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Wanted: A home for 3 million records
A small selection of the massive analog holdings of the Archive of Contemporary Music in the TriBeCa neighborhood of New York on Dec. 28, 2019. The nonprofit, founded in 1985, is one of the world’s largest collections of popular music, with more than three million recordings, as well as music books, vintage memorabilia and press kits. OK McCausland/The New York Times.

by Derek M. Norman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- In a part of Manhattan booming with trendy green high rises, renovated lofts and digital media companies, a hidden trove of musical relics has been growing for over 30 years.

Housed in a nondescript building in Tribeca is the Archive of Contemporary Music, a nonprofit founded in 1985. It is one of the world’s largest collections of popular music, with more than 3 million recordings, as well as music books, vintage memorabilia and press kits. For point of comparison, the Library of Congress estimates that it also holds nearly 3 million sound recordings.

Inside its space on White Street, there are shelves upon shelves upon shelves of vinyl records and CDs. Signed Johnny Cash records hang close to nearly 1,800 other signed albums. There are boxes of big band recordings, world music and jazz and original soundtracks. Most of the inventory is stored in the basement below.

Notably, the archive, which still receives about 250,000 recordings a year, is home to a majority of Keith Richards’ extensive blues collection. (Richards, of the Rolling Stones, sits on the board of advisers.)

And now it all has to go, somewhere.

Rent in the neighborhood has continued to rise, challenging the organization to stay on budget, said Bob George, the founder and director of the archive. Recently, George reached an agreement with his landlord to get out of his lease early. He has until June to find another space.

“We were running $100,000 in debt,” George said. “I’ve never been in debt over these 35 years, but over these last three years, it’s just become overwhelming.”

For the past few decades, researchers, writers and filmmakers have used the archive to find both common and obscure recordings, and inspiration in general. For instance, the music supervisor for the Ang Lee film “Taking Woodstock” found the archives indispensable while searching for recordings of Bert Sommer, a lesser-known Woodstock act.

Although George has paid off the archive’s debts, he is still focused on finding an affordable space, preferably in New York City. But without crucial support from new donors or cultural institutions like the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, he said, finding a new location will be challenging.

As a nonprofit, George’s archive has survived because of the generosity of its board members, donations, the research services it provides and sales of excess inventory. But “the rising rent, our share of the building’s taxes and donor fatigue has taken its toll,” George said.

The archive began with George’s own collection of about 47,000 albums. George, who is 70, moved to New York City in 1974 as a visual arts student, and he immediately started accumulating records as a DJ. He is the author of reference book “Volume: The International Discography of the New Wave,” and he produced an occasional survey of American pop and experimental music for the BBC as part of “The John Peel Show.”

In 1980, he released Laurie Anderson’s first single, “O Superman,” which sold almost 1 million copies worldwide and made it to No. 2 on the UK singles chart in 1981.

Word spread; those in the industry took notice. The collection grew from there.

Since then, donors and board members have included David Bowie, Lou Reed and Paul Simon, as well as Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese.

As the city evolved, so did the archive’s holdings.

“Most record companies who were there when we started are gone,” said George, who obtained many records from clubs around the city that either closed or went under. “We got things from places like the Mudd Club, the Paradise Garage, all these different clubs, the Peppermint Lounge, and all the DJs who used to work there who were friends of mine,” he added.

But then music streaming came along. How do you collect that?

“I don’t think it’s quite dawned on us because everything has been digitized and all is accessible,” said Craig Kallman, the chief executive officer of the Atlantic Records Group.

Kallman, who has a collection of about 1.5 million albums in his own private collection, began his career as a DJ and for the past three years has been on the archive’s board of trustees.

“There’s something interesting about this want for preservation of any medium that has gone through this transformation in a digital age,” he said. “So I think it’s only slowly seeping into consciousness as people begin to appreciate the original, or the return to vintage things.”

With deteriorating master tapes and tragedies like the Universal Studios fire in Hollywood that destroyed a stockpile of master tapes — Duke Ellington recordings, Chuck Berry sessions and virtually all of Buddy Holly’s master tapes, to name a few — Kallman believes the industry will turn to archives of vinyl records like George’s and his own as the next best original recording.

“We’ve kind of gone against the grain of what every other industry has seen,” he said. “The vinyl was euphonic, warm and musical. It’s absolutely a preservation.”

The archive has been working with the Internet Archive to digitize some of its collection. But George’s priority is to preserve the hard copy. He estimates it will take about 20,000 boxes to pack up his inventory.

“What’s wonderful about his collection is it’s not judgmental by genre,” said Nile Rodgers, a record producer and co-founder of the band Chic, who has donated to the archive and sits on the board of advisers. “Now it’s probably even more important to support something like this.”

Rodgers himself has used the archive as a resource.

“A lot of romance comes from the way we made records,” Rodgers said. “And there’s something very romantic about the process, the environment, all those things we missed because we lived it.”

Recently, Rodgers was chatting with a film director — he won’t name names — about character concepts for a movie that will be released next year. An obscure recording from the Sugar Hill Records label popped into his mind, Rodgers recalled. He called George, who lent him a copy of the record, and he played it for the director. “Look at your character now!” Rodgers told him.

The archive has three employees, including George, and regularly hires interns to assist in cataloging. With five months to go before his agreed departure date, George is still sorting through boxes of new material.

Worst case scenario, he said, the archive will be put in storage.

“I still have yet to throw a record in good condition away,” George said, noting that he’d only toss a donated record if it was unplayable. “It’s very difficult to judge quality in its own time. Tastes change,” he continued. “It’s all generational and it’s all fleeting. But it’s history.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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