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Inside Steven Alan

A Visit to The ARChive of Contemporary Music

  • The ARChive of Contemporary Music at 54 White Street, just around the corner from our Tribeca Annex, houses the largest collection of popular music in the world. Still managed by founder Bob George, the non-profit library’s treasures include over two million recordings and music-related finds – everything from the Beatles to the rare Robert Johnson, posters, stage costumes, all kinds of memorabilia, and even a site dedicated to pop and rock novels.

    In addition to serving as a major research resource for the entertainment industry, the ARChive also produces its own projects, focusing on music from a different region of the world each year. We recently had the opportunity to visit with Bob and learn more about the archive’s history and mission. He also proved to be something of an unofficial historian for the neighborhood, taking us back to when he first arrived in New York as a student of the Whitney Museum’s Studio Program.

    How did this collection start?
    I was a DJ. I had worked on a lot of books and punk books and worked as a producer. I had put out Laurie Anderson’s first record so we had a #2 record in Britain, and I just basically accumulated 47,000 records.

    Where were they?
    At my place in Lower Manhattan. I got my first loft here in ’74 for $80 a month. That’s why you came downtown – there was a lot of space for practically nothing. There were gunfights in the street. It was a completely deserted area.

    What was it like here?
    This area was all market and used to be called Washington Market or Calk Hook. Franklin Street, where you are, was mostly fabric merchants. There were no restaurants at all. Zero. Dave’s Lunch on the corner of Canal – that was it. Between there and Wall Street, there was nothing. John and Yoko lived two doors away. The artist James Rosenquist lived further down the street – he still has his loft there. There were very few – I think 70 people lived down here. There were no apartment buildings at all. It was the cheapest place. Even in ’74-75 Soho was too expensive, so younger people went further down or further towards the west. A lot of people got lofts at Canal and West St., way over and very far from transportation. I worked as an electrician two days a week and made enough money to go out every night, hear clubs, go to restaurants. Now you have to work ten days a week! It was remarkable that you could do so much. But there was no floor or ceiling. No windows, no electricity.

    No ceiling or floor?
    Well, the ceiling had fallen in. You walked the streets and looked for a place that looked like it had been abandoned. you went in and asked the guy (usually there was a business on the ground floor and in this case it was a bar), who would give you a lease illegally. Like I said, I worked as an electrician so I threw in the electrical lines and learned how to do plumbing. The bums would stand in the loft and go towards the stairwell, picking the floor up and burning it in 55 gallon drums to stay warm, so we had to put in a floor. Because of that work, there was something called the Loft Law where if you  renovated a place then you then owned the fixtures and could stay at a rent-stabilized rate. The city at one time made allowances for sweat equity. Otherwise you wouldn’t have had a scene here. You wouldn’t have had artists here. There were hundreds of clubs all around here where dancing and punk and hip hop got started – it was so inexpensive to do stuff here. Then the restaurants came.

    There’s so much here we really don’t know where to start. What are we looking at on this wall?
    Among the 2,500 signed records, we have the first Rolling Stones album signed by the whole band, and one of the first appearances of Jimi Hendrix in America. Stuff like Cream and traditional bands but then stranger stuff, like Ice T. And DeNiro’s signed Taxi Driver. Even a signed Ravi Shankar.

    Some of your collection comes from anonymous donors. Are there any amazing finds that have just fallen into your collection?
    Yes – people just leave things on the doorstep sometimes. There’s all kinds of levels of amazing. If we get something that just has an amazing cover, like that Steve Allen record, that for us is pretty good. A lot of things are rare but not valuable. Like 8-track cassettes. We have 750,000 dance records from all the clubs that closed down.

    What would be considered a valuable piece?
    This is a good one – the first Beatles recording released in America, but it’s on a small African-American-owned label in Chicago. I bought it at the Record Rendezvous in Chicago for $2.99 in 1963. It’s now worth $15,000. It’s a really great example of how it’s so hard to judge music in your own time. This was owned by EMI. They offered it to Capitol, which said no one would want to hear it. So it went to this small label. It sold tremendously and Capitol took it back.

    What is your day-to-day like at the ARChive?
    I raise money, mostly, and basically make sure everything gets catalogued and everything gets cleaned every day. It’s very hard. We get a quarter of a million recordings in every year so we have to put them away, catalogue them – a lot of maintenance. I’m a bureaucrat! That’s what I do most every day. But that’s why we started the projects – it gives us a focus.

    {A record tote – “The early version of the iPod.You’d put your LPs and 45s in it and people would judge you by your music.”}

    How do the projects work?
    Every year we try to focus on one kind of music. The choices are personal, but also things that other people aren’t doing. For instance nobody has a large Islamic collection in America, no one has a Brazilian collection –we already have 5,000 recordings and will probably have 25,000 when we’re done. It’s the largest collection outside of Brazil. It’s just sort of an overwhelming thing. The idea is to completely cover and understand exactly everything that’s going on with a certain type of music. For last year’s Muslim World Music Day project we collected about 10,00 recordings and put them in a database so anyone could access it. It’s a kind of massive group project where everyone contributed from all over the world. For us, a small organization, to do that was great. We had the University of Salford in Manchester put together a whole day of seminars and talks. The Alliance Française did a whole week on Morocco. We had a series of essays written for us, some of them already published and some of them were original essays. The University of Hong Kong did a seminar on Uyghur music, which is forbidden, so they took a big chance to do this very nice seminar. We have a great graphic designer, Tibor Kalman, who is very famous. He was doing Colors magazine – remember the controversial magazine from Benetton? I was the Music Director for that so we worked together. That’s my only fashion credit!

    Next year we’re doing India. Through my scholarship from the University of Michigan, I spent a year in India in 1970. We were in Kolkata when the Naxalites were trying to take over the region at the time. I was mostly in Benares (now Varanasi) but we went all the way around the country. I was in art school and had an interest in Asian art. I was photographing ephemeral art like Rangoli painting. They would drop colored sand and decorate it with garlands and jewels with different designs depending on the region. And also the process of carving honorific sculptures in honor of a favorite god or goddess out of like a 6 ft. piece of soapstone that would be whittled down to something very small. And documenting the process of burning the bodies.

    {An early, rare theremin record – “The beginning of the idea of electronic music.”}

    Your Board of Directors are an interesting bunch, including David Bowie, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, and Martin Scorsese. How did that come about?
    They are mostly from entertainment. I did a little bit of work on Goodfellas – that’s how we met Martin Scorsese. Keith Richards has been involved for 18 years and through his funding we’ve been able to collect 10,000 blues recordings. Basically, we try to get people who can help us get this started because we don’t take any city, state, or federal funding. It’s all completely done independently through donations – some foundations, some rock stars – that’s basically how it keeps going. And the sales, and we do a lot of research for the industry, helping with reissue sound recordings. Indirectly it gets to the public.

    You’re currently preparing for your semi-annual record sale, coming up June 9-17, which we’re very excited about. What kinds of things will be for sale?
    Well, we try to have at least two copies of everything and during the sale we get rid of our 3rd copies to raise money. The sale is great. For the kickoff party we get champagne from the Bubble Lounge and hot wings from Bonnie’s Wings in Brooklyn. A startup called Curb is sponsoring the party this year. And when we get records from estates they often give us other things, like books, housewares, handbags – anything – because often when we go to a place they say we can take the records but we have to take the other stuff too.

    Many thanks to Bob for showing us the ARChive and sharing his stories. Be sure to check out the record sale, and if you’re interested in supporting the ARChive, you can contribute here.

    This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 29th, 2012 at 9:56 am and is filed under Events, In the Neighborhood. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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