Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The ethics of field recording

Ethnomusicology has changed as the world has become more egalitarian. Instead of the white man showing up in a small village, setting up a wax cylinder or microphone, recording some volunteers, and then selling the recording for their own scholarship or profit with little or no attribution, native performers are now getting more credit and monetary rewards for being recorded.

But how do we correct the wrongs that have been done in the past? Well, museums are giving back pieces of art work and historical objects that had been stolen. Sometimes, this is called repatriation (though the Elgin marbles are not going back to Greece anytime soon). Can we do that with recorded music, too?

Well, NPR did a story recently about someone trying this approach, going to a village to give back music recorded 65 years before:


Besides a delightful vignette of villagers singing their version of Jimmie Rodgers the man-eater, this story touches on a limit of this approach of musical repatriation: who has CD players? Not these villagers.

In librarian terms, this is a recording preservation issue—in order to preserve and play back a recording, you need a specific machine, and those machines aren’t as prevalent as the recordings. Case in point: they don’t even make VHS players anymore (in fact, I would bet that there are more 33 1/3 players than VHS players nowadays). CD players will probably die out faster than CDs do (I’m giving them another 30 years). But there, I guess, is a root of the field recorder’s problem—when the recordings were made originally, these villagers were not ready to keep and maintain the recording machine or preserve the recordings; and it looks like they still don’t really have a preservation plan. Does everyone making a field recording need to also teach that culture how to maintain a playback machine and store the recording? It seems a tall, perhaps impossible order in some cases. But even if the culture could keep and preserve the "original" recording, music recordings are inherently a copy, so we can’t really return the object as is the case with physical art.

So, while music repatriation is an interesting idea, and could certainly work in some cases, I think we’ll have to use other approaches to paying people back for music exploitation most of the time. Or at least, when an ethnomusicologist finds a new music-making populace and before they start to record, they should think for a while about ethics and how a recording could best benefit that particular population.

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