ANALOG IN A DIGITAL WORLD ARChive of Contemporary Music

Hang on to the original: one organization’s quest
to preserve the past.

 

BY DAVE GIL DE
RUBIO

 

What do if you do
if you are the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) and need
800 album covers scanned for the opening of the Grammy Museum?
Or you’re Verve Records and have a reissue campaign stuck in neutral due to ownership
changes that often found label copy and recordings lost, discarded or stolen?

 

Forget hitting eBay
or surfing the blogosphere: all roads lead to the ARChive of Contemporary
Music. Founded in 1985 by former Laurie Anderson stage producer Bob George, the
ARChive is a not-for-profit music library and research center dedicated to
collecting, preserving and providing information on popular music throughout
the world from 1950 to now.

 

A 12,000-square
foot space located at 54 White Street in downtown Manhattan currently houses
the two million recordings-about half a million LPs, 260,000 CDs, 300,000 45s
and about 750,000 12″ singles-that make up the ARChive. The collection has
become an invaluable resource for record companies looking to reissue back
catalog and for film companies seeking out rare and unusual music. It comes in
handy when say, Ang Lee needed a Bert Sommer track for a film about Woodstock. “Nobody knows
who Bert Sommer was,” says George. “I didn’t know who Bert Sommer was. He was at Woodstock and recorded four albums, which we
had at the Library. We didn’t know we had them until we were asked to find them.”
The ARChive proved useful to other noteworthy filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese
and Jonathan Demme, who now sit on the board of advisors.

 

George keeps two
copies of every title in the collection and sells off extras during the
organization’s biannual sales. These events are crucial for bringing in new
members, making space, and most importantly, raising money for this
organization that lives hand-to-mouth every month. “These sales account for
about a quarter of our budget,” George explains. “So [they] are an important
contributor to our operating costs.”

 

Even though
conventional wisdom dictates Internet access is the key to tracking down
hard-to-find music, George is quick to disagree while firmly defending the
importance of the ARChive. “The advantage of online and digital preservation is
that you have a good chance of saving something because so many people have it and
it’s spread across so many platforms,” he says. “The bad thing is that it’s not
that good a quality.” With digital album share blogs, torrents and peer-to-peer
networks, he says, you may get poor audio – and if your hard drive crashes,
you’re screwed.

 

“Things that are
mechanical are better than things that are electronic,” George says. “We know
that sound recordings on vinyl in good condition have lasted sixty years. Plus,
whatever information that may be on there that could be damaged is still there,
as opposed to digital where, when it’s damaged, it’s gone.

 

“You’re always
going to need the original.”

 

 

The biannual ARC Record Sale is from June 13-June 21, from 11 a.m.-6
p.m. daily. To find out more about the ARChive of Contemporary Music, please
visit www.arcmusic.org or call
212-226-6967

 

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