When HMV went into administration last week, fingers pointed accusingly to the internet as the cause. But it's not all bad: with each month the internet is becoming an ever more useful treasure trove for rediscovering old music, as new archives spring up online allowing music-lovers to discover rarities that you'd struggle to find in record shops, opening up new channels of exploration.
The folk label Topic Records, home to Martin Carthy and June Tabor, is the latest to put its entire wares online. With a back catalogue stretching from Pete Seeger to Eliza Carthy, when more than 900 tracks are made available for listeners to buy on Monday – with an extra 150 added each month until Topic's 75th birthday in 2014 – it will soon be possible to explore the history of British folk music online. The label played a part in the British 1960s folk revival, and influential albums by musicians leading that revival – Peter Bellamy and Shirley Collins included – will be there, and the archive will be the place to unearth rarities. Early recordings from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, and long-out-of-print recordings from traditional source singers.
Last year the field recordings of folklorist Alan Lomax, which have inspired young acts from Foals to Cold Specks, were archived online to be streamed by listeners for free. Amazingly, on the Global Jukebox, the vast archive of Lomax's collection comprises more than 5,000 hours of sound recordings, and 3,000 videotapes.
It's not just folk that has been opened up for hours of exploration: recently a chunk of John Peel's record collection went online. Given the vast size of his genre-spanning collection – 26,000 12" LPs, before you even get to the thousands of CDs, and 7" singles – 10 per cent of the LPs have so far been logged online, with more going on each week. It's tied to Spotify, allowing fans to explore the late DJ's record collection, streaming songs for free.
What these sites allow music- lovers to do is the very thing that draws us to record shops: browsing. People love to browse and discover new things. Since the collection started going online last May, some bands have even found their careers reinvigorated. Accrington Stanley reformed after their album was selected and started gigging again. "There are people tweeting us to say 'I didn't know this band, I can't believe I found them through John Peel's record collection'," Andrew Stringer, one of those behind Peel's archive, tells me. "That John's record collection can have an impact on today's music scene is amazing."
For the many music-lovers like myself who have been reluctant to embrace digital music because of the lack of artwork and sleeve notes that make the physical product so much more enjoyable, what these archives offer is more than just sterile digital versions. They are painstakingly collated collections – music with its artwork, sleevenotes, lyrics and photographs, intact. Topic Records pieced together a digital booklet for each album not only containing original artwork and contextual notes, but also adding photographs from their archive.
Those assembling John Peel's archive discovered just how obsessive he was about storing his music alphabetically, together with press releases, and in some cases, letters handwritten by the musicians. Incredibly, there's a letter from Freddie Mercury imploring Peel to give his album Queen II a spin: "Please play this." It's just one of the gems soon to be showcased on the site at johnpeelarchive.com
Through these archives, forgotten bands can be rediscovered, rarely heard music is given a platform, and we have access to quantities of music we've never had before. What could be better than that?