Richard Morgan in Rolling Stone:
The [Archive of Contemporary Music] is a massive private research library that has been in downtown Manhattan since 1985 … […] Far from the kind of crackpot hoarding that sometimes happens in cities, George’s archive has been supported by powerhouses in music and entertainment. It houses Keith Richards’ blues collection. Their current board is varied enough to include both Youssou N’Dour and Paul Simon (Lou Reed and David Bowie were both once members). It consulted for Tom Hanks on the making of That Thing You Do. It’s the go-to repository for album art for everything from Grammy exhibits to Taschen books.
In a quirky explainer on their site about how they are ready for an alien invasion, the archive notes: “The ARChive collects and preserves everything that’s issued, hoping to define ‘what happened’ in terms broader than those usually described by selectiveness or availability. Taste, quality, marketing, Halls of Fame, sales, stars
andvalue are as alien to us as they are, well, to aliens.” […]
At a time when some in the city were scrubbing Keith Haring murals off subway platforms, [founder Bob] George was welcoming every genre, including then-unpopular punk and hip-hop (among the archive’s greatest collection is a trove of punk 45s). “We could make the good and goofy come alive,” he says, “because no museum or university library is going to do that. They only want things after they’ve gotten valuable. It’s a small view of value. We see things differently. We see the value in everything.”
I almost wrote that The ARChive is like a musical version of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Then I caught myself, realizing the absurdity of instinctively going to an internet-related analogy to describe something classic and rooted in our physical history. That may underlie the problem here — that we devalue the importance of a permanent IRL archive of our artistic triumphs now that the online world seems ubiquitous and deceivingly tangible.
And that problem? The ARChive is in danger of losing the space it has occupied since 1985 due to dramatic rent increases in its TriBeCa (NYC) home. This important collection of music (over three million recordings, whoa), and a building modified and renovated to house the vintage media safely can’t just pick up and find another home, especially in the city. So Bob George and friends of The ARChive are asking for help from music lovers worldwide, via a GoFundMe campaign.
From the GoFundMe page:
Our Independence is important to us. We operate without any City, State or Federal funds. We cherish the ability to work on projects of choice and free from restrictions or the dependence on governmental/taxpayer support. Our once affordable rent on White Street has skyrocketed to $21,000 a month, making it increasingly difficult for a pure research organization to survive in Lower Manhattan. Our home is in New York and we would love to stay here.
Independent historical archives like these are becoming ever important in our digital world, as emphasized by some recent mishaps and decisions of corporate content overseers. We exist in that tricky time-space when physical artifacts are still a part of our lives, but digital replicas are slowly taking over. On a personal scale, I think it’s fine to eschew material collections for digital ones if that’s your inclination. But that can fool us into forgetting that an archive like The ARChive is a cultural necessity, just like that seed vault in Norway is essential. If the digital replicas are lost — which could happen — then it’s institutions like The ARChive that help us relocate our scattered artistic history.
Donate to the Archive of Contemporary Music’s GoFundMe campaign, even if just a little bit. I did. And h/t to Eric Johnson (DJ Bunny Ears) for alerting me to The ARChive’s plight.
I sure wish we had Record Store Day back when I owned a record store. The closest thing I had to Record Store Day was that time that the Orlando Lollapalooza date got canceled. My store — the only indie-rock-catering record shop in downtown Orlando at the time — was flooded with disappointed festival-goers looking for somewhere else to hang out. That was the biggest day of profit in the store’s existence.
Record Store Day is a great idea — in a perfect world, every Saturday would be Record Store Day of course — though many independent labels have serious issues as the event becomes dominated by major labels. Last year Numero Group, for example, blasted the current RSD as an “unwieldy grip-and-bitch fest … lines, fights, flippers, backed up pressing plants, stock shorts, stocking, and pricing at 4
As an independent label owner, I understand these gripes entirely. The now major-label (and major-indie) dominated RSD is mainly a nuisance for the small imprint. I’d instead release a high-profile album a week or two before Record Store Day. That way the shops will (hopefully) have my release in stock already, but I’m not vying for attention with the limited edition Devo boxsets and whatnot.
But as a former record shop owner, I am totally cool with Record Store Day. It was tough to keep the lights on at my store in the early ‘90s. I can’t even imagine how tough it must be now. But I do know that the money earned on Lollapalooza-cancellation day paid our bills for a good month. And it allowed us to take risks on some great new records in the following week’s stock order, too.
Meanwhile, Leor Galil of the Chicago Reader reminds us:
RSD’s founding principle is to support local record stores, but I don’t think such support should be confined to shops that stock RSD special releases. Thrift stores can be great places to buy music, even if they devote only a small fraction of their floor space to it. […]
Secondhand shops … rarely sort or catalog their collections in any way, so that it’s futile to take any approach other than “see what you can see.” Such stores are often the last stop records make before the landfill, and browsing their collections can feel like panning for gold in a sandbox. I don’t mind spending 15 minutes at a Goodwill, though, digging through battered Herb Alpert discs and high school marching-band LPs—the longer I look, the slimmer the chance I’ll find anything interesting, but even the tiniest chance is worth 15 minutes to me.
Though record stores maintain some aspect of discovery, I think customers are a lot more educated before going in
Unimpeded access to new music (via streaming and endless opinion and information online) creates a savvy customer who knows what he or she wants, whether today is RSD or not. I do wonder how many people still ask for recommendations from the geeky clerk behind the counter. “I like crazy modern European jazz … what’s good?” gets replaced by “can you direct me to the new The Comet Is Coming album?”
On the other hand, it’s impossible to go into a thrift store with a record-buying agenda. Though rarely can you ask someone behind the counter for a recommendation, but that’s beside the point. Following Galil’s train of thought above, thrift stores remain frozen, unaffected by streaming, by the internet, by the ups-and-downs of the ‘vinyl revival.’ Just as we did twenty years ago, you go in and hope. You often buy something because the cover looks crazy, not because you went in looking for it (you’re cheating if you call up Discogs on your phone). You’ll take a chance on a record even though it’s got a few deep scratches on side two. And then you take that stack home — whoa, it only cost $7 for all of them — and you put on that one record that makes it all worthwhile. You made a .50 gamble, and it’s the JAM. That’s the spirit of vinyl. Happy Record Store Day!
PSS – My best thrift store find? I once ran across mint copies of the first several original Telex 12″ singles on the floor of a pawn shop, a quarter a pop.
Vinyl sales grew by just shy of 12 percent from 8.6 to 9.7 million sales, while cassette sales grew by almost 19 percent from 99,400 to 118,200 copies sold in the US. It wasn’t quite the 41.8 percent growth seen in music streaming, but it’s still very impressive for two formats that are decades old.
Billboard has some even more encouraging numbers from Nielsen Music:
16.8 million vinyl albums were sold in 2018, according to Nielsen Music (up 14.6 percent) — marking the 13th consecutive year of growth for the format. 16.8 million is also a new yearly high for vinyl album sales since Nielsen Music began tracking sales in 1991.
Before you start charting the course of your digital label toward vinyl production for big profit, understand that most of this growth is outside of the independent sector. It’s mainly driven by legacy catalog and albums that you could have purchased in the used bin for a few dollars each fifteen years ago. The Verge again:
The popularity of both physical formats seems to be being driven by sales of older albums. BuzzAngle reports that over 66 percent of vinyl sales are of albums that are over three years old, with releases from Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd all featuring in the list of the bestselling vinyls from last year.
Despite the prominence of superstar legacy releases, this growth is good news for independents. The pressing plants remain healthy and active, and vinyl distributors and stores are more optimistic than they would be with vinyl’s lifespan tied to a fleeting trend. It’s still tough for an emerging artist to move a couple of hundred record albums — making the per-unit cost enormous, which is partly why you’re seeing $25 LPs — but at least the option is alive and supported. Vinyl production can move the status of a label, differentiating from the low-barrier bulk of digital labels. But one must consider the vinyl aspect as part of a label’s marketing effort rather than a sales driver. Breaking even is often the highest measure of success when it comes to record sales.
Billboard and Nielsen credit “Hoodie SZN” with the equivalent of 58,000 sales in the United States last week, a number that incorporates streams and downloads of individual tracks, as well as sales of the full album. But the vast majority of that composite number is from streaming — so much so that the sales number represents a new low on the chart.
The 823 copies of “Hoodie SZN” that were sold last week — all as downloads, since that title has not been released on any physical formats — is the least number of copies that any album has sold in the week it went to No. 1.
Despite the hype and statistics, vinyl isn’t mainstream enough to warrant a release of a number 1 hip hop album on the format. Even more significant, download sales on the release are incredibly slim (823!) showing the widespread acceptance of music outside of the traditional ownership model. It’s an earth-shaking shift, connected to vinyl’s rise in defiance of the intangible. How vinyl continues to segment itself over the next few years will be a fascinating story.
Perhaps a budding Sunday tradition? Once again, I present five online articles that caught my fancy over the past week:
Satlof’s collection began in earnest in 1987: a $90 autographed copy from “a record dealer in an antiques mall on Canal Street,” with a scrawled signature that the seller said was Warhol’s, but turned out to be Reed’s. Satlof casually picked up more of the albums over the years, paying “$10, $20, like $100 for ones with the full banana.” He stresses that his hobby is due to the brilliance of the music and his love for it. But really: 800 copies?
Each miniature synthesizer is meticulously handcrafted from framing matboard, cardboard, paper, plastic sheeting, string and rubber bands. Rather than replicating the existing machines, the focus was more about creating a revisionist history where analogue technology continued to flourish uninterrupted.
Some of the best making-of-the-album stories are those where a wild, remote or inspiring location becomes a powerful inspiration on the music-making – The Rolling Stones at the Cote D’Azur mansion Villa Nellcôte for Exile on Main St.; Can at Schloss Nörvenich for Tago Mago; Killing Joke inside one of the Great Pyramids at Giza. In those cases, the band brought their own recording equipment with them. For the less intrepid, the world has many ready-made, custom-built, luxurious studios in gorgeous locations to fire up creativity.
While evidence suggests HM01 is operated by the Cuban government, it’s virtually impossible to tell who it’s sending to, which is one of the main tactical advantages of numbers stations: You can easily see the intended recipient of an email, but you can’t prove someone listened to a radio broadcast unless you catch them in the act.
Shortly before his death, Russell and his family took a small boat out to Baker Island, a flat rock half-covered by seaweed, four miles off the coast of Maine. The musician sat on a slab of granite and recorded the sound of the waves breaking against the shore. The next year, the Russells scattered his ashes from the same rock, and they watched as the waves slowly pulled him away. On summer nights, for decades, unbeknownst to Russell or his family, locals have boated out to this same rock. They play music, and move together under moonlight. They call the place the Dance Floor.
Vinyl sales may have hit their highest level in the UK since 1991 but this is hardly a sign of what is to come. Indeed, a quick look through the top 10 vinyl albums of 2016 reveals that all but one of the artists were releasing music back in 1991! The exception is Amy Winehouse and she’s dead. The majority of the volume of vinyl sales is driven by nostalgic older music fans.
Not only is vinyl not the future (it was just 2.6% of sales in 2016), the big differences between the most popular vinyl, streaming, singles and album artists reveal just how fragmented the music business has become. Each of the top 10 charts (album sales, singles, top streaming artists, vinyl sales) almost reads as a standalone group of artists with remarkably little cross over. In fact, only 2 artists appear across streaming, singles and albums. None appear across all four charts.
As large volumes of older consumers switch to streaming (and Amazon should play a key role here) there will be more opportunity to join the dots. But do not mistake this simply as an opportunity to try to revive yesterday’s formats in today’s platforms. The album is clearly fading. According to MIDiA Research survey data, 68% of subscribers state that playlists are replacing albums for them. It is time to start investing though and effort in rethinking what album experiences should be in the digital era. And that conversation should have no bounds, everything should be on the table (number of tracks, street date vs continual updates, interactivity, changing content etc.).
Earlier this week, it was widely reported that vinyl is outselling digital downloads in the UK for the first time since the iTunes store was launched here in 2004. The real story is that sales of downloads are dropping not because vinyl is wooing back digital listeners but because streaming is becoming the default way of consuming digital music.
The relentless spin on the so-called “vinyl revival” is getting ridiculous – as the Daily Mash pointed out in a piece about how vinyl has become more popular than food. The Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) has been spinning this line for the last couple years, since taking over the reins of Record Store Day. Unless you are reissuing Foo Fighters albums to be sold in the supermarket chains that have jumped on the vinyl-revival bandwagon, the situation is nowhere near as VG+ as ERA is suggesting.
We have to ask ourselves why people prefer to buy old records. Is it because vinyl is essentially a retro format, so people naturally look backwards instead of forwards? Is it because the whole culture of music – from the BBC 6Music playlist to festival lineups – is so focused on reliving past glories? I’m guessing it’s because these things are a known quantity, and that is what people want from their records: familiarity, nostalgia, a warm and cosy signifier that can be used in ads for banks, cars and clothes.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that people are still buying vinyl, and it’s no bad thing that it’s becoming more widely available. But it seems to have had very little impact on the industry at large, apart from making things even more difficult.