Library of Congress Launches 'National Jukebox'

May 10, 2011

The National Jukebox is spinning tunes – and you don't have to drop any coin to get it to play. Today the Library of Congress and Sony Music Entertainment announced the launch of what's being billed as "the largest collection of historical recordings ever made publicly available online."

The new website provides access to more than 10-thousand historical recordings for free on a streaming-only basis – no downloads. It covers the first quarter of the twentieth century and includes music, poetry, political speeches and other spoken word recordings. Right now, it only includes recordings made by the Victor Talking Machine Company, which Sony controls. The project is also a collaboration with the University of California, Santa Barbara – and its Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Records – which is helping to create a searchable database for every recording in the National Jukebox.

Click on "Browse All Recordings" and you can find albums by Title, Artist, Genre, Place (where the audio was recorded) or Date Range. A search of "1901" (the earliest recordings in the Jukebox) could lead you to the Haydn Quartet singing, "The Owl and the Pussycat," from September of that year.

A search of Target Audience (remember that, in those days, companies recorded music to be sold to a wide range of niche audiences – long before the Internet – when immigrants from all over the world were eager for any connections they could find to their homelands) leads to a long list that includes Croatian, Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish (Venezuela), or French-Canadian; Educational. Click on that last category and you can check out, "Savez-vous planter les choux?" by Eva Gauthier from June of 1918.

There is more well-known stuff: the first recording of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra's "Rhapsody in Blue," with composer George Gershwin at the piano, Parts 1 & 2, from 1924; Woodrow Wilson's speech on labor from September 24, 1912; Theodore Roosevelt's speech on the farmer and the businessman from that same month and year; and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's 1917 recording of, "Livery Stable Blues," considered to be the "first jazz recording ever released."

There is also an interactive edition of the original 1919 text to The Victrola Book of the Opera, which describes more than 110 operas.

(Over at Deceptive Cadence, NPR Music's classical blog, Anastasia Tsioulcas, who has spent some time in the Victor archives, has a look at what made it into the Jukebox and what got left out.)

In the press release announcing the launch of the National Jukebox, Gene DeAnna – the head of the Library's Recorded Sound Section, says:

"This represents a strong step in the Library's efforts to return out-of-circulation recordings to public access. Sony Music's commitment to making its recordings more accessible is unprecedented. We will seek additional donors and contributors in an effort to develop the most comprehensive website of historic sound recordings and related interpretive content."

So now it's time for other labels and donors to step up to the plate – and for Sony to broaden its contribution – to make this a true National jukebox.

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It's called the National Jukebox. We're talking about music and sound recorded at the beginning of the 20th century - 10,000 records worth -that you can now access on the Internet. The effort was launched yesterday by the Library of Congress and Sony Music Entertainment.

NPR's Tom Cole reports on what's being billed as the largest collection of historical recordings ever made publicly available online.

TOM COLE: The recordings in the National Jukebox date from the first quarter of the 20th century, a time, says Patrick Loughney, chief of the Library of Congress' Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, when this country's entertainment landscape was changing.

Mr. PATRICK LOUGHNEY (Director, Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, Library of Congress): Before the advent of recordings, people had to go to vaudeville and variety theaters to see this kind of entertainment, and the recording industry captured that history before it passed from the America scene.

COLE: Loughney points to the widespread popularity of opera and the way its melodies were embraced by all kinds of musicians like the Six Brown Brothers saxophone ensemble playing "Rigoletto Quartet" in 1916.

(Soundbite of music, "Rigoletto Quartet")

COLE: This recording and the more than 10,000 others are available for streaming free at the library's jukebox website. The project began about seven years ago at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which was working on its own archival effort to document all of the available information on all of the recordings made and released by the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1900 and 1950. The first half of that catalog now makes up the National Jukebox.

But David Seubert, curator of the Performing Arts Collection at UCSB, says there was a problem.

Mr. DAVID SEUBERT (Curator, Performing Arts Collection, UCSB): The biggest frustration now is that you go to our website, which is just a discography, and you're like, well, I want to hear that recording.

COLE: And that's where the library came in.

Mr. SEUBERT: The Library of Congress really, you know, was essential to this because they have the muscle to work with Sony to get a license to stream them online.

COLE: After a series of mergers, Sony Music Entertainment now controls all of the rights to the Victor recordings, says the library's Patrick Loughney.

Mr. LOUGHNEY: All of these recordings are made available to the library on a license basis, a free license, to make these recordings available through the library's website, but Sony Music retains all the rights to these recordings, otherwise.

COLE: So Sony controls the rights to the first recording of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra's "Rhapsody in Blue" with composer George Gershwin at the piano.

(Soundbite of music, "Rhapsody in Blue")

COLE: Recordings are searchable through the database created for the library by the University of California, Santa Barbara's Victor Project, and the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded just about everything for commercial release. It made money on what used to be called ethnic recordings, music and spoken word intended for a wide variety of recent immigrants, and it sold campaign speeches by presidential candidates like Theodore Roosevelt, says UCSB's David Seubert.

Mr. SEUBERT: This was pre-radio. This was pre-television. You know, Roosevelt and the candidates, they released a whole series of records then. You know, you can get their position.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

President THEODORE ROOSEVELT: The welfare of our people is vitally and intimately concerned with the welfare of the farmer.

COLE: Getting all of this material online was not easy. Forget about the logistics of the database and digitizing the audio, sound recordings made before 1972 are covered by a chaotic collection of state, not federal, copyright laws.

Again, UCSB's David Seubert.

Mr. SEUBERT: The digital revolution in other areas has already happened. You know, with photographs, we already have huge troves of photographs online. With books, Google Books has put millions of books online. That really hasn't happened with these early sound recordings, and that's because of copyright law. If they were in another media, they would have already been in the public domain, and we would have been able to digitize them and put them online.

COLE: And changing that will be even harder than launching the National Jukebox. It will require an act of Congress.

Tom Cole, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.