The day the music died is a lie. Music never dies. It’s the one thing our minds protect at all costs. If only our wallets were so loyal. Now they have a chance to be: This week, the largest popular music collection in America (3 million recordings!) is, for the first time, asking the public for financial help. Is New York’s legacy as a music town worth $100,000? That’s the question the Archive of Contemporary Music is asking.
The Archive is a massive private research library that has been in downtown Manhattan since 1985, when Bob George balked at the price of rent in SoHo — $100 a month — and instead took over a $65 a month space in what would become TriBeCa, where bums burned wood in 50-gallon drums. “It had no walls, no ceiling, no floors, no electricity, nothing,” he tells Rolling Stone. “We built it ourselves. We made this place with our own determination.”
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 and value are as alien to us as they are, well, to aliens.”
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George’s commitment is dogged. When Martin Scorsese wanted an obscure Italian song in Goodfellas, George roamed Little Italy humming the tune until someone recognized it (“You can solve every problem in New York if you just walk through it,” he says).
“What pisses me off is that through six mayors and 25 or so people of the Department of Cultural Affairs, which is five blocks away, none of them have ever visited us,” he says. “Not even the local Community Board. Nobody gets it.” The Woody Guthrie Collection left New York City in 2013 for Tulsa. The Bob Dylan Archive joined in 2017. George is not keen on being the third in line.
In a snobby world of collectors and curators, George has offered a different take on his archive’s music collection: open arms. “We’re the Molly Bloom of music,” he says. “Did you read Ulysses? The sex scene, y’know? Yes! Yes! Yes!” At a time when some in the city were scrubbing Keith Haring murals off subway platforms, 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.”
Saidah Blount, a brand manager with Sonos who is organizing a joint podcast with the archive in April, sighs when asked about the archive. “It’s a little secret,” she says. “Those in the know and are connected to music really know about it. It’s not just Bob in record form; it’s a storytelling hub. It’s a place that’s lived countless lives in 40 years. It’s the magic that helps the rest of the city happen. You feel the love, the sense of belonging it builds.”
For the first time in a generation, the archive is now asking the public for help: On Monday, it launched a $100,000 GoFundMe (supported by a $50,000 dollar-for-dollar matching grant from the Jaharis Family Foundation). The money aims to avoid eviction by paying $90,000 in owed rent that the archive has built up since its rent jumped in 2016 from about $10,000 a month to $21,000 a month, George says. “What’s crazy,” he adds, “is that it’s still a deal; well below market value. But the city has become a place where even deals are unaffordable.”
At the same time that New York is giddy about unveiling a $150 million stairway to nowhere, George is asking for about half the worth of a Wall Street worker’s annual bonus. He recalled the newspaper ad that funded Woodstock — the one that read, “Looking for young men with unlimited capital” — and suggested that maybe he try something similar.
For $500 a pop, he’s offering spots on an entry-level board called the Players Association, but every little bit helps ($50 buys you entrance to a members-only party). “At $500, even the drummer can afford it,” George says, laughing. “But, seriously, if we can’t get $100,000 in New York to help and advance the arts, the city truly is dead.”