By David Goldman
In a non-descript building in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood there is a remarkable library—quite possibly the world’s largest record collection, housing vinyl LPs, 78s, CDs, as well as music-related books, press kits, and other memorabilia. Since 1985, the Archive of Contemporary Music has been collecting popular music from 1950 to the present day, everything from blues to novelties to home-recordings to pop music from every corner of the globe. And the collection is still growing (and some of it is for sale, as you’ll see below).
The first 40,000 or so records came from co-founder Bob George’s personal collection, but the Archive now contains over three million sound recordings: on vinyl, CDs, tapes, flexi-discs (those paper-like records you used to get in magazines) and whatever other recordable medium you can think of. Records are donated by collectors, record companies, critics and older music fans. Boxes of 30,000 CDs, recently donated from the estate of a record company exec, were piled around the various rooms in the office, with another 40,000 coming in the following week. George is always on the lookout for unusual or obscure records (which he doesn’t find at record stores, he emphasizes) and, during my visit, he pulled out a few that he picked up during a recent trip to San Francisco: a Bozo album (the famous clown was created for children’s records before he had a TV show), and a “learn to play the autoharp” instructional record, issued by a department store, by Mother Maybelle Carter (a legendary country music pioneer as well as Johnny Cash’s mother-in-law). In the “you can’t judge a record by its cover” category, there was also a collection of “best musical comedy songs,” with almost no information or credits as to who’s on it, but with a stock photo of a leopard-skin-clad Bettie Page on the cover.
As its collection has grown, the Archive has become a valuable resource for anyone seeking out recordings, from film companies making sure their soundtracks match the time period, to documentarians (like Ken Burns, for example) looking for that elusive song to evoke a specific time or culture. In addition, “we work with the Internet Archive (a non-profit, based in San Francisco), and we’re now storing a great deal of our material there,” explains George, including a quarter of a million 78s, which are saved using a special turntable to play the fragile yet historically significant discs. “The Internet Archive is the fourth most-visited site on the Internet, and after Google, they’ve saved the greatest number of books in the world. We’ve started scanning our books, so you can now go online and read 3,000 music books that we have here, at our library, for free.” This is done with a special scanning machine resembling a copier, but “unlike Google, we don’t tear the book up,” George says.
While not open to the general public, twice a year the Archive hosts a sale in their Tribeca location, of extra items they no longer need: albums, CDs, books, DVDs, and VHS tapes (for those who still have working VCRs). This year’s holiday sale runs through Sunday, December 23, so there’s still a chance to pick up that album you remember from childhood and never saw again, or a new CD, or an unusual folk, jazz or world music release you never knew about. Plus, “our CDs are cheaper than downloading,” as a sign on the wall states.
Of course, all this copying, researching and storing costs money, and earlier this month the Archive recently held a “rent party” in Bushwick, Brooklyn to support their operations, featuring lots of guest DJs, including Laurie Anderson, the B-52s’s Fred Schneider, and famed DJ Jellybean Benitez. The last two also serve on the Archive’s Board of Advisors, along with Martin Scorsese, Keith Richards (who donated an incredibly rare Robert Johnson 78 to the Archive), Paul Simon and other notable musical names.
You’d think that in today’s digital world, with its endless capacity for “cloud” storage and other online options, preserving recorded music, and the background information on it wouldn’t be a crucial endeavor. But that isn’t automatically going to happen, according to George. While vinyl can still be played by mechanical means, CDs can’t (most people can’t make a chip at home). Even with streaming services, “the minute they lose the right [to license it for online use] it comes off their list. [The Beatles catalogue, to use one famous example, was not available through streaming services until three years ago.]. So you have no permanent home for any of these things, except us.”
For more information about the Archive sale as well as their activities, visit Archive of Contemporary Music and get over to the sale.
Photos: Courtesy of Bob George (director of the Archive) unless otherwise noted.