or estates, until the New York Times outed UMG for negligence and misrepresentation – the damages are insurmountable to the history of recorded music.
When this was first reported, the first thought I had was “if this could happen in a storage facility closer to a vaulted fortress than a run-of-the-mill storage unit, what does this mean for smaller, local labels in Philadelphia that don’t have billions of dollars behind them?’
What are the keys to security, and insurance when it comes to Philly labels?
With that, I spoke with several experts in the field — label owners, licensers, and such — who could shed light on the process. While several declined to answer for legal concerns and potential insurance purposes (said one anonymous label owner, “If I tell you and, say, something bad happens, there’s a record what I did and didn’t do”), others were courteous and informative in their exchange of information.
Max Ochester from Brewerytown Beats has been putting out pre-1980s vintage local recordings since 2015 — first in collaboration with Philly’s early soul and doo wop kings Arctic / Jamie / Filet O Soul (he was an A&R and co-distributor for Jamie / Guyden Records), then his own Dogtown Records, and more recently with his purchase of the West Philly-based Seventies gospel label, Tony Carter Records.
“We do everything,” said Ochester in regard to the due-diligence of releasing long-forgotten recordings or rarely-hear releases. “We track down everybody involved that we can, including players and songwriters. We find the best source material possible, whether that is reel-to-reel tape. We do high quality transfers of those masters, lots of-de-nosing. We also run a podcast out of the store, ‘Rhythm & Business’ that documents the history of these artists, detailing their legacy.”
Part of that business is maintenance. There is the fact that Ochester recently set up a transfer lab in Brewerytown Beat’s basement, to take analog tape masters and demos and preserve them / digitize, then find proper rights owners for possible release, or for self-preservation. “What is cool is being able to get these recordings back in the hands of the people who made them,” he said.
“When we get tapes, say in the case of TSC, we started cleaning them First, an initial 25 out of a total of 80 two years ago, then – as I have had interest in the label – we cleaned more this year, some of which featured rare unreleased material. Then we begin digitizing them.
After finding all the rights holders (just because Max has the label doesn’t mean he has all the copyrights), he can then go about the business of transparency with its players, composer, producers or, in many cases, a deceased artist’s family or estate.
Before this happens, when Ochester acquires reel-to-reels, he must store them as securely as he can, “physically, up on racks with a dehumidifier running 24-7, doing our best to keep this stuff away from moisture in an area where not many people have access to it. It’s not completely ideal, I know. I have about 150 master tapes or so from different labels…I have considered going to Drexel to house my tapes, as they already hold all of the old Sigma Sound Studio tapes and DATs, and preserve and safe keep my tapes there. But, here I can transfer everything as I go along. With the equipment I have now, I don’t have to make appointments to transfer and digitize.”
The key to masters or multis or demos – reel to reels, DATs – is safety copies and digitization. It is not THE answer to losing the original and its tactile feel, but it is a necessity, which in some cases, we’re hearing the Universal Music Group might not have had with its oldest, rarest recordings, some of which were only available on lacquers. “Have something to pull that first generation of music from,” notes Ochester.
Drew Juergens, the production director from Relapse Records — a large-ish independent label born in Lancaster, and current residing in Upper Darby — can boast of a healthy catalogue that it’s held for 25 years. How Relapse takes care of its own comes down to one phrase “Copy. Copy. Copy. Everything,” said Juergens of Relapse’s 150-to-200 artists. “Then copy it all again.”
Juergens can’t exactly say how or where Relapse Records’ masters are secured, but he can say that all measures regarding “audio backup” are taken: “There is the digital side of things and the physical side of things, There is on-site and off-site security, always.”
Juergens mentions that despite living in the digital age, there is a surprisingly large physical / analog presence. “I’m not sure how Universal went about archiving things. I’m guessing a lot of it was on tape. Perhaps, they could have spent more time ‘baking’ the tapes – this is a way of securing what is on the tapes from further degradation. I can only imagine how much music they had, but that could have been a help, but baking, then digitally transferring those tapes would have course been the way to go. If they were on CD only, they could have ripped them into 16-bit wave files. It’s a huge, very time-consuming process.”
When I ask about the worst case scenarios, Juergens asks if I’m planning something dastardly. “These questions are awful ominous,” he said with a laugh. “If something bad were to happen, I like to think we’re prepared. There are multiple backups, backups of which are done on a daily basis. I am very particular and anal about how best we can secure what we have. That includes the security of what I can and cannot say.”
Some smaller local labels don’t always even have the chance or money, if recorded during a pre-digital setting, to get that first gen tape copied.
Joe Ankenbrand, the co-owner of Molly’s Books and Records in the Italian Market, also is the owner of the Platterheads label since 2016. “I started it only for the purpose of releasing Dixy Blood 45s,” he said of the band for which he drums. “ I did release a 45 by Dan Montgomery from Memphis, and my new CD will also be on the label.”
Ankenbrand has a small, mobile unit, and chooses to keep all recordings in the digital format, as it makes it easier to store material. “As long as a copy exists, it can be duplicated. Since I don’t have a large stable of artists, it’s not a problem for me.”’
Ankenbrand suggested that the artist should always own and be responsible for the storage of their original files. This seems obvious, but, is a great suggestion, as most probably place such responsibility aside – this being, you know, rock n’ roll. “Work with people you trust; be open about who is responsible for what. So far, other than Danny, I’m the artist as well as the label, I’d only have myself to blame if something went wrong.”
Ankenbrand’s South Philly neighbor Tom Lax — the owner of the Siltbreeze label since 1988 — has a slightly larger stable of noise artists of which to speak with 170 releases to its name.
Outside of money and size, the job of an independent label owner who must store his company’s wares is made easier (or less complicated) by being a one-more show. “I’m still pretty DIY, though I have a great distributor,” stated Lax. “Storage problems come and go. Everything of Siltbreeze’s is stored in waterproof containers, in a cool, dry climate. It’s all about the pressing run. For me, 300 is the new 1,000.”
Ask Lax about the backing up the masters and demos, so that something terrible like a fire or theft wouldn’t harm them, and he says. “A lot of the masters have been given back. Some I still own. A few HAVE gone missing. There’s-nothing that’s been destroyed that I can recall. Most everything now is digital, so there’s nothing physical about it. I miss that, but that’s how it is.”
And what is his suggestion for anyone getting into the label business/partnership with artists when it comes to storing their treasures?
“DON’T DO IT!,” Lax exclaimed loudly.
The last word on this topic goes to Toby Seay, Drexel’s Department Head of Arts & Entertainment Enterprise, its Professor of classes in-the Music Industry, and the Director of the Drexel Audio Archives, the latter of which holds all of the donation of the Sigma Sound Studios tapes that Sigma owner Joseph Tarsia donated to the University. Since 2007, the Sigma Sound Collection of about 7000 tapes, representing countless artists local (Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin) and international (David Bowie, Elton John), are on multiple recording formats. Most are analog, but there are digital materials as well, all of which is being looked after by Seay his student staff while working with the Drexel’s library system to share some expertise and resources.
That’s a large responsibility taken on by Seay and an additional staff of five students. Outside of money and size, their job of safe keeping is both easier and tougher when it comes to such intimacy of operation. ‘
“As you mention, it can go both ways,” states Seay. “While a small operation has the opportunity keep better track of their assets, it is probably more difficult simply due to a strain on resources — personnel, funding, expertise, etc. To truly archive such material, it must be a priority with properly deployed resources. That takes political will, which is often lacking within the daily routine of running a business.”
These master tapes, DATs and demos within the Drexel Audio Archives are being stored in a climate-controlled space with adequate fire protection. “This is not an insignificant resource and where many organizations fail,” stated Seay. “There are many levels of fire and disaster protection. I wouldn’t say ours is the most extensive, but again, one has to work within available resources.”
Backing up the masters and demos for all audiovisual materials, comes down to digital migration, the best preservation method in Seay’s estimation.
“Not only will the original materials degrade over time, obsolete machinery is necessary for proper playback,” said Seay. “That is a diminishing resource. So, digitization is vital. We store our digital assets on multiple storage systems that are geographically remote from each other. There are guidelines for these procedures (IASA TC-04, TC-05, etc.) and the Drexel Audio Archives adheres to such. There is local quick access, there is cloud remote access, and there is deep archival repository storage.”
Ask Seay where he stands on label to artist (and / or songwriter) transparency — the bane of Universal’s problems with the artists it lied to about the effects of the 2008 fire — and Seay states that this where things get difficult.
“There are many levels of ownership related to sound recordings. In most cases, the label owns the recordings and a publishing company owns the songs,” he said. “It is rare that an artist actually has any copyright claim over the label’s recordings. However, it is easy to be transparent if you have all of your assets under bibliographic control. In other words, do you know what recordings you have and where they are? If so, it is a lot easier to communicate when disasters happen with those parties effected.”
Nothing has been lost or destroyed while in the Drexel Audio Archives’ possession. However, disasters do happen. It is important, in Seay’s mind, to have a plan to minimize damage and how to respond.
Like Ankenbrand, Seay implores all labels to consider the safety of their assets and to keep as many personal assets personal. “It is a cost of doing business and it requires active engagement. I would also suggest that labels look for partners. For instance, a university usually has all the necessary structures to preserve and archive audiovisual materials. If labels could simply give up some restrictions on access for research and/or provide some funding, they might be able to partner with an institution and minimize their costs of preservation. If they try to take care of their assets in-house, they have to remember that archival preservation is a profession. For a label, they can’t simply try to do it themselves or hand it to an audio engineer. They need the services of a trained archivist.”
Just like Watregate, Bridgegate and every other gate, Seay remarked that it was the cover up that killed Universal, and suggested that perhaps, honesty would be the best policy.
“The mess that was the Universal fire was exacerbated by how they tried to cover it up. And, the cover up was done simply because they were not handling the materials with the reverence and resources needed to preserve them. However, this is very complex. Those burned tapes were Universal’s property. They could have tossed them in the dumpster if they wanted to as it was their property. However, record labels deal in assets that are part of cultural heritage. Cultural heritage is often undervalued as it is not direct money. Fans often see this material as belonging to their culture, even though there is no legal ownership there.
“But again, I implore businesses (record labels, film studios, etc.) who deal with cultural heritage property to have a preservation plan and to engage in the archival community for leadership and guidance,” continues Seay. “As president of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives, we have the standards and expertise. It requires political will and resources to take advantage of that and secure one’s assets. If a company is doing their due diligence in trying to preserve their assets as best of their ability within their allocated resources, disasters will not require a cover-up.”