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How a Single Gift Gave Old Sound Recordings a New Lease on Life

For years, the National Recording Preservation Foundation had the framework to begin its mission to save classic music and sounds  for future generations, but it lacked the funds. A generous donation from a single donor---Jack White, the former frontman of The White Stripes---has changed that.

You might have gotten distracted by the name, but don’t let it fool you: There’s more to Jack White’s donation than meets the eye.

When the former White Stripes frontman and current Third Man Records owner put up $200,000 for the National Recording Preservation Foundation (NRPF) recently, it gave the organization an opportunity to kick-start its efforts to preserve classic wax, shellac, vinyl, and tape recordings for history’s sake. More details:

About the foundation: The NRPF, a public/private collaboration between the Library of Congress and the music industry, was established by Congress in 2000 to help preserve audio for the ages, particularly old recordings but also classic, instantly recognizable sounds (think the NBC chimes). The effort allows for centralized fundraising to help pay for sound preservation. “For commercially produced recordings, the responsibility for preservation lies with corporate rights holders. For orphan and unpublished works with no identifiable rights holder—most of the 46 million recordings held by American libraries, archives, and museums—funding is scarce,” the Library of Congress said in a 2012 proposal outlining recommendations and the plan for the foundation. “To mitigate this situation, all parties interested in historical sound recordings must take a more active role than they have taken to date in identifying resources and developing programs to fund the preservation of our audio heritage.”

Where the funding comes in: White’s donation, which reflects his well-documented love of old recordings, does more than simply give the foundation a little extra cash. It’s essentially seed money to help launch the sound preservation effort. “The donation is very much a game changer,” executive director Gerald Seligman said in a press release [PDF]. “It is our first and therefore provides the welcome opportunity to go from talk about the needs and priorities of audio preservation to concerted action. With this contribution, we can now put up our basic structure, begin enacting the preservation plan—and give out our first grants. We’re committed to doing that right away, and certainly within the coming months.”

How the foundation plans to use it: The foundation’s efforts will help transfer a wide variety of sound recordings from analog to digital media—and just in time, too, because many aren’t long for this world, according to the NRPF. “It is a crucial task at hand, working to identify collections of recordings that are at risk, that are in need of archival resources, that are in need of a home,” said NRPF Chairman John Simson. And with donations such as White’s, the foundation can do that independently. “Preserving our greatest recordings is both necessary to our identity and important for future generations as a source of inspiration and cultural knowledge,” said board member Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum.

White, whose 2012 solo album Blunderbuss topped the charts, will take a place on the NRPF board of directors alongside well-known figures in the music industry such as Sub Pop Records cofounder Jonathan Poneman and Oscar-winning producer and songwriter T-Bone Burnett.

Garage rocker Jack White, best known for The White Stripes, is well-known for his love of old recording styles. (photo by dwhartwig/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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