What happens to my music if I am no longer here to sing it?
It’s a question for children’s musicians of all ages. We might sing to educate, to promote social justice, or simply to give people a moment of joy, but underneath is the hope that people will take our music—the best part of us—with them afterwards. We wish for our music to be cared for and sung often, to continue into the future as a part of the lives of others. And if we are lucky, our music will find some combination of viral popularity, commercial backing, social relevance, and organizational support that allows it to be cared for and sung long after we are no longer around to do so ourselves.
An archive is one source of long-term support to consider for your music. At first glance, donating your work to an archive is not an attractive option for a musician. How can music live when it is in a box in the basement of a library somewhere? How would anyone even know that it is there? These are good questions, and with the advent of the Internet, the answers are more attractive than they have been in the past. No longer must an archive sleep in a guarded tower, waiting for a magical heroine to kiss it back to life. By digitizing and publishing its holdings online, it is possible today for an archive to keep material safely stored in a box and simultaneously make it accessible to the entire world.
As with so much about the Internet, it’s an ongoing process to figure out the implications of online archives and how to make them work for each of us.
Archiving is Political
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
— William Faulkner
Archives are the collective memories that we use to tell stories about ourselves. Their value unfolds in the present, as the story is being told. Archives have always been about today and have always been political in nature.
Every archive exists because someone has reason and money to preserve its contents. Archives are valuable to centers of cultural power, as their contents—and the resources spent to conserve them—convey the authority and legitimacy of the institution that sponsors them. People who possess archives have the power to tell their story. The Vatican Archives have been at the core of the Catholic church for centuries. Prestigious universities are proud of the academic significance of their archives. Our own government uses its Smithsonian Archives to convince us of its validity by building museums that reflect images of our country back onto us.
Mirroring our culture, archives today are challenged by questions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Who gets to say what is worth saving? Who will pay for the archive to hold the material in their collections? How will memories that are not in physical or electronic form, particularly those from oral traditions, be preserved?
Archives are also being changed by the new ability to digitize and publish holdings on the Internet. Online, an archive’s holdings become broadly accessible, allowing them to live and participate directly in contemporary culture. This changes the relationships between the archive, its sponsors, and the rest of us. Instead of institutional experts interpreting history for the community, the community can see the originals and collaborate to tell its own story. This benefits the archives, helping them gain relevance and support from a broader community. And it benefits those who contribute to an archive, as donors receive social recognition and institutional stability beyond what they can achieve on their own.
And so, archiving is a very activist thing to do.
One activist organization with an archival focus is the LGBTQ Religious Archives Network (LGBTQ-RAN). Founded at a time when very few archives would accept material that was both Queer and religious in nature, LGBTQ-RAN’s primary mission is to encourage the archival preservation of LGBTQ religious history. But by publishing its efforts online, LGBTQ-RAN can go further and give visibility to a social movement that exists in the cracks between better-established histories. Visitors to the website can find biographical sketches, oral histories, online exhibits, teaching resources, and a catalog of archival collections from or about LGBTQ+ religious organizations and activists—most of which are held in public archives and are open to everyone.
In certain respects, the Internet can feel more permanent than it is. Streaming services may come and go, but your favorite movies and music are always there (or about to return). Casual comments made online may be forgotten at the end of the day, yet when people in the public eye are chastised for comments made years ago, social media appears to have always been there, remembering everything. This sense of permanence is an illusion. Online content is very fragile, always in danger of disappearing at a moment’s notice. Social media, streaming services, the press—these are economically driven companies that at any moment may decide it is no longer in their interest to keep you online.
A website is the only place online where you have control of the scope and longevity of your work. On your website you are free to present the heart of your work; to show who you are as an artist, educator, or activist; and to give a complete picture of your life’s work—interviews you have done, articles written about you, the story behind your songs. You have the choice of publishing your work directly on your website or using your website to tell people where your work can be found. And you can keep your website online for as long as you wish.
Sarah Pirtle’s website, Hope Sings, is an example of a personal website aimed at the future. Her songs of inspiration are “freely offered . . . for you to listen to, download, and use.”
The Internet Archive
Looking further into the future, another advantage of a website is that it can be placed into an online archive, where it will be both “kept safe in a box” and available online, continuing to inform people about you and your work. Not only is it easy to see the contents of an online archive, it is straightforward to contribute to one.
The Internet Archive began as a project to create an archive of the entire web and has since expanded into a full digital library. Its Wayback Machine, named after the device on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, stores a history of nearly 550 billion web pages now or formerly available on the Internet. The Internet Archive operates “crawler” programs that search the web for new websites and encourages the public to submit their own as well. If you have ever posted something on the web, there is a chance that the Wayback Machine has a copy of it in its archive.
For fun and a bit of an “oh my!” check out CMN’s home page as archived by the Wayback Machine on October 17, 2000. More recent versions of Pass It On! and CMN’s Song Library are also included in the Wayback Machine archive.
In addition to web pages, the Internet Archive collects other types of digital files. Archives of audio, video, and paper publications are common. The process is straightforward: create an account, give a name to your collection, and upload. It is free to the public (but you should donate).
As a library, the Internet Archive makes its contents available online through copyright law’s fair use doctrine. It is best for material that is either in the public domain or meant to be openly available online.
People who do not wish to have their work freely available on the Internet might consider donating a physical copy (such as a CD or hard drive) to a traditional archive instead. Donating copyrighted material to an archive does not in itself transfer any rights or ownership to the archive. Existing rights and ownerships continue to apply.
For those who wish to make their work visible online, but retain ownership of it, one option is to grant the archive a license that restricts the archive according to your wishes. Publication might be limited to the archive’s website, for example, or not allowed until a future time. It is good to think through and execute such agreements at the time of the donation, to clarify and extend the rights given along with the donation.
The question of who owns and benefits from your work after you are gone is a difficult, complicated one. CMN’s Legacy Affinity Group is a good resource for people who wish to explore the subject further.
The song you wrote and sang today is a song to sing again.
Archives can help keep your song cared for and sung.
Put yourself and your work on the Internet (in all the ways appropriate for you) and see that it gets into an online archive. People will find your music and its message there.