A sonic step closer

Master-tape preservation at the Alexander Turnbull Library


  • Michael Brown Alexander Turnbull Library




master recordings, music archiving, popular music heritage, copyright


The preservation risks surrounding music master tapes—the high-quality sources of most commercial recordings between the 1950s and 1990s—were dramatically highlighted in recent coverage of Universal Music’s 2008 vault fire. Other challenges include storage costs, chemical instability of tape stocks and technological obsolescence of playback equipment, with the industry’s ability to tackle these still unclear. This article examines an emerging solution—donation to public archival institutions—using recent experiences at the Alexander Turnbull Library (part of the National Library of New Zealand) as a case study. Focusing on the master-tape collections of the Viking and Ode record labels, it examines their status as a form of ‘popular music heritage’, practical considerations such as copyright, digitization work, and how this work is leveraged by the labels to reissue legacy recordings. There has been little scholarly study of master tapes and the article also explores their research potential in terms of sound quality, studio production and industry history. Master tapes, the article concludes, hold considerable aesthetic, commercial and historical significance.

Author Biography

Michael Brown, Alexander Turnbull Library

Dr Michael Brown works as Curator, Music at the Alexander Turnbull Library, part of the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa. Areas he has researched over the years include vernacular music, popular music history, and audiovisual archiving. His most recent book publication is the edited collection Searches for Tradition: Essays on New Zealand Music, Past and Present (Victoria University Press, 2017).


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How to Cite

Brown, M. (2021). A sonic step closer: Master-tape preservation at the Alexander Turnbull Library. Popular Music History, 13(3), 273–297. https://doi.org/10.1558/pomh.40992