Discogs is for all kinds of music. There are curious diggers, die-hard collectors and dedicated contributors in every corner of the Database. But when it comes to archiving the world’s music, some things are more important than others. There is a pretty stable consensus on the Database Community Forum that old physical formats are the most important releases to get into the Database, for the obvious reason that they’re the ones most at risk of being lost forever if we don’t act soon.
And when it comes to old physical formats, Shellac records and sister formats like Pathé discs are some of the most important to archive since they’re the oldest. There are of course many old formats that need saving (for example the various ‘unbreakable’ alternatives developed alongside Shellac) but since Shellac was something of a recording industry standard from about 1895 to 1950. It remained the standard for so long because it carried decent sound quality and was durable enough not to be worn out by the steel needles and heavy pickups used in most mass-produced home record players.
There are quite a number of Discogs Contributors working hard at archiving Shellac records on Discogs but one stands out in particular. Ross Laird, aka scarcesounds, is a professional sound archivist and published discographer who has spent the better part of the last half century researching and publishing the history of sound recordings. Born in Australia, his initial interests were in the early history of Australian music, but in recent times he has lived abroad throughout Southeast Asia, where his interests naturally began to intersect with other histories – in particular the histories of early recordings from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Given his interest in the music of yesteryear it’s no surprise Ross was interested in Shellac records.
In the 1960s, when he started working, there was no sound archive in Australia, so his initial career was as a librarian. “But I was already a record collector, and due to the lack of any sources of information about Australian record labels at that time I began researching the history of the early record industry in Australia (since published as Sound Beginnings) and also compiling listings of the various labels.”
So by the time the Australian National Film & Sound Archive was established in 1984 he was already fairly well known for his research and was asked to join the staff of the NFSA. “I worked there from the late 1980s until the early 2000s apart from several years in the 1990s when I worked for Cable TV in Hong Kong.” During that time a number of volumes of his early research were published in Australia and the U.S.
- A Discography of Popular Music Recorded in Australia and by Australians Overseas, 1924-1950
- The First Wave: Australian Rock & Pop Recordings, 1955-1963
- Sound Beginnings: the early record industry in Australia
- The Sixties: Australian rock & pop recordings 1964-1969
- Brunswick Records: A discography of recordings, 1916-1931
- OKeh Records, A discography. 1918-1934
As a consequence of having lived in Hong Kong for some years he became aware of the vast amount of records from that region. For the diggers out there, Ross can confirm: many records from Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and elsewhere can be found in Hong Kong. Then, after leaving the NFSA, he had the opportunity to live in Singapore for some time. “While there I began researching the Southeast Asian record industry (especially recordings made in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia). This work lead to my involvement with the Singapore Sound Archive Project which I created because at that time there was no sound archive in Singapore (or anywhere else in Southeast Asia).”
You can see some of Ross’s work for the Singapore Sound Archive Project at the Sounds of Yesteryear (1903 – 1941) page on the National Archives of Singapore page, which he curated in 2017. “I’ve already listed most of the records on Discogs, but the online portal also allows anyone interested to hear digitised versions of the recordings which include a wide range of material from Malay keronchong and Chinese opera to jazz”.
scarcesounds has been a Discogs user since August 26, 2011, but, in his own words, “I was not very active for the first few years because at that time I was away a lot.” He was in Southeast Asia, mainly Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, working on a major sound archiving project – that which eventually became the Singapore Sound Archive at the National Archives of Singapore. For the record, Ross made 127 Submissions in hist first 2 months as a Discogs user. Clearly not shy of a little cataloging. His first submissions were of mostly of Southeast Asian pop 7” Vinyl from the late 1960s, released on labels such as Columbia, Decca and Harvest – some of the oldest names in the business.
“It took some time to get across the complexities of listing on Discogs!” In some ways he was better off than the average contributor, who all find it challenging at first. He was in the fortunate position of having had many years experience cataloging discs as a sound archivist at the Australian National Film & Sound Archives. “On the other hand, that same experience was also a handicap because I was used to entering data in certain ways, and that was sometimes different to the way it’s done on Discogs. This meant that I still needed to learn to enter according to the specific style on Discogs. But every cataloging system has its drawbacks and none are perfect for everything. Cataloging is just challenging by its nature, so I think it just takes time and practice. There are a number of people on Discogs who are very keen to give you advice if they see you have done something incorrectly… In more cases than I expected these people are more interested in proving that they’re right (and you’re wrong!) rather than actually helping, but overall the experience is a positive one.”
Then, in January 2016, Ross started to get really serious about filling out the Discogs Database, submitting an average of 400+ every month. 8,500 of those are Shellac records making him the largest contributor of Shellac records in the Discogs Database (although Stringtickler is not far behind on just over 8,000). He has also contributed also over 5,000 thousand Vinyl records and a smattering of even rarer formats like Flexi-discs, Edison Discs and Pathé Discs.
Why Shellac? As a professional sound archivist, he wants to see the Discogs Database become as complete and comprehensive as possible, and Shellac is not nearly as well represented on Discogs as vinyl and some other formats, even though they were the primary format for the early decades of sound recording. “Even the most common labels of the Shellac era like Columbia, Decca, Victor, etc. are far from complete… When it comes to the more obscure 78rpm labels, Discogs releases are very patchy indeed. Some of the really rare 78rpm labels are not even on the site at all, or at at best represented by only a few listings (often just one!).”
78s from countries outside Europe or the U.S. are very under-represented so this is where Ross puts a lot of his energy. “I try to submit releases from the labels or regions that are most lacking or seriously under-represented in the Database. Due to my activities in Southeast Asia over an extended period, I have quite a large number of Asian discs of various types and many of these were previously unlisted on Discogs. I’m still working through my Asian Vinyl, and then I have a large quantity of Asian Shellac 78s (including many Chinese and Indian discs) which I will get to eventually…”
Ross has even been known to buy releases just to enter them into the Database. “Sometimes I see something that I know is rare and obscure and unlikely to be in the DB…. so even if it’s not really part of my collecting interests I might buy it just to enter it on Discogs. I feel if I don’t do that it will probably never be listed.” Indeed, many Asian records are quite rare and some are very much in danger of being “lost” (especially 78s) so I agree, it’s quite important to acquire and submit rare items when and if you see them as you may never have that opportunity again. “Long ago I learnt this lesson the hard way. There were a few times when I saw something that I knew was rare, but for various reasons I didn’t acquire at the time. I hoped that I would find another copy sometime, but in many cases I never saw that record again! In years past I have turned up at the airport for my flight home with a large number of boxes full of records and somehow got them back. It used to be possible to do that if you paid the excess baggage (which in some Asian countries was not a big charge), but recent limits on the amount of luggage permitted, and security concerns, have made it more and more difficult to move big quantities of discs like that.”
Apart from the big picture, creating a lasting record of what was, Ross is also interested in listing all the various types of records he’s collected over many years so they can be acquired by those who are interested. “Since I’m now in my 70’s I have to look ahead with a view to dispersing my collection to people who will value and appreciate the many rare and obscure discs I have. I’m not interested in passing my collection on to any one person or institution.”
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