When trying to deal with the collection, preservation and display of popular music culture(s), and ultimately representing groups or regions, we are often faced with a conundrum. ‘Traditional’, ‘authorised’, ‘institutional’ and ‘mainstream’ heritage sites are being hampered by many issues, including advances in technology, the tendency to offer a ‘representative’ or ‘canonized’ collection, budgetary cuts and human resources. It feels like we’re in an age of more music being produced than ever before, but on formats which hamper the act of being able to archive it. The anxiety caused by the potential loss or forgetting of history is as applicable to music as any other area of life.
In a response to these challenges, and the ultimate shortfall of heritage sites in sufficiently offering archiving and access to communities, there has been a proliferation in community archiving. Physical archive sites, based on ‘DIY’ cultures, rather than ‘authorised’ ones (Baker and Collins, 2015, p2) and online ‘community’ sites, rather than ‘institutional’ ones are becoming more widespread. Looking at the challenges faced for these community sites, and indeed more ‘prestigious’ heritage institutions, in regard to sustainability, preserving the cultural materials and the cultural meaning they convey and ultimately in positioning themselves as relevant for the future, present and past is also a conundrum. Heritage and the archiving of it is no longer a clear cut affair. How do we tackle these challenges? Does it help to look at examples of physical and online popular music archiving in Birmingham?
City of Colours – ‘Our Musical Roots’ project
In my last blog post, I discussed City of Colours as an example of a multi-media, interactive annual festival taking place in Birmingham. As well as celebrating street art and local music culture, they have expanded this year to include a project and exhibition entitled, Our Musical Roots, an exploration into the dub and reggae musical heritage of Birmingham. Run by City of Colours, St. Basil’s Youth Centre and Jez Collins, its aim is to, “try and increase awareness of Birmingham’s Musical Heritage”, following an engagement project which revealed 89% of under 16s “could not name a single Birmingham artist”. This is not only an archiving exercise but a project. The physical archiving of “reimagined album artwork (see image below), vinyl collages, a lyrical installation and a timeline of Birmingham’s musical heritage”, will be showcased across the city in various venues on certain dates, and represents a clear development in non-traditional approaches. The nods to the past are obvious, with the image below representing The Beat’s seminal eighties tune, but the project also involved nods to the present, with artists like Lady Sanity, a big hit at this year’s Glastonbury festival also getting an inclusion. The need for cultural heritage to be passed on to the next generation to preserve its future is also evident. One issue arising is the lack of a permanent space and ongoing volunteers or a committee to house or ‘home’ this collection and the use of a ‘representative’ and summarised approach, rather than a comprehensive one. The permanence and materiality of the project seem secondary to the cultural action of curating, educating and expressing, though, and in that sense, this seems like a worthy and innovative archiving endeavour.
The West Midlands Pilot Project
The Pilot Project is an example of the epic challenge of sustainability faced by curators and enthusiasts, even when a bonafide and prestigious institution like The British Library get on board. Set up by a passionate advocate of Birmingham music, Robin Valk, the Pilot Project aimed to preserve the swathe of mp3s being produced in Birmingham into the British Library for posterity. The need for this is the digital age, which has beckoned a decline in physical sonic archives, as well as a disregard for the ‘charts’ and mainstream, as a consequence of the changing music industry. After finding a set of curators across the West Midlands involved with many genres from the well-known to the more obscure, the project’s aims were to provide a website that collected, showcased and preserved the work of artists across the region. The site was to be updated annually and offered the chance for artists and fans to fill in any gaps and be accessible all in one place – online.
Unfortunately, the sustainability was hindered not by the intentions and energy of the founder and curators but by the British Library who, after the first pilot and the chance to make the project nationwide, declined to fund it for a second year, or indeed again.
Both of these examples show the ‘spectrum’, ‘continuum’, ‘levels of intentionality and professionalism’ and the challenges of sustainability outlined by Baker and Collins (2015). The defining categories of archiving are fluid and all challenged by financial, spatial and human resources. Resources in general are the biggest threat to archiving our culture successfully. Relationship-building between community enthusiasts and professional archivists can prove fruitful, but not always possible. I cannot answer the predicament and conundrum of how to get round these challenges, but do strongly feel that involving students (of all ages) and volunteers (look at the difference they make to the National Trust!) might be one long-term solution, though I personally feel expert guidance and people who have spent their lives in the ‘business’ should not be disregarded by community archivists. The combination of the two and a new platform / media by which such memories can be displayed and harnessed would be great. Academics, scholars and community leaders may be crucial in getting this mobilised, but many hands make light work and the ‘Do-It-Together’ mentality may be our best hope in preserving our musical heritage.