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Plumbing the depths of our video archives

Plumbing the depths of our video archives

Priceless history is locked in decaying media. Barbershoppers are stepping forward to help.

When I was hired as the new A/V Manager of the Barbershop Harmony Society back in April of 2014, my predecessor, Aaron Johnson, took me down to the basement to show me the media archive.

He unlocked the doors and walked me around a corner which featured stage apparel of previous gold medalists, O.C. Cash’s cigar sitting on an ash tray, and all of Cash’s scrapbooks from the earliest years of our Society. While I was distracted by those artifacts, he yelled for me, and I snapped out of my daze. He then led me to the back of the basement where there were shelves upon shelves of old media.

Emphasis on the word “old.”

We completed an inventory project in early 2014 that revealed 5,141 pieces of unique media that could contain between 30,000 to 100,000 songs on 45 different media formats in various conditions ranging from “good” to “critical.”

Fast forward three and a half years -- The A/V Department has posted several installments of Harmony University: Online, created and produced the daily recap videos from our various conventions, and captured several other projects that are yet-to-be-released. Most recently, we’ve launched a Facebook poll wanting to know what classic performances you, our target audience, want to see posted on our official YouTube channel. We want to put all of your suggestions up. I mean, why wouldn’t we? It would satisfy our members’ craving (and our own) for vintage material, expand our digital footprint, help preserve our content, and, with your likes and shares, promote our incredible artform. It’s a win-win for everyone!

In practice, it’s not easy. It’s a costly and timely process, actually.

From the present to 2012, all performances may be raw and uncut but at least they are already digital files on hard drives. These are the easiest to access, which is why all convention performances from 2015 and 2016 are already up on our YouTube channel; 2014 is set to be released late next year (we’re required to wait four years due to a licensing agreement tied to the convention DVD that year).

Moving backward from there, the work gets a little trickier. Our wonderful history is saved for generations to come but it’s saved on various formats that require different ways of digitizing. And the digitization process for each format varies from a couple days of work to tracking down a production house that specializes in that particular format and then waiting several months for it to be done correctly and professionally (i.e., not at WalMart or CVS).

From 2012 to roughly 2002, the convention footage is on MiniDV. MiniDV is a cassette form of media and is one of the few formats that can actually be digitized by the A/V Department in-house. This is a little time consuming as the footage has to be watched in real time while transferring to digital through Final Cut Pro but, all in all, is pretty painless.

Prior to 2002, the media formats vary greatly. Everything from S-VHS (a higher quality VHS format that never became the “industry standard” like it was supposed to) to BetacamSP to Betamax to U-matic to VHS to DVCAM to Quadruplex to canisters full of 1” tape.

The good news: The Society currently uses an outstanding production house called PSU (Photographic Systems Unlimited) here in our headquarters city of Nashville. In the past, we’ve used them to digitize a few canisters of 1” tape, a couple dozen Betacam SP’s, and even some audio reels. They do tremendous work and have been a great partner of ours.

Up to now, we have been digitizing necessary footage (examples: the Dealer’s Choice’s Hall of Fame video, anniversary tribute videos, etc.) but we’ve also been digitizing found footage with a “spray and pray” mentality. You know, when curiosity gets the best of us and we say out loud “what’s in this vaguely marked box?” Luckily, this has never been a waste of time or resources. So far, we’ve found our oldest captured performance in color, as well as undiscovered footage of previous champions. At the end of the day, we know we’re doing this for you and we want to be more targeted in our efforts.

So, keep in mind that when you suggest we post a performance from 1981, it may take a while to do it. You also may be surprised when you ask for a song from 1968, it may appear quickly. Just depends on the media type, the process, and the time and effort required.

On a personal note, the Archive Project is near and dear to my heart. It has been since I saw the treasure trove of media in the basement three and a half years ago. I would love nothing more than to move my computer, equipment, and bobbleheads downstairs and become the Society’s historian and archivist. That said, the A/V Department has to do that, along with the other requirements of the job, with limited time and staff capacity. I welcome that challenge with open arms since it’s a passion project for me. Our goal is to digitize each performance as fast as possible and post to YouTube in order to maximize exposure, budgeting, and impact.

In short, we want to digitize it all. But we also want to digitize it right.

Jeremy K. Gover

Jeremy K. Gover is Media Production Manager at the Barbershop Harmony Society.