Edison Blue Amberol record cylinders had a playing surface of celluloid, which is highly flammable, and an interior of plaster, which would swell and destroy the playing surface if they became overly moist.
Shellac records are brittle and break or shatter. Sometimes, the adhesive label will still hold a disc together, keeping it playable, though the cracks form crevasses into which the needle can drop.
Vinyl records are flexible, and “unbreakable in normal use.” However, the material is softer, and will eventually wear down under the needle.
Some of the first magnetic mediums for sound recording were steel “razor” tape. However, these reels could weigh 25 kilos, and if the tape broke during playback and slinged through the room, the razor edge could cause serious injury.
Magnetic tape on an acetate base was better, but the acetate was subject to chemical decomposition, and so manufacturers switched to polyester.
However, chemical instability was still an issue into the 1970s when some manufacturers “changed their dispersion formulations by introducing a polyurethane binder that, in time, turned hydroscopic and broke down as it absorbed water molecules into the long hydro-carbon molecular chains. The tape coatings became sticky and shed oxide onto all tape recorder parts in their path, including heads, guides, rollers, and capstans.”
One of the bigger challenges in archiving magnetic tape today is that the plastic of the storage reels breaks down before the tape, leeching chemicals into the magnetized material.
A hard disk drive, which is basically a magnetic disk that stores digital information, is subject to errors in data during mechanical failures, because of the small tolerances between the writing head and the disk itself. Any sort of mechanical failure of the enclosed spinning motor makes the disk contents difficult to retrieve, though not impossible.
Solid state drives have no moving parts, and are not subject to mechanical wear and tear. However, certain types of SSD have a limited life time in terms of re-writes.
All of these technical history details have their effects on the way that we are able to dig through the archives of music that we possess. There is the process called “crate digging,” which despite its pleasant, dusty, nostalgia, is formed by the fact that LP records are best stored vertically in plastic crates. I did the same thing underneath the seat of my car looking for cassette tapes, which wasn’t quite so pleasant, but was still dependent upon the “best” place to store the particular medium.
Other storage mediums I have experience with, and their “best places”: a lopsided homemade shelf full of VHS tapes; a broken binder of CDs; a paper grocery sack filled with 8-tracks; a cardboard carton of 1/4 inch reel-to-reels.
And then, there’s my hard drives.
Here the nostalgia is replaced by frustration. Through fifteen years of media player programs oggling and joggling my carefully ripped and archived mp3s, through format conversions, through network-attached storage servers, cloud data bins, and computer reorganization, the metadata that makes these files into albums has been pulverized. I have songs that are only known as “untitled01010101.mp3”. Certainly I could listen to, identify, and relabel all these songs, but at nearly 200 gigs of data, doing it by hand would be the job of a full time archivist. And while there are programs that boast the ability to sail through my data at large and fix all these problems for me, it is precisely these sorts of programs that are largely responsible for screwing up the metadata to begin with.
So what is the decay period of data? The problem is not so much the storage medium. I have RAID arrays, multiple computers, cloud backup, and everything else that the wonders of the digital age can provide. But because the database itself is screwed up, I have “lost” albums from my youth, in the caverns of my own computer. I don’t know where most of my music from college is, even though it is in there, somewhere. What is the metaphor that one would use to describe the process of listening to each of these files, Googling the metadata, and repairing all the tags?
To search through my music, I would need to “time travel” these files. Because this is where the identifying wrappers of each of these recordings are lost–in time. Through perpetual re-writes, underneath the overlapping best practice folder schemes of Winamp, iTunes, Media Monkey, and Banshee, lie the recordings’ original contextual information as I understood them. I would have to undo the erasure with an archival search, a match-up process of listening, querying, and pasting by way of remembering those digital memories lost. It is said that forgetting is integral to our conscious experience of time, and if we did not forget, there would be no way to say that time is passing. Similarly, the regular experience of computer use means that the vast quantities of data are lost, misplaced into *old folders, cleared off into recycle bins or archives of previous operating systems’ desktops, which we promise that we will one day sift through, and until that time, keep carrying forward in the back of a backup, like a repression of childhood. The only way to reanimate these collapsed inscriptions is to relive them, to play through them one by one, and to restore them into memories, conflated with the present time.
The place where I now store my music is not the physical container of a crate, a tape, or a drive. It is within the subjective process of the passage of time. Like a acre-wide bin of old cellular phones, the archaic medium hides within multitudinous copies of itself. I would not need to open boxes or dig through crates to find these albums. I would dig through the process of forgetting, using a database to remember what the database forgot. Searching for memories within memories, like a needle in a stack of needles.
Good luck, to whomever tries to do this. It is far easier to just find new music that I like now, than to try and remember what I liked then. Crate digging is a fun past-time, but reliving the past, to retrieve what is lost as if it never left, is a feat as difficult as time travel.