Music Evolves at ARChive


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Tim Knopf.

New York City’s ARChive of Contemporary Music (ARC) was first launched in 1985 by founder and director B. George. In its humble beginnings, the ARC existed in George’s 800 square foot third story walkup in Tribeca. It held 47,000 sound recordings at the time, accumulated by George throughout his work as a DJ, producer, and author.

The ARChive, which is now its own Tribeca space, contains approximately 2.25 million recordings and 22 million songs to date. It’s not a library and it’s not open to the public–at least not yet. The database is largely used by professionals who work in fields related to the music industry, including researchers, publishers, and film directors.

The board of advisors boasts some reputable names, such as David Bowie, Keith Richards, and Martin Scorsese.

A quote from David Byrne on the ARC’s website describes the environment as “a library-like situation, where the staff, instead of being quiet, they make a lot of noise–dancing in the aisles.”

BTR spoke with ARC founder B. George, and asked if Byrne’s statement could be considered an accurate assessment.

“David Byrne wrote that when Tower Records was still in business,” George explains. “Now Tower doesn’t even exist. Things change. At one time, there would often be a lot of loud music played here. Now there’s less, because kids use earphones to listen to their own thing.”

George says that the ARC, above all else, is extremely cautious about using pieces of its collection. Currently, the music that’s deemed suitable to play in the space resounds from selected CDs.

“We don’t play the LPs anymore because we’re worried about the preservation. We let people play CDs instead, and now all the CDs–about 350,000–are being shipped to China to be digitized, and that way we’ll be able to hear them online. The covers will be digitized, as well as the surface of the CD, the booklet, and the rear card, and everything will be OCR (Optical Character Recognition) readable. So you can use it all for research.”

He remarks that the ARC is constantly expanding its digital database.

“We’ve been trying to get more and more collections into the internet archive,” says George. “We have almost 10,000 live concerts of the Grateful Dead. More recently, Dave Matthews has been donating live recordings. We’re currently in the process of getting together all the Afropop radio shows. We just received a collection of about 500-600 bootleg Beatles shows and songs, and we’re trying to figure out if we can ever do anything with those.”

George explains that, primarily, the ARChive is intended to be an archive and research database.

“The ability to put songs online for somebody to listen to them is different from us having an additional copy at the ARChive and having a person come in to visit. We have set up a listening room in San Francisco where you can go and listen to about a million LPs–about 10 billion songs–but we don’t have one yet in New York.”

George speaks animatedly about the ARC’s annual Music Week event, which celebrates a different culture each year. Music from India and Brazil has been given the spotlight in events from years past. Cuban Music Week will take place from May 14-22, 2016.

“Music Week is our major crowd-sourced, online event. Next year it will be with Cuba, which will correspond with Cubadisco, a major music festival in Cuba. We try to get lectures, concerts, and radio shows all over the world to focus on Cuban music for a whole week.”

George comments that an enormous amount of time and effort is required in order to coordinate each aspect of Music Week.

“Right now we have two people working full-time, focusing on locating industry people who have associations with Cuban music. This includes websites, clubs, and scholars–anybody who might be interested in contributing to this year’s Music Week. It takes about a year of work.”

BTR asks George to describe the most dramatic change he’s witnessed since the ARC’s inauguration in 1985.

“Now people are willing to settle for less perfect sound quality because accessibility’s so much greater. I think that’s the biggest change. [In the midst of change], everything becomes worthless. For a while, LPs didn’t have any value, and now they have great value. At one time, CDs were really valuable, and now they have very little value. At the ARChive, we have to be really nimble just to stay alive.”

The ARC has certainly come a long way in the past 30 years. As the music industry continues to evolve, it will be intriguing to watch as the ARC adapts to the changing times.