In­side the CBC vault

We got a tour of the leg­endary mu­sic ar­chives ahead of de­but of new show From The Vaults

NOW Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By RICHARD TRAPUNSKI [email protected] | @trapunski

The CBC is throw­ing open its vaults. At least par­tially. The na­tional broad­caster has been mak­ing ra­dio since 1936 and tele­vi­sion since 1952, and in do­ing so, it’s been pro­ject­ing an image of our na­tional iden­tity and, of­ten, per­form­ing our na­tional iden­tity cri­sis.

In that time, CBC has built up a vast archive of au­dio and vis­ual con­tent. It’s im­pos­si­ble to quan­tify, but at least one per­son has tried. In 2016, Russ McMillen, co­or­di­na­tor for CBC’s mass dig­i­ti­za­tion project and our tour guide through the vault, trav­elled to ev­ery CBC out­post across Canada and counted ev­ery­thing, com­ing up with about 1.4 mil­lion “as­sets” in to­tal across 1,800 col­lec­tions. It amounts to 90,000 reels of film, and about 135 years’ worth of au­dio and video, if you were to lis­ten and watch it all in a row.

Many of the for­mats are now ob­so­lete or on their way out, so be­fore the equip­ment to play the ma­te­rial goes ex­tinct, the CBC un­der­took a ma­jor dig­i­ti­za­tion project that started in 2010, cen­tring around the vault at their Toronto head­quar­ters at 250 Front West. That process has un­cov­ered some amaz­ing ma­te­rial, much of it un­seen since its orig­i­nal air­date.

And rather than let it lan­guish in the vault or suc­cumb to vine­gar syn­drome, CBC has handed the keys to

mu­sic doc­u­men­tar­i­ans Banger Films (cre­ators of Hip-Hop Evo­lu­tion, the Trag­i­cally Hip film Long Time Run­ning and more). Along with in-house hosts Tom Power and Amanda Par­ris, they’ve put to­gether six episodes of From The Vaults (which made our best TV of the year list on page 42). It airs ev­ery Thurs­day on CBC and on­line at

There’s roughly 222 min­utes of archive footage in the six episodes, but there’s about 1.2 mil­lion hours be­ing pre­served, so Banger had to make some de­ci­sions. They started with what they know.

“We’re all mu­sic nerds at Banger,” says ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Sam Dunn. “Be­fore The NewMu­sic came along and be­fore MuchMu­sic came along, CBC was the only net­work in Canada putting mu­sic on tele­vi­sion. And so that ex­plains why the archive is so vast, and why there are so many mu­si­cal gems in there. Per­son­ally, that’s my mo­ti­va­tion.”

Truth be told, that’s my mo­ti­va­tion, too. So while other mem­bers of the me­dia tour lob tech­ni­cal ques­tions about ideal tem­per­a­ture con­trol, how to dig­i­tize quar­ter-inch can­is­ters and the in­tri­ca­cies of qual­ity con­trol soft­ware, I’d rather hear about what’s on the spools, records and tapes, whose la­belling isn’t in­tu­itive to those with­out a de­gree in li­brary science.

Like the rare Leonard Co­hen in­ter­view found in the Mar­itimes. Or the leg­endary off-the-cuff 1966 tele­vised blues jam be­tween Muddy Wa­ters, Wil­lie Dixon, James Cot­ton and oth­ers. Or the 60s Adri­enne Clark­son-hosted per­for­mance by the Who – ap­par­ently a last-minute fill-in for the Kinks.

That’s some of the stuff you’ll see on From The Vaults – much of it liv­ing in col­lec­tors’ whis­pers and ar­chiv­ists’ jour­nals un­til now. Hosts Pow­ers and Par­ris, of­ten filmed speak­ing from these vaults (im­pres­sively mask­ing their shiv­ers), spend much of the show hyp­ing these gold mine per­for­mances – for in­stance, a “holy grail” one by Bob Dy­lan from 1964 that ends the first episode, one of his ear­li­est ap­pear­ances the year af­ter he fa­mously walked off the Ed Sul­li­van Show for be­ing de­nied the right to play a protest song. Or a young Joan Baez play­ing an anti-war song at the height of Viet­nam, or Jackie Mit­too and Os­car Peter­son writ­ing new lan­guages for Cana­dian reg­gae and jazz.

But it’s of­ten just clips, in­ter­rupted by talk­ing heads (mu­sic his­to­ri­ans and other artists) telling us why they’re im­por­tant.

That’s a bit frus­trat­ing for the mu­sic nerds Dunn is talk­ing about, but there are rea­sons be­hind it. Mak­ing the ma­te­rial avail­able seems like some­thing the na­tional broad­caster should be

do­ing, and it feels so ob­vi­ous you al­most won­der why it hasn’t hap­pened be­fore.

Partly it’s due to the dig­i­ti­za­tion ef­fort, but it also has a lot to do with the labyrinthine world of mu­sic li­cens­ing and clear­ances.

“Our mantra be­came ‘no mu­sic, no show,’” he says.

And they man­aged to in­clude a lot of it, even if it’s not all full per­for­mances. Ev­ery episode has a theme, with four seg­ments each rep­re­sent­ing its own minitheme. The first episode, Land Of Op­por­tu­ni­ties, fea­tures mostly Amer­i­can artists play­ing in Canada be­cause of the more lib­eral pol­i­tics that let them do so. While watch­ing clips of Sammy Davis Jr.’s short-lived CBC show, we’re told, “It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the his­tory of race in Canada, while it’s a very spe­cific his­tory, is not the same as the his­tory of race in the United States.” Or in a seg­ment on Lilith Fair that cri­tiques how women were treated in the mu­sic in­dus­try of the 90s, we’re re­minded that, while many were re­sis­tant to an all-women mu­sic fes­ti­val at a time when two women artists couldn’t be played back-to-back on the ra­dio, CBC “picked up on the bril­liance of Sarah McLach­lan.” As much as it’s about mu­sic and Cana­dian cul­ture, it of­ten feels like From The Vaults is about CBC it­self. One of the most in­trigu­ing parts of the archive tour is the big shelf of vinyl. It’s not the whole col­lec­tion but mostly the re­ally rare stuff – records that might only have a sin­gle copy. I’m re­minded of the Na­tive North Amer­ica al­bum, much of which was sourced from CBC’s col­lec­tion. Some of the Indige­nous folk and rock groups on NNA were only ever able to record for those CBC shows, and so the Mother Corp ca­su­ally owns their doc­u­mented lega­cies. “Part of the project be­hind the dig­i­ti­za­tion is to make this stuff re-dis­cov­er­able for con­tent cre­ators,” says McMillen. That’s a noble project. This ma­te­rial should be avail­able. The ques­tion is: how widely and how freely? And at what point do you let the mu­sic speak for it­self?

CBC is in the midst of a mas­sive dig­i­ti­za­tion ef­fort, pre­serv­ing over 1.2 mil­lion hours of ma­te­rial.

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