The need for safe and secure long-term storage for recordings hasn’t been a pressing concern for nearly as long as that for manuscripts, but several recent events have underscored its importance. In 2008, a fire at a Universal Studios backlot destroyed a significant number of tapes archived by Universal Music Group, including some masters, although the company had secondary copies of many of them. Digital storage presents other issues: Myspace confirmed in 2019 that a server migration led to the loss of up to 50 million uploaded tracks. “That’s the danger of migrating onto a new hard drive or data center every five years,” says Jenkinson. “The data is hard to keep track of, and files get lost or deleted.”
The three major labels — and many independents — already store physical and digitized music files in multiple, geographically separate locations around the world. Sony Music UK says it has a custom-built archive for audio and audiovisual recordings, as well as a library of all its releases, and it stores digital safety copies and duplicate recordings separately. Warner Music Group archives recordings at different locations around the globe. And UMG also keeps its assets and safety copies at different locations, according to a memo that UMG archivist Pat Kraus sent to staff in March 2020.
Both the majors and many independents also store recordings with Iron Mountain Entertainment Services, a subsidiary of a 70-year-old Boston-based firm that houses the original recordings of Frank Sinatra and various other major-label masters in both digital and physical storage facilities throughout North America and Europe.
Elire, a commercial venture group that is typically involved in projects like establishing urban mobility hubs and electric aviation, says its Global Music Vault isn’t intended to compete with these existing facilities, but instead offer an extra level of protection in case the worst should happen. It plans to preserve master-quality digital copies of recordings on purpose-built capsules that won’t require server migrations, and it’s negotiating with potential technology partners, including the Norwegian company Piql, whose PiqlFilm format uses binary coding and high-density QR codes written onto special durable optical film. (Piql, which started out printing digital movies to analog film for Hollywood studios, also runs the Arctic World Archive with the Norwegian state mining company SNSK.)
According to Piql, its migration-free storage medium can last for over 1,000 years and is built to withstand the kind of extreme electromagnetic pulses that could result from a nuclear explosion, which could permanently damage electronic equipment and play havoc with digital files. An extra level of protection will come from Svalbard’s low temperature and dry permafrost conditions — which should also discourage more than a certain amount of foot traffic.
Deciding what music deserves to endure for a millennium is a bit more complicated than picking desert-island discs, but Elire has partnered with the Paris-based International Music Council to form a global committee that will work with national music business groups to select examples of various countries’ “most precious and loved” music, says Alfons Karabuda, a Swedish composer and president of the International Music Council. “This is about safeguarding the future of music in having these archives of the past,” says Karabuda. “It’s not just putting something in a drawer somewhere and keeping it for a thousand years.”
Elire also wants the public to vote on national submissions, although how that will work has yet to be decided. “We don’t want to just protect a certain genre and certain era,” says Jenkinson. “We want the nations and regions of the world to curate what music gets deposited.”
The vault’s first deposits — scheduled for spring 2022 — will focus on preserving Indigenous music. Future phases will concentrate on pop recordings, which can only be copied to the archive with clearance from rights holders. The vault’s organizers are confident that record companies will recognize the value of protecting their master recordings “in the best possible way,” says Karabuda.
Elire intends to make money by charging companies and individuals for deposits to the vault. It also plans to make the vault’s contents accessible to listeners around the world, when it has the permission of rights holders, and share the revenue this generates with creators. (There are also plans in the works for a visitor center near the vault.)
“We don’t want to be another record label, and we don’t want to be another streaming service,” says Jenkinson. “But we do want this music to be accessible and celebrated and give back to the communities that actually own it.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 26, 2021, issue of Billboard.