Acoustic Sounds
The Archive of Contemporary Music
By: Evan Toth

December 21st, 2023



The ARChive of Contemporary Music Seeks Donors and a New Home

Director and Co-Founder B. George Discusses Efforts to Secure a Future For the Archives Three Million Records

It’s all fine and good to engage in passionate discourse about the importance of vinyl records and how best to preserve that believed golden format of recorded audio. But, that noble and idyllic vision has a common sense snag: what do you do with all that stuff?  Recall the times you’ve uncomfortably crouched before a cardboard box of records at a garage sale, think about the moldy Reader’s Digest box sets you’ve avoided at your favorite charity shop. For just a moment, don’t think about the things you’ve purchased; consider the records you’ve left behind. The discs that you thought had no value - or, no value to you in particular - those albums likely have some meaning and usefulness to someone else. But who would take on the task of carefully archiving each release?

The ARC's Iconic Sign as It Appeared at It's Lower Manhattan Location. Photo by Evan Toth

B. George and the ARChive of Contemporary Music has picked up that baton and have been running with it - without looking back - since 1985. You may have a great record collection at home, but it’s nowhere near what the ARChive of Contemporary Music has. With more than 3 million releases on the shelves, whatever you're looking for probably has its own place. And people look, too! Filmmakers, documentarians, record companies, audio mastering engineers, authors and more lean on the archive to find the one thing that is not at your local library: an exhaustive collection of vinyl records. That’s not to mention the special collections that have been donated by renowned figures; I bet you’d love to see what’s in Keith Richards’ Special Collection of blues records.

The resurgence of the vinyl record - and the music industry’s efforts to reissue releases from the past - has necessitated the existence of a dependable reference. Not only for the sounds contained within the grooves, but also for the overall aesthetic package: the specific artwork colors, informative liner notes, the secret details hidden in each album’s runout area; this minutia matters to both the original creators and to future consumers of this media. How else might an engineer get their hands on an original release without paying exorbitant prices?

The non-profit ARC was born in Lower Manhattan and lived there from its inception until it was discovered that the ARChive could not afford to stay in what has become some of the most expensive real estate on Planet Earth. The entire archive was then moved to a temporary, donated space in Hudson County, NY and has been there in storage since 2020. Director and co-founder, B. George has continued cheerleading for the collection while he - and his staff - search for its next ideal long-term location.

Director and Co-Founder, B. George. Photo by Eilon Paz, courtesy of the Archive of Contemporary Music

While having over 3 million records in your collection might sound like a dream come true, be careful what you wish for. It takes blood, sweat and tears to maintain an archive of that size and additional work to shape it into a living archive that the public can not only enjoy, but also learn. B. George tells us just how he does just that and details next steps that are necessary to secure the future of this important archive. 

Evan Toth: What is it about physical media that is so important? There must be people who say, “just digitize everything and store it on a hard drive.” How do you respond to those who don’t understand the importance of the physical artifact?

B. George: Vinyl is the best way to-date to preserve audio. It gets dirty but does not disappear. If you have a bicycle wheel, a rubber band, and a thick sewing needle you can play it. You can’t make a computer chip at home. CD machines will all disappear and CDs oxidize. Migration can never be completed from one format to a future one. The internet will not exist.

ezt: The ARChive is facing a dilemma. Our readers are aware of your plight. But share with us the events that led to leaving your longtime space in Lower Manhattan. 

bg: We left the city because of the cost to house so much material. When we began, Lower Manhattan space was incredibly inexpensive. Now, Tribeca is the most expensive neighborhood in New York. 

ezt: Can you describe for our readers the process of actually moving the collection from NYC to its current location? How does one move three million records?

bg: Our move took a month and we used 31 large vans, plus smaller vans and our cars.  We had a great crew of former DJ’s doing the moving. Moving was easy as compared to our staff packing up and having a new load of pallets ready to go every morning. Luckily this was when COVID hit and there were few cars parked in front of our building. 

ezt: What are some of the nuts and bolts challenges involved in housing the collection from a zoning point of view? What about the everyday dangers of mold, water, fire, pesky varmints, excessive heat, etc. They are evil dangers that haunt all record collectors, great and small. How have you made provisions to avoid those caveats? Have you experienced any horror stories in that regard?

bg: There have been small leaks, and a small fire once when a photographer's light fell on a stack of papers. A few things were damaged, but nothing was lost. Our current location in upstate NY is HVAC controlled with fire and theft protection, a pest control service, but it is not humidity controlled. The beautiful barn buildings are on an estate zoned for “agricultural” uses and that’s the main reason we are trying to buy or build new, safe modern buildings. 

ezt: Terms like “contemporary” and “retro” and “vintage” are sort of revisited every decade, or so. As we mentioned, the ARC is celebrating its 38th anniversary. How have the concepts of what belongs in the ARChive changed over the years?

bg: Our mission remains the same since 1985 "To collect, preserve and provide information on the popular music of all cultures and races throughout the world from 1945 to the present.”  We used the term “contemporary” to show that we will always be collecting whatever is being released now and in the future. 

ezt: The ARC’s collection is vast, but what is still on your want list? How do you determine what needs to be put into the collection at this point?

bg: We don’t want anything - we want everything. Special Collections and focused collections grow organically. When we see one Godzilla record, we try to get them all. One day, we’ll be able to afford a Beatles 78 from India. 

Personally, I scour bins, flea markets, charity shops, yard sales for things I think I’ve never seen before. One can’t always remember the names of every record we have - or, which version - but if the cover seems like something I’ve never seen, I take a chance.  Almost everything is donated and our purchasing budget hovers around $1000.00 a year. 

ezt: Impressively, you’ve existed without any city, state, or federal help. However, would such financial assistance be a welcome benefit for the ARC’s future? What are the pros and cons of government subsidization?

bg: For 35 years we were a few blocks from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and no one bothered to come by after repeated asks. When we began, people were not equating a record library with a book library, and the powers that be did not take our work seriously. I found that I could either spend three months writing a grant application or take a rock star to lunch and get the same amount of help. 

ezt: You recently received a one million dollar donation to help your plight. Can you give our audience an idea of the benefits a monetary figure like that provides, and what it does not help? The plan is to move from your current space in the Hudson Valley: where do you intend to go from there? What are some of your non-negotiable requirements for a permanent space? 

bg: This initial gift means that we can build a beautiful series of quonset hut storage facilities on land in upstate NY, designed by a noted architect for us. We need another million to fit it all out. If 8 million is raised we can buy a large abandoned IBM Campus with 84,000 square feet of storage and beautiful buildings. So, one million saves the collection and the 8 million allows us to create a major Center for Popular Music. We’re looking for a donor to fit that bill and offering naming rights.

The new space must not be in a flood zone, it must be zoned educational and also off the tax rolls. That is because if there is a major donor or University, that ARC remains. We would love it to have university affiliation. There are many offers from other cities, but we would like it to stay in New York State.

ezt: Do you have a particular story or an anecdote you can share that describes an interesting research project done through the ARC? What would surprise our audience about the impact of the ARC that they may not be aware of?

bg: Director Ang Lee was looking for music by the first performer at Woodstock for his film, Taking Woodstock. It was Burt Sommer. Now, I had never heard of Burt Sommer, but we found that we had 5 LPs by Burt Sommer! What’s amazing about the collection is that, even for us, we don’t know what we have until someone asks us to find it. 

Over the years, the collection has been used by the recording industry to put many recordings back into the world. This is mostly done by publishing research, finding songs for films, scanning covers and liner notes and allowing engineers to hear original vinyl as they work on reissues. 

Andy Rourke of the Smiths Discovers Rare Smiths Records. Photo courtesy of the Archive of Contemporary Music

ezt: You have impressive collections that are housed within your collection: the Keith Richards’ Blues Collection, the Zero Freitas Brazilian Music Collection, the Jonathan Demme Haitian Music Collection. How do these collections find you? What is the understanding you have with the donors about what will be done with the collection?

bg: I’ve lived a long time, have done a lot of things and know a lot of people - that’s how the Special Collections have grown. We promise to keep any Special Collection in perpetuity and not to ever break it up. If the collection ever goes to another entity, they must be a not-for-profit and never break it up.

ezt: If someone would like to play a copy of an album you have, do you have any specific audio equipment that is available to them? 

bg: One day. We try to keep two copies of everything. One for listening and one for archival purposes. Now everything is in storage. 

ezt: The ARC has an impressive roster of figures on its board of advisors: Keith Richards, Nile Rodgers, Martin Scorsese, Paul Simon, Todd Rundgren, etc. Lou Reed and David Bowie are honorary members of the emeritus board. How have they been instrumental in guiding this process? What input - if any - have they provided over the years?

bg: Some artists are more active than others, some are acquaintances, and some are friends. Keith has endowed the Blues collection for more than 18 years. Nile is one of our oldest and strongest supporters and he has performed at our events and brought David Bowie into the fold. Lou has performed and was a pal. Fred Schneider is also a long time friend. I met the directors on our board because I was asked to search for music for their films; funding and contacts are their main contributions.

The Mythic Keith Richards Blues Collection. Photo courtesy of the Archive of Contemporary Music

ezt: What is the vision for the ARC’s collection in the near future? Once you find a permanent home, how would you change the way the collection interacts with the public, or would you plan to keep it very much the same way that it is now?

bg: The ultimate goal is a new Center for Popular Music. We would like to transition from an archive to a place where a wide range of activities and programs could be put in place - including movie nights and a film series, concerts, exhibitions, listening parties, conferences, seminars, lectures, gaming, workshops, record sales, record release parties - activities that support our mission and engage the community.


  • 2023-12-21 05:37:14 PM

    Silk Dome Mid wrote:

    This is certainly a laudable endeavor, one that should be more widely publicized and appreciated. I do notice two oddities. First, the $1000 yearly budget for acquisitions seems incredibly inadequate. Relying so strictly on contributions will eventually prove to severely limit what can be saved. Second, why the insistence on remaining in the state of New York? If Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan found Tulsa, Oklahoma a fitting place for their archives, why not consider the entire USA when looking for a landing place?

    • 2023-12-28 07:00:16 PM

      John Winder wrote:

      Perhaps because the people that are managing this live in New York?

      • 2024-01-03 02:19:40 PM

        Silk Dome Mid wrote:

        I assume that this is the case. If so, they must consider their own convenience more important than preserving the archive.