The ARChive of Contemporary Music: Collecting Gone Mad

New York has turned into a “Museum City,” says Bob George, founder of the Archive of Contemporary Music. George knows of what he speaks, both from the perspective of being a long-standing occupant of downtown, from back when it was so cheap to live in Manhattan that artistic ideas could (and did) propagate freely, but also from the perspective of his ARC, which is itself something of a museum, given that its holdings have grown to over two million sound recordings. (And I thought I had a large record collection!) On a recent visit to New York City, I stopped in for a long-overdue meet with George at the ARC on White Street, in what just about passes for Tribeca. The ARC occupies several large rooms taken up mostly by multiple shelves, upon shelves, upon shelves, of vinyl, of every single genre, right down to ventriloquist instruction (something of an oxymoron, when you think about it). A giant scanner serves to help digitize music books and magazines (though not for redistribution), while interns pore over computers, helping catalogue new arrivals and respond to enquiries. The first dozen releases on Sun fill one wall; autographed rarities look down over George’s own desk; the latest acquisition to the blues collection, funded by Keith Richards, occasionally make it up onto the wall as well; tchotchkes and souvenirs and odd little recording ventures are dotted all around – because for all that archiving contemporary music is a serious mission, George and his staff at ARC ensure that it also serves as fun. And in case this all sounds just a little too western for your tastes, know that ARC has begun a ‘World Music Day,’ centered around a specific nation or creed; in 2011 it was Muslim Music, and this year, the ARC will celebrate Brazilian World Music Day. The push towards that particular focus began late last year, and continues afoot as ARC collects and catalogues Brazilian music with an eye to launching a major website on September 7 for a global audience.

Bob George and some of his many many shelves of records at the ARChive of Contemporary Music, as cribbed from their blog on Brazilian World Music Day.

George and I talked about possibly digitizing the entire catalogue of Jamming! magazines; it would be a way to ensure their preservation, if nothing else. That conversation extended to one about music books and the realization that ARC has several thousand of them in a basement. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much around the subject of music that ARC is not willing to invest in and catalogue. ARC is hardly the only ambitious music library, even within the confines of New York City; I make frequent use of the recordings and files and magazines at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center. But there’s something about having real obsessive music fans run an archive and research center like this that makes it more exciting. ARC doesn’t operate an open door policy, but even if you don’t have a reason for ringing their door bell, just knowing that they exist to keep the record collection you could only dream of, surely makes you feel that little bit more secure.

A proud acquisition for the Keith Richards Blues Collection, one of only 10-15 copies from Robert Johnson’s second and final recording session known to be in existence.

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