What Might Happen To Your Music After You Die (and What You Can Do About It)

Criteria for choosing an archival institution:

Since the current and upcoming programs of the American Composers Alliance, the American Music Center, the Library of Congress, and The New York Public Library as well as a proposed program by the Electronic Music Foundation are really not in competition with one another, and since none are exclusive (except insofar as ACA acts as a publisher), my primary advice would be to not limit oneself to any single program. On the contrary one would be well advised to embark on relationships with as many as feasible. Summing up a consensus among several of the composers who replied to my inquiry, John Duesenberry writes that, “I would be more interested in having my recordings scattered – like ashes, if you will – to as many locations anywhere in the world as will accept them, including any sort of library, musical institution or archive, broadcast facility, and of course the Web. I believe this increases the probability (already very low) that the work will survive.”

Valuable as this advice is, it is nonetheless important to establish a relationship with one primary archival source to store original documents, letters, and musical materials. Often the very best source will be the local university where the composer has taught, or the local community where she/he has lived and worked. In choosing a source, some questions might be properly asked:

  1. Does the primary archival repository have expert staff and an ongoing program of archival support of artists?

    (I am reminded of one recent unfortunate incident where an old friend, a composer who taught music his whole life at a small college, recently died. His wife sought to place his rather extensive manuscripts, letters and documents in an archive. Finally, due to his stature at the local college (a recital hall was named after him) the local college library agreed to archive and preserve all of his materials. Unfortunately, these materials are now sitting in a darkened room, uncatalogued and inaccessible, due to the lack of an ongoing archival program at the college.)

  2. Does the mission of the institution match the characteristics of the materials to be deposited?
  3. Does the institution have a history of long-term financial stability? How long has it been in business? What is its history?
  4. Does the institution draw on financial support relationships outside its own narrow focus? Is it associated with a larger institutional entity that can maintain stability (as, for example, the Smithsonian Institution or the Library of Congress)?
  5. If it is not immediately perceived to exist as part of a larger library, government agency, or museum as noted above, then as a private not-for-profit foundation does it have an ongoing history of securing financing from a variety of foundation and/or government support?
  6. Is it candid about divulging its financial and organizational records to prospective participants?
  7. Does it have sufficient staff to carry on its mission? Has there been significant recent staff turnover?

Lastly, before choosing one or more of the organizations’ services, it would be very well advised to check with some of their current members (preferably those who are still alive!) to determine how efficiently their services have been operating. Of course, a potential custodial/archival institution may very well be an excellent one and not meet all the above criteria. As always, it is the balance that counts.

Helpful hints at approaching a primary source for archival repository:

Dartmouth College has an excellent ongoing program of archival repository for local composers and faculty, and may serve as a model of how one can approach her/his own local institution. I am indebted to Philip N. Cronenwett, Dartmouth curator of manuscripts and special collections, for the following information and advice, from which I quote:

“We are very interested in the entire corpus of the work of a composer, so we would want to have all that you mention above (scores, audio tapes, videotapes, letters, other documents, photographs, contracts, etc.). I think it is very important to be as complete as possible in the acquisition. It may be bulky and hard to handle, but we don’t know now what will be important in 50 years.”

As to preferred formats, Mr. Cronenwett writes, “This would depend on the stability of the medium. If the original is unstable, we would give serious consideration to reformatting to stabilize. Originals are always preferable, but not always possible.”

I asked, “Do you prefer to work with the living composer, or with her estate after death?”

His reply, “The facetious response is that it depends on the personality of the composer. In reality, it is invariably better to work with the creator of the material as she or he can answer questions and help flesh out the collection (with an oral history, for example). After the composer’s death, it means working with someone who knows less about the material.”

I then asked if Dartmouth had any plans to make any of this material available over the

Web, either a catalog or the actual materials. He replied, “Our catalog is Web-based so it can be used now on the Internet. We also will be mounting finding aids, the detailed listings of the collections, this spring. We do not have plans at the moment to mount content on the Web. We [provide research assistance] by mail, in person, by phone, by fax, and by e-mail.”

Finally, I asked what advice he would give a local composer at his university or in his community on how to approach an archivist? He emphatically replied to “Call the archivist NOW and make arrangements to talk. Have the archivist look at the material you have NOW. In some cases, creators of material store materials improperly and guarantee early degradation. Early discussions can be very helpful for both the creator of papers and the archivist.”

Charles Eubanks, librarian from the NYPL Music Division adds, “Each collection is different, but normally we welcome help from donors in organizing collections. We want to receive a collection as the creator left it.”

Another important factor is cost. Historically, when an individual or foundation donates a complex set of materials to an archive, a financial stipend often accompanies it, recognizing the costs and difficulties of the task. I can certainly attest that, all other factors being equal, one will receive better treatment (one archivist tells me that the material will tend to go higher in the pile of individuals to be serviced) if there is a financial element to the gift dedicated to the cost of processing and continuing the maintenance of the materials. I would strongly urge this, either while alive or posthumously in a will.

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) posts an excellent guide to the broader questions and considerations of archival repository entitled “A Guide to Donating your Personal or Family Papers to a Repository.” It is also available in brochure form from the SAA. Excerpts are quoted below, but by all means read the full text on the Web, or request the brochure:

“Potential donors and repository representatives should review the materials being offered for donation and discuss repository policies and procedures for the care and use of donated materials. If both parties agree that the repository is an appropriate place for preservation of the materials, they complete and sign a deed of gift… The deed of gift is a formal, legal, agreement that transfers ownership of, and legal rights in, the materials to be donated.”

The typical deed of gift identifies the donor, transfers legal ownership of the materials to the repository, establishes provisions for their use, specifies ownership of intellectual property rights in the materials, and indicates what the repository should do with unwanted materials.

The donor formally agrees to transfer legal ownership and physical custody of the materials, including future donations, to the repository. The deed will specify a point in time (usually upon signing the deed or upon physical transfer of the material to the repository) when the materials become the legal property of the repository. It will manage and care for them, employing the best professional judgment of its staff and according to accepted professional standards and its mission and objectives. Repositories prefer to accept materials through transfer of ownership. The cost of storing, preserving, and making collections available for research is so high that repositories generally can only afford to do so for materials they own. As the professional staff of the repository reviews the materials you donated, there may be reason to reformat some or all of them. Long-term preservation of fragile materials, for instance, is a primary reason for microfilming or copying papers for use by researchers.

An essential mission of repositories is to make their collections open and available for research use. They are able to do this because most donors do not limit access to the materials they donate.

Ownership of intellectual property rights (primarily copyright, but including trademarks and patent rights) may also be legally transferred by the deed of gift. Copyright generally belongs to the creator of writings or other original material (such as photographs and music). Donors are encouraged to transfer all rights they possess in and to the materials donated to the repository; this assists researchers in their scholarship by making it easier to quote from documents. If you wish to retain all or a portion of the intellectual property rights you own, you may include such a provision in the deed of gift, but you and the representative should agree upon a date after which the rights will be transferred to the repository. You are not able to transfer ownership of rights to the works of others found in the materials you donate. These works might include such items as letters written to you by others.

From What Might Happen To Your Music After You Die and What You Can Do About It
by Barton McLean
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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