It took two years to get Bob Dylan organized, but a small software company nestled in Nelson County has finally done it.
Bluewall Media recently helped Dylan and his staff archive and digitalize more than 60 years worth of his iconic music, photographs, written documents, video, and film footage. In the years to come, Dylan fans may not only see an entire box set of the musician’s work released but also previously unreleased tracks or remastered and remixed versions of old favorites.
It’s all thanks to Bluewall Media’s pride and joy: a software program called Starchive, which the company spent the last 10 years developing. The program allows an artist to easily and quickly digitalize, organize, and even manipulate large caches of material in a bevy of high-quality formats.
Dylan was Bluewall Media’s first client to use Starchive, according to the company’s founder Peter Agelasto.
“They did take a risk, because we were just some bright-eyed kids from Virginia,” said Agelasto, speaking from his office in Roseland, about 30 miles southwest of Charlottesville.
Agelasto can’t reveal exactly how much material Dylan’s staff has archived because of a non-disclosure agreement, but he said it was more than 100,000 pieces of audio, print, video, and still images. “It’s a mind-blowingly unending river of material,” said Agelasto. “They could probably have a million things because Dylan was at the epicenter of American culture.”
Nicholas Meriwether knows exactly what Agelasto is dealing with. Meriwether is the head archivist for the Grateful Dead, whose collection was donated to the University of California Santa Cruz in 2008. In dealing with such a large swath of material—ranging from posters and fan correspondence to deteriorating VHS and cassette tapes—Meriwether stressed the cultural importance of preserving and organizing artists like the Grateful Dead and Dylan.
“It’s a sprawling and very complex collection,” said Meriwether of the Dead’s work. “It’s definitely much more difficult than the overwhelming majority of archival collections I have ever encountered in any context. That said, the payoff is magnificent. The end result is a well-organized and remarkably extensive collection that really is going to help scholars better understand not just the 1960s and the counter-culture but a whole host of associated questions that are just going to get increasingly important as time goes on.”
But Bluewall Media is not a large institution like UCSC. So how does a tiny software company and recording studio in rural Virginia—where broadband is still scarce in spots—convince a legend like Dylan that it’s ripe for such a beastly task?
Jim Fishel, the company’s executive vice president and veteran of the music industry, knows Dylan’s manager and made the introduction back in 2002 before the software program was even a glint in Agelasto’s eye. And as their relationship with Dylan’s camp evolved, so too did Agelasto’s technological ambitions. Pretty soon he found himself pitching Dylan’s staff on the idea of a comprehensive archive.
“They said, ‘That’d be great, but you’ll be working on it for the rest of your life because we have so much material and it’ll never possibly get organized,’” recalls Agelasto. “Dylan’s got 50-plus years of rich awesome analog material. But there wasn’t this super simple way to actually build an archive.”
And so Agelasto and his team of developers and engineers unveiled Starchive. But the software program does more than just archive and organize an artist’s work. It also opens up a world of options for musicians to distribute and tweak their work, transforming the typically complex technological process into a simple click of a button.
The program was born out of necessity, according to Agelasto, who opened the Monkeyclaus music studio in 1998. Scores of musicians would record at the studio, but getting that fine-tuned music into the hands of fans was an increasingly difficult task as CDs became outdated and the modern world moved to the Internet to get their music digitally. Technology and artists do not mix well, said Agelasto.
“I could just see that the modern technological approaches weren’t working at all for creative people,” said Agelasto. “They would create something and then get stopped in their tracks because of the technological aspect of getting their media out there. We realized we had to change how that was happening. We were making super high-quality files and then having to transcode all of those things to make these big files much smaller so people could download them onto terrible bandwidth.”
Matthew Gibson, the director of Digital Initiatives with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, agrees with Agelasto. Gibson said it’s frustrating to see how fast technology is moving and how quickly the commonly accepted standard format of a digital file can change.
“There’s not one solid format that you can save it to or rely on for the rest of your life, especially with moving image and audio,” said Gibson. “What has been very volatile, and is still volatile, is the standard for moving image and audio formats. It’s hard to find a tried and true solid statement that this is the best practice. In general, you want to do something that’s as raw and high resolution as possible. But then you’re talking about these huge files and it’s really clunky to transmit them because they’re so big.”
While the archival of Dylan’s complete works is a mammoth accomplishment for Bluewall Media, Agelasto’s vision for the Starchive program goes much further.
The program automatically translates the format of a saved file into the highest quality for nearly any format, whether it’s posting on a social media site, publishing a professional grade album or book of photography, or manipulating the data so the artist can create brand new art, like remixes. It puts the power, Agelasto said, in the hands of the artist, which begs the question: Will this diminish the need for record companies and managers?
“Disintermediation is a scary thing for a lot of people because it makes them feel like they’re no longer a part of things,” said Agelasto. “For management, it’s the death of their industry. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. What it really means is that the artist is now in control.”
“What we’re doing is opening up the artist’s hard drive to the fan and making it so they can create faster,” said Agelasto. “Essentially the music business is moving towards the artist saving their work and then it landing in the audience’s earbuds. That’s revolutionary.”
Bluewall Media founder Peter Agelasto sees his company’s Starchive software as a way to give artists control over their work.
“Dylan’s got 50-plus years of rich awesome analog material. But there wasn’t this super simple way to actually build an archive,” said Peter Agelasto.