Cavernous New York warehouse preserves huge pop music collection
Recent fires highlight the fragility of the original physical copies of music albums
New York — The turntable needle drops and the reverbs of the obscure band The Motifs ring out, bouncing off mountains of records lining the musty warehouse housing the largest US pop music collection.
The cavernous independent private music library, known as the ARChive of Contemporary Music, on a nondescript street in lower Manhattan’s Tribeca neighbourhood claims more than
3-million recordings — mostly vinyl and some CDs and cassettes, not to mention a vast collection of memorabilia.
“You’re just constantly discovering things that you wouldn’t know,” co-founder B George said from his desk tucked behind the stacks.
In an age dominated by streaming and the ephemerality of digital media, places such as the ARChive can prove vital to preserve physical copies of music that can be essential to future listening.
News that about 500,000 recordings from legends such as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Joni Mitchell and Eric Clapton were destroyed in a 2008 blaze at Universal Studios threw the importance of safeguarding physical copies into stark relief.
Some of the work lost included master recordings, the raw material for lucrative reissues and posthumous releases.
While nothing can replace a lost master, George said labels have called on his archive to hear versions as close to the original as possible. Two discs of a reissue from the late Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti, for example, were made from vinyl belonging to the ARChive.
“Trying to keep a collection intact is really important,” George said.
George started the archive in 1985, when the area was just beginning to attract artists eager to colonise the old warehouses for cheap accommodation.
At one point the archive scored 125,000 classic rock LPs — about 1,500 of them signed by artists including Jimi Hendrix — from a house in Boston that was condemned after it was found to be literally sinking under the weight of the vinyl.
Contrary to the snobbish reputation often ascribed to collectors and curators, the ARChive welcomes just about everything related to pop music — which it defines as “not classical” — with open arms. And it relies on philanthropy to pay the increasing rent in one of the country’s most expensive areas, especially from celebrity musicians.
Early supporters included avant garde performer Laurie Anderson — who George introduced to her future husband, Lou Reed — and Nile Rodgers, known for hits such as Le Freak by his disco group Chic, the original sheet music of which lives at the ARChive.
Current board members include Rodgers, Richards, Youssou N’Dour, Martin Scorsese and Paul Simon, while both Reed and David Bowie are emeritus.
Today the mammoth collection — maintained by George and a revolving door of volunteers and interns — is used primarily for research by the recording industry, as well as filmmakers and researchers.
The Grammy Museum, for example, once needed 3,000 record labels and covers for graphics, and turned to George.
“You can come to us and say I need 3,000 things in two weeks and there’s a good chance we’re going to have almost all of them,” he said.
But though George sees the preservation of the physical as a vital task, he says “everything is fugitive” to the prospect of disaster.
The ARChive is working with the San Francisco-based nonprofit internet Archive to start digitising, and keep “as many things in as many places as possible”.
About 130,000 78rpm records — brittle vinyls usually made of shellac resin, popular until the mid-20th century — have been digitised so far, for example, and are available for free streaming online, George said.
“Libraries burn,” he said. “Realistically in 5,000 years this will all be dust. You do your best, you hope that the migration will happen, that it’ll go to the next stage, it’ll go to the next way of being preserved, but it’s unpredictable.”