Interview: Mickey Clark, Blacklisted Collector of 78rpm Classics
Paul Whiteman, 2nd from right, and His Orchestra
A friend recently asked me where I got new music recommendations from, and without missing a beat I responded: “YouTube”! Thanks to the exhaustive efforts of uploaders like jazzhole13, PolidoNobre and240252 (to name just a few), the site has become the ultimate collectivist campfire for finding, sharing and discussing classic tunes.
Until last year, however, my absolute favorite uploader went by the handle of “MickeyClark69”. He hosted a massive collection of 78rpm jazz “videos” on his page, with special emphases on the 1920s and 30s: Bix Beiderbecke, Scrappy Lambert, Helen Kane, Paul Whiteman, Russ Columbo, Amelita Galli-Curci, and literally hundreds of others. It was both history porn and ear candy, thrilling for the ears as well as the soul, with that ineffable sense of discovering something “new”. But as is often the case, Mickey’s channel was shut down last year due to a act of algorithmically-interpreted copyright infringement. The good news is that Mickey wasn’t the only archivist uploading old 78s; the bad is, he won’t be coming back anytime soon.
But let’s get back to the physical world for a moment: Mickey Clark is a soft-spoken Canadian who works from home. Born in 1954, he began collecting records at the age of 8. He developed a custom system of making hi-def re-recordings of old 78s by recording them at 33 rpms and correcting the speed digitally, and eventually began uploading the final products online, as well as curating and selling compendium CDs. (Learn a thing or two, and maybe even consider buying one, at his website.) Talking to Mickey is a master class in home electronics as well as in jazz history. Today, he has a staggering estimate of 6-8,000 records in his collection – but as you’ll read, he used to have more.
PS: “rpm” stands for “revolutions per minute”.
Mickey Clark: My dad is a renaissance man, and, well, we’re both kinda renaissance men. And that’s the reason I do what I do, because I always like to mix it up… it involves electronics, it involves broken gramophone springs, it involves refinishing cabinets, it involves knowledge of music – classical, jazz… If I’m tired of doing liner notes, I’ll do some recording. If I’m tired of recording, I’ll find stuff to fix.
In 2006, Mickey’s storage unit – in the back offices of an art gallery in downtown Penticton, BC – was nearly blown sky-high due to a leaked gas meter in the parking lot, bumped by a motorist. There was one fire in the back, and then days later, another was begun by something smoldering, which spread to his area. He estimates the damage at 2/3rds of his collection, a loss which sparked his drive to digitize his library:
MC: I was at the shop until around 7:30 on a Thursday evening. Got home around 9:30; a friend comes banging on the door, saying, “The shop’s on fire,” so we just went and watched the window blow out of the art gallery…. There was a jet of fire going about 60 feet in the air because the automatic system didn’t turn the gas off. I didn’t even have access during that time. My computer had been underwater (from the emergency sprinklers), and a friend very kindly got the data from my hard drive, which was all these sounds I’d been archiving. They did that without any charge to me.
After that experience, I decided that it was just too much responsibility for me to try and care for the culture of so much. And to have lost so much. I had thousands of hours of master recordings on DVD; just, mono .wav files, and I personally stored ‘em up near the ceiling, and that’s where they melted. So uh, I had about 300 Light-Up-And-Listen Radio Club shows, with Tony Mottola on guitar, and… Arthur Fields and Fred Hall, doing kinda hootenanny-country music, but live recordings, from the early 30s. All that stuff is all gone. I lost the records, and I lost the recordings as well. And at this point, I really don’t want more stuff… Now, they’re all sitting in my parents’ garage.
In the fall of 2007, he began uploading his new re-recordings – usually with a still image – to YouTube. He would eventually upload over 1600 videos. To give you a sense of vastness – both of his collection and, more broadly, of what’s out there: Mickey claims to have owned, at one point, 640 Bing Crosby records.
MC: Basically, before the Hays Office, through the teens and the twenties, people would just kinda tell it like it is. If it’s a song about a prostitute, “how could little red riding hood have been so amazing, and still keep the wolf from the door”, you know? It was very tongue-in-cheek and it was never kinda nudge-nudge…. It was kind of, more natural, and more spontaneous. There was a fellow called Dwight Fiske, who was, I believe, a nightclub performer back in the late 30s. His first recordings always have the kind of off-color suggestions, but it was always very tongue-in-cheek. Later on, it just got really coarse; that’s when all those really coarse party records, likeRuth Wallis came out. They were intended to be offensive, rather than natural and just kind of explain that people do what people do. It was a time of greater acceptance for people who were kinda different.
One reason I like the directness of the 78 era, a take was a take. Meaning, once you’ve got a master tape, it’s finished – you don’t go back, fix any high or low notes, you don’t punch in the different words, you roll with what you’ve got. Which means everything is a fresh performance.
In 2009, he received the first indication that his account could be shut down for copyright infringement.
MC: Basically, you’re allowed three strikes, and they’re cumulative, even if you’ve taken the offending videos down. The first one was a 1928 recording of “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise”, by Nat Shilkret & The Victor Orchestra, with vocals by Franklyn Baur. A really obscure record, certainly in the public domain for many many years in Canada. And, uh, when that was the first time was my account was taken down: so I basically called Bourne Music in New York, and I talked to Jason Bourne, I think that’s his name…. He said, “Oh, we didn’t intend to have your account taken down, we have a problem with YouTube itself.” I still am not clear what I could’ve done to make it any different.
Part of the protocol for the process is, they’re sent a notification of the account coming down; if they don’t respond to it, then I get my account reinstated. So I arranged to take the video down, that they had a problem with…. The second time was “Tender Eyes”, Quintette of the Hot Club of France, 1938. That, as well, was public domain. At that point, I just thought, you know, I’ve spent so many thousand hours already, and I was just a little fed up with the uncertainty and the unfairness of someone repressing something. When I put every bit of my effort into trying to make this sound good, trying to promote old music. I… looked at the issues all my life. All through the 1960s and 70s. I was never happy with the sound of them. It just seems like artificial stereo, poor use of, you know, just… kinda washed-out sounding. I’ve never been happy with buying reissues, which got me on the track of what I do, doing the reissues myself.
As far as I’m concerned, if Bourne Music had their act together, and I don’t know why it became a problem: if their business is selling sheet music, The more popular the music is, the more chances that they’re going to sell sheet music. If that’s what they do. I don’t even know what they do…. Just the title was what they were concerned with.
I had my fire, I had all this stuff happen; I just didn’t want to fight with them anymore, you know? I might have been out to resolve it, but I just thought, you know, I just didn’t want to deal with this. I can still use my videos in my website, and more power to them, the people who have actually downloaded my videos and gotten the actual digital file on their computer. Sometimes they try to upload it onto YouTube under their own names.
Today, a slim number of Mickey’s old videos can be found on YouTube courtesy of other uploaders, and he has shifted his attention to the production and distribution of CDs he makes on Createspace.
MC: If there was a structure in place, whether it was Amazon or whatever, if anyone is a legitimate owner of copyright, I’d hate to repress the music itself; I think it’s a crime. And that should never be the result.
I kinda like the era I’m living in, let’s say, because I’m very comfortable with the technology. And with my background in electronics and sciences, to be able to do what I do, I don’t know… I probably would’ve been doing something different back then (the 1920s.) I don’t know what it would’ve been.
There are, to be certain, a number of similar channels on YouTube; but Mickey is no mere regurgitator. He’s a technician and an artisan. If our cultural priorities were different (and, to be blunt, were demand for his labors higher), Mickey would probably work for a major national archive with insurance protocols in the event of, let’s say, another gas fire. But are Mickey’s MP3s marketable? Probably not.
While transcribing this interview, I took a break to check my RSS feeds; as it turns out, MP3Tunes - a Cloud-based “locker” for mp3 collections - was just deemed to be within copyright law. I felt sad; this should be good news, right? Well, not exactly – unlike Rihanna or Maroon 5, Mickey’s body of work is obscure enough that it’s unlikely anyone will ever challenge Bourne Music in court.
Once, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, I made some purchases – bootlegged CDs of ancient guitar boleros, and macabre nightclub crooners – at a “Latino Music Emporium”. Afterwards, the shorter-than-me proprietor grabbed my shoulders with both hands, pulled me down within inches of his face, and gravely intoned: “Music is history!” Jazz may never evaporate, but Mickey’s collection risks doing just that, and his YouTube channel was the strongest possible means of sharing it. In effect, the very organs designed to protect commodified culture – in this case, the lyrical content of a song from over 80 years ago – have ended up suppressing it, further marginalizing its adherents. Is the loss ours, or is it that of future musicians?