Archive Music: Preserving a Musical Legacy

Tips for Handling Music Legacies and Collections

If you have or should ever come into control of musical works after someone has passed away, there are essential first steps to take – whether for songs, compositions, or sound recordings:

  • Locate historical documentation and samples of the work(s)
  • Know whether copyright(s) were ever filed, and if so, when. For more on protecting copyrights, please see POBA’s Tips on Reclaiming Music Copyrights
  • Make the crucial determination of whether to focus your efforts on either finding representation to promote and monetize the catalogue of songs or sound recordings or attempting to do so yourself.  If it’s the first option, you may well need to seek the aid of an active publisher, record company or independent consultant.

Here are some basic guidelines to aid you in protecting your collections and preserve the artist’s body of work. Whether you do so for personal or commercial reasons, the steps needed are quite similar, varying a bit depending upon whether you’re concerned with compositions or (master) sound recordings. Here, both are referred to below as “titles.”

With luck, the artist may have already been done all or much of this work, leaving existing files for you to sort through.  You will want to give some thought to how best to organize those materials in whatever way will give you greatest access, security and use for your purposes. But if you weren’t so lucky and find that you may have a “DIY” project facing you regarding a music catalogue, this is one way to approach the project:

  • Create a complete list of titles. Use a system that makes sense to you, such as alphabetical order by title or by author(s), creation date, copyright date, publisher, etc. Whatever system you use should be applied consistently. In order to construct the list, you should look for contracts, licenses, royalty statements and business correspondence to confirm accuracy and for backup.
    • For compositions and songs, check with the Performing Rights Societies (ASCAP, BMI, and/or SESAC) to which the artist or her publisher may have belonged to confirm names of titles and other pertinent information.
    • For recordings, see if you can locate the record company or distributor that initially released the sound recordings and/or videos.  Since there has been so much consolidation in the record industry, make sure to find out their current and historical names to determine who took over from the original company. Now that internet streaming and other digital delivery have become so significant, checking with the Sound Exchange organization may be the most efficient route to see what company, if any, is claiming current control of the title.
  • Search for copyrights, particularly if you are hoping to commercially exploit the title(s).  You can readily search existing copyrights through the US Copyright office database by yourself or through the auspices of one of the longstanding copyright and trademark search companies.
  • Know what you own. For each title you think you own, you should establish the following information by the end of this process
    • the date of creation or copyright
    • the percentage of your artist’s ownership interest
    • the names of any co-writers and/or band members (and whether they are still alive)
    • publishers, record companies or other co-owners
    • whether such entities’ administration interests have expired, were automatically renewed or have reverted to you or others.

By keeping and updating critical dates for copyrights and contractual items, you will be creating a summary catalogue for reference. If and as needed, you can then return to review the actual contracts if you’ve been lucky enough to have found or accessed them from the publisher or record company vaults. If that’s not possible, you will at least have a road map to consider and consolidate what you do know and to serve as a “tickler” file to remind you when decisions need to be made and/or actions should be taken.

Keep in mind that some contracts renew automatically, some rights can be lost if not renewed, and some copyright grants can be reclaimed, so having a summary catalogue with critical dates list is an important and practical tool.

  • Keep at least one sample of each title available and in good shape.   It is advisable to transfer it into digital form for sharing, preservation and storage if that’s not the format in which it was created. This also ensures that your archive is usable even if original tapes and phonograph recordings degrade over time.  If a title lends itself to more than one genre, you might consider having additional versions produced if you intend to commercially promote the work.  Good demos, sometimes with alternative versions geared to different markets or even genders of the singer, can be inexpensively done while capturing the potential excitement and value of a title.
  • Develop a centralized storage location for your information. This can make it readily available to those with whom you may wish to share it, whether for personal or commercial reasons.  There are many ways to do this, including POBA. Using the facilities of POBA can provide you with tools that might otherwise be difficult or expensive to access, aid in organizing the elements of the artists’ legacy, and help in building or maintaining an audience for this creative legacy.

While an artist’s life work is a creative gift, managing an artist’s legacy is also a creative undertaking. Whether out of love for the artist, appreciation of the art itself, or simple duty, building appreciation of an artist’s legacy takes thought, planning and patience. In this respect, POBA can provide real time help in each of those processes and, in the end, truly aid in keeping alive legacies that might otherwise disappear altogether.