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National Recording Registry Countdown: Who makes the selections?

The National Recording Registry’s list of the 25 inductees for 2019 drops on Wednesday (March 20), so let’s answer the annual question, “Who gets to vote on this, anyhow?”

Short answer: You and anyone else can make nominations; the 22 members of the National Recording Preservation Board culls the nominees to the top few; and, ultimately, the Librarian of Congress, in consultation with Library curators, makes the final choices.

Slightly longer answer: The Registry began in 2000 with the passage of the National Recording Preservation Act. This created the Preservation Board. Under the direction of the Librarian of Congress, the Preservation Board is to “implement a comprehensive national sound recording preservation program,” that is to be populated by songs, speeches, radio broadcasts and so on that are “culturally, historically or aesthetiscally significant.” It’s the companion idea to the National Film Preservation Act of 1988, which established the National Film Registry.

The Registry isn’t intended to be a collection of monster hits, nor is it to be an assemblage of obscure history — like, say, some never-heard-before solo track Miles Davis laid down in the studio one time when nobody was looking. It’s not even supposed to be the “best.” Instead, the recording is to be “significant” in American life.

“Significant” is a debatable standard, of course, and that’s why anyone can make a nomination. There are only two requirements: There has to be an actual recording (no “lost” records); and it has to be at least 10 years old. Thousands of people make nominations every year — musicians, historians, casual listeners, industry experts, recording engineers. The Preservation Board, which takes those nominations and adds its own, is a wide-ranging group. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) has a seat, as do the American Federation of Musicians, the American Folklore Society, the Country Music Association, the Audio Engineering Society, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and so on. There are five at-large members.

The resulting Registry now has more than 500 recordings, a lineup with which you may, or may not, agree. (That’s the fun thing about lists.)

Last year’s selections ranged from 1911’s “Dream Melody Intermezzo: Naughty Marietta,” by Victor Herbert and His Orchestra, to 1996’s, “Yo-Yo Ma Premieres Concertos for Violoncello and Orchestra.” That sounds highbrow. But in between were spots for the Mississippi Sheiks’s ”Sitting on Top of the World” (1930), Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (1962), and the “Raising Hell” album by Run-DMC, in 1986. That’s the one with the “Walk This Way” mashup with Aerosmith, and it’s okay for you to play air guitar anytime you hear it. (“Freebird” isn’t in the Registry, but you can still hold up your lighter and scream for the band to play it.)

One important note: The Library’s selection doesn’t mean the Library owns the recording, or has acquired the rights to it. It only means Library recognizes its significance and preseves a recording. Some older recordings are in the public domain, but many others are not.

Stay tuned for this year’s picks!

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