The ARChive of Contemporary Music: A Closed-Off Treasure Trove

By tim gann

The ARChive of Contemporary Music (ARC as they like to be called) is located in the first floor of a building in Tribeca, just south of Canal St. Frequently closed to the public, the only way to enter the building is to call someone inside, or tap on the glass doors with a key. Stepping inside, one is greeted with many rows of shelving units roughly 15’ tall, all filled with records. The archive grew out of the personal collection of B. George, an ex-DJ who worked with artists such as Laurie Anderson and literally wrote the book on Punk and New Wave, and who is also giving me some time to ask him some questions. Interestingly enough, the biographies found on the ARC website of George as well as Fred Patterson, the Head Archivist, have more music credits than they do traditional LIS credentials. The only other employee is Alex Curtin, a recent LIS graduate, and the only one with any formal training. “We had a real archivist here,” George jokes, “but they didn’t know anything about music!”

Still, this lack of trained professionals is reflected in they way the materials are stored: records are tightly packed on some shelves, too loose on others, and stacked horizontally in some cases. The staff has little to no control over the temperature and humidity of the building, creating potentially harmful environments for the materials. In addition to the bulk of the collection on the first floor, there is also a basement storage section. This area, which houses, among other things, what Patterson tells me is “maybe the largest collection of Country music in the world,” is peppered with roach traps, some of which are not empty. Dust is thick in the air, and considering the institution’s location towards the tip of Manhattan, it feels less than stable.

George knows this, though. It is no fault of his own that these conditions fall far short of ideal; he and ARC are merely victims of a scarcity of resources of many kinds. Despite the high-profile projects and jobs they’ve completed – old clients include MTV, Rolling Stone, and Martin Scorsese – they are still underfunded. Though they have applied for state and federal funding in the past, they have been routinely denied to the point where they no longer try (this, George explains, is because ARC’s collection is deemed commercial because the recordings fall under the wide “Pop” umbrella, which encompasses any genre that isn’t classical). Rent costs for the building, again considering the location, are terribly high (though George is hopeful that a permanent building will be bought for them with the help of Atlantic Records, which works closely with ARC and donates recordings). ARC’s collection and funding are completely donation-based, though some funds are given with the express purpose of buying particular records; however, this limits how much money can be spent on operating costs.

The lack of funding and staffing also affects access: with only three full staff members, George explains, and so much work to be done, it’s too much for them to have to deal with people coming in to use the collections – they’re just too busy. Michelle Caswell writes about and tries to dispel the cliche of archivists as “bureaucrats who hinder rather than aid access to records,” but ARC in some ways embodies this cliche – focused solely on preserving the records, ignoring anyone who might want to use those records. But George is quick to point out that the main mission and purpose is to build the collection for preservation purposes, and that’s what they need to focus on in their day-to-day operations.

It’s not as if George wants to keep the collection away from people. George expresses great hopes that partnerships with Atlantic Records as well as the Internet archive will help expand access to the public. ARC has partnered with the Internet Archive for several projects, and Brewster Kahle, founder of the IA, also serves on the board of advisors. They have not only helped ARC with digitization projects, but have also helped store some of ARC’s collections, particularly the CD and 78 collections. The Internet Archive has also begun to digitize these collections on their own, taking those responsibilities over from ARC. On the other end, the IA gave ARC one of their Scribe machines, which ARC has used to digitize books, primarily on Jazz, in ARC’s collection. These digitization projects have allowed the IA to open up a listening room in San Francisco, and George hopes that access can be opened up even more as these projects develop.

ARC is wise to prioritize their CD collections. As Bob points out, CDs are relatively unstable media compared to vinyl, especially CD-Rs (which ARC collects – one particularly bright part of ARC’s policies is their willingness to accept music even if it’s an extremely low-budget, DIY self-release). Still, there are no current plans to digitize ARC’s LP collection, which is the real bulk of the institution. While they pledge to try to keep two copies of everything, it’s not as if these copies are stored offsite, instead residing next to one another on the same shelf. With no digital copy, some of these recordings are at great risk of being lost in the event of a disaster. And considering the conditions detailed above, it’s easy to imagine a scenario that could decimate the collection. But understandably, there is only so much time, and only so many resources, and ARC’s collections contain millions of recordings, all of which could not even be listened to in several lifetimes. And the collections only grow as the years pass – certainly, there has been no dearth of new music over the years.

It is enough that ARC does what it can, because ARC is unique. No other institution collects the music ARC collects and certainly not in the capacity they do, and ARC is the largest collection of pop music in the country. After all, there is a huge struggle in many institutions between the ideals presented by standards and the often-grim reality of their situations. Despite these issues, there is hope for improvement, especially as collaboration between the IA continue. The IA has helped immensely in managing, storing, and digitizing materials, and with their considerable resources, ARC will certainly be able to continue collecting more and more music.

Caswell, M. (2016). “The Archive’ is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies” Reconstruction 16(1).
George, B. (2016, December 5). On ARC Operations [Personal interview].

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