Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The DIY enterprise and issues of sustainability

The fragility of DIY institutions was highlighted for me today following some correspondence with a DIY archivist in the UK. I was saddened to learn that the British Archive of Country Music (BACM) could possibly close its doors if someone isn’t willing to take on this collection of over 500,000 recordings and associated country music artefacts. If this doesn’t happen, the archivist foresees that the collection may very well end up in a tip.

The BACM was founded in the late 1980s by country music enthusiast David Barnes. A non-profit organisation, the archive is currently housed in purpose built facilities near Dover, England, and in addition to its large collection of music and related ephemera the BACM also produces CDs of rare or overlooked tracks/artists from the 1920s-1950s. This is a love-filled endeavour, as the website explains: “All the original tracks are carefully and sympathetically 'cleaned' by a professional musician who knows and loves the music”.

If the archivist’s predictions are correct, and in the near future the collection is discarded as rubbish, then that would be a terrible tragedy. As a forthcoming chapter co-authored with Alison Huber outlines (see Baker & Huber, forthcoming), DIY archives often begin their life with people bringing collections together as a way to save material from ending up on the garbage heap. For example, as a founder of the Victorian Jazz Archive in Australia explained:
“...one of the primary thrusts we had [in starting the VJA was] that we would stop stuff going to the tip, because there were some horrific stories before we formed about family carting enormous numbers of 78s and dumping them in the tip...” (founding member, VJA, 27 June 2012)
Indeed, similar anxieties are behind the founding of the BACM. As the website states:
“Many people spend their entire lives researching the various labels and artists only to find at the end that someone with no interest in what they have achieved throws it all away. This must not happen! All their work must be preserved. Magazines, fanzines, discographies, biographies, and photographs must be stored under one roof.”
For a collection like that of the British Archive of Country Music to find its way to the tip after years of hard work spent by the archivist preserving, cataloguing, and digitising material would raise questions about the long-term sustainability of DIY enterprises --- the very concerns already raised by those critics who believe that the collection and preservation of popular music’s material heritage is best undertaken by fully trained professionals in properly funded national/official institutions.

In a forthcoming article in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, Alison Huber and I present an emerging typology of DIY institutions and argue that DIY places of popular music preservation are the ‘real home’ for popular music’s material past because of the specific ways these archives and museums operate on cultural, social and affective dimensions. We note that:

“What we have found during our research to date are groups of dedicated people who are very serious about making certain that a record of popular music’s past is preserved for the future. These people are serious because they are worried about the fate of the vast array of material objects related to that history, and are anxious about them being lost if there is no place for them to go once their owners are no longer able to care for them. In this task, many of these volunteers see themselves as custodians of popular music’s heritage. This concern to make a dedicated space for a materialised cultural memory of popular music has led these individuals and collectives to start their own institutions, and keep them operating in spite of difficulties with finding funding, appropriate premises for conservation, and enough volunteer hands to help the cause.” (Baker & Huber, forthcoming)

What the case of the BACM reveals is that the sustainability of DIY institutions isn’t guaranteed unless there is someone willing to take on the responsibilities of running these places once the original founder(s) finds it necessary to pass on the baton of custodianship. It also illustrates that the difficult material circumstances under which DIY institutions exist can wear down even the most dedicated enthusiast.
There are no doubt other DIY Institutions in a similar situation to that which the BACM currently finds itself. My research aims to document the value of places like the BACM in popular music heritage management, but sadly this may come too late for some DIY archives and museums that are really struggling to continue their preservation efforts. It is perhaps too much to hope that in the meantime funding streams will be made available that recognise the potentialities of DIY forms of institutionalised popular music preservation that run parallel to the national collecting projects of ‘official’ cultural institutions.

To read more about the BACM, see Dave Laing’s ‘Resource notes’ in the journal Popular Music History, 2011, 6(3).