A number of BCMCR researchers presented papers at
the University of Northampton on 6-7 June at a conference called:

POP-LIFE: THE VALUE OF POPULAR MUSIC IN THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY.

One particular panel was organised by Jez Collins in conjunction with Dr Sarah Baker of Griffith University under the following title: ‘“A pile of my history, found in my parents attic”: The everyday histories and archives of popular music heritage’. The panel was organised under the following rationale:

Around the world, a large number of collaborative, participatory heritage practices are emerging in recognition of the pressing need to archive, preserve, celebrate and share the material remnants of popular music so as to safeguard the national and local histories of this cultural form. New popular music histories are developing in online and physical community-based sites of archival practice. Created, curated, and populated by public history makers and activist archivists, these sites, we argue, challenge the traditional gatekeepers and ‘authorised’ sites of popular music heritage, as well as dominant popular music historiographies. The everyday ephemera of popular musics material culture, ranging from photographs, ticket stubs and flyers to recorded media, instruments and costumes, are increasingly being captured, archived, shared and exhibited in do-it-yourself (DIY) archives and museums in physical spaces that tend to be un(der)-funded, enthusiast-led and volunteer-run and by activist archivists in the digital environment. Such practices, and the communities that form around them, are ‘cultural frames for recollection’ that ‘do not simply invoke but actually help construct collective memory’ (van Dijck, 2006) and they therefore raise some interesting questions about the value of popular music and our complex relationships with it in the twenty first century as well as questions about the value of the music archive, of history and heritage.

Of the three papers, the first concerned ‘Sustaining Popular Music’s Material Culture’ and was given by Collins and Baker. Here is the abstract for that paper:

The proliferation of sites dedicated to the preservation of popular music’s histories in physical and online environments points to the value of popular music in the everyday lives of individuals and communities (Baker & Huber 2013, Collins & Long forthcoming). In developing a typology of this activity we have come to categorise these sites in a way that indicates distinct types of practice: Physical – Authorised, Physical – Do-It-Yourself, Online – Institution and Online – Community. Whilst approaches and practices differ across the range of sites we are studying all have a common issue at the heart of popular music archiving – sustainability.

In this paper our interest is in do-it-yourself and online communities of popular music preservation and their approach to, and understanding of, sustainable archiving. We examine this firstly from the perspective of volunteers running physical community archives in which the struggle for sustainability is on two fronts: what happens to these music archives if there is no-one to take over once the founding members can no longer do the work; and how do you get younger musicians to deposit items into an archive which they don’t yet see as relevant. We then move on to discuss sustainability in digital archives namely: what happens to content uploaded by activist archivists in online community music archives which are forcibly closed down because of IP infringement or posted to sites such as You Tube and Facebook who, as Garde-Hanson (2009) has argued, may seek to exploit such content for financial or ideological gain? Secondly, such is the rapid change in new technologies, are current digital archiving formats in danger of becoming obsolete in the near to mid-term, placing in danger huge amounts of the material culture of popular music’s past?

A second paper provided a case study of one popular music archive given by Dr. Lisa Busby (Goldsmiths, University of London and Editions of You). Entitled ‘Editions of You: A DIY archive of DIY practice’

Editions of You celebrates, promotes and showcases self-publishing and self-releasing musicians, and editions and releases they create. With a focus on unusual or obsolete formats, handmade sleeves and packaging, bespoke design, and limited editions the project is multi-faceted – organising performances, talks, workshops, and exhibitions; fundraising to support independent releases; running a distro to provide a wider network of dissemination; and crucially archiving as many physical editions as is feasible.

In considering Editions of You, the paper will touch upon several broader questions around popular music archiving. This archive is necessarily non-comprehensive, collecting the artefacts of short-lived, small-scale modes of creation which occur on a massive canvas. Its content is shaped by the limited field of the archivist’s awareness and her predispositions, and by the wide ranging practices of donating artists. How do these limitations affect the value of the archive and the work it collects?

It exists within a changing cultural landscape, where scenes come and go, expand and fade, and as it has become easier to locate these pockets of creativity using the internet, records of them have simultaneously become more transient and unreliable. Despite remaining a ‘snapshot’, is the physical archive becoming increasingly important as the only concrete and historically reliable record of these activities?

The heritage framework of the music industry could never include this work, is not equipped to acknowledge its existence. As this work’s cultural significance becomes unquestionable in the post-digital industry landscape, a new model for recording and understanding it is required. The physical archive is part of the solution, but questions remain as to how we value and codify work that is intended to sit outside of the cultural systems that exist for that purpose, and furthermore how physical and digital archiving and dissemination can work in productive symbiosis.

Lisa Busby's Archive

Lisa Busby’s Archive

I gave the final paper, asking ‘Really saying something?’: What do we talk about when we talk about popular music heritage?

The questions posed in the title of this paper are a means of pondering a number of issues arising out of the efflorescence of projects devoted to memorializing popular music and its associated cultures. In particular, these questions relate to academic responses to making sense of these projects as evidenced in the published work of speakers on this panel, including this one.

What kind of heritage – what kind of histories – are constructed by popular music collectors in museums and in non-institutional spaces, on and offline? How useful is it to describe this kind of activity in relation to ideas of mainstream and margin? What does it mean to describe popular collecting activities in relation to amateur and professional in relation to the idea of the Archive at all? For instance, how do those engaging in these practices describe them and what is that they do when they ‘do’ heritage?

This approach to problematizing popular preservation work is not simply a rhetorical manoeuver to aid an argument aiming to reaffirm the democratic value of everyday practice. Ultimately, what kind of ideas about music itself do these practices reveal? In what sense is music at the centre of such projects at all? What values and approaches to the validation of popular culture does everyday collecting, preservation and display present? Ultimately, in assessing the prodigiousness of the practices prompting the work of this panel we might, after Miles Davis, ask provocatively: ‘So what?’

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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