As It Happens

Rising New York rent forces out iconic music archive that's home to 3 million records

The Archive of Contemporary Music houses one of the largest record collections in the world. But the archive is being forced out of its long-time New York location because of rising rents in the city.

'The collection is really about discovery,' says Archive of Contemporary Music founder Bob George

Bob George is the founder and director of the Archive of Contemporary Music. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

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One of the largest record collections in the world is in need of a new home.

The Archive of Contemporary Music houses roughly three million records, as well as one-of-a-kind music memorabilia. But now, facing rising rents, the New York City-based archive is being forced to move to a new location.

"It's more difficult in Manhattan now," Bob George, the archive's founder and director, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"It's just a completely different city than when we started 35 years ago."

The archive is currently located in Manhattan's trendy Tribeca neighbourhood. The building boasts nearly seven-metre ceilings, and the archive's record shelves tower to impossible heights stacked with vinyl.

"It looks like a wet dream for every record collector in the world," George said. "It's basically an enormous space."

The 12-foot shelves are stacked high with rows and rows of vinyl from all genres and generations. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

The collection has everything from bossa to baroque, rock 'n' roll to rhumba.

But some of the highlights from the vast archive include an early white label pressing of the Rolling Stones' first record signed by the band, and a signed lobby card from one of the first performances of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. There's also a signed copy of a relatively unknown Maya Angelou record called Miss Calpyso.

Beyond the rare and valuable gems, George says the true value of the collection is that it provides a physical record of history and culture.

"Will Spotify be here in 40 years? Will Apple be here in 40 years?" George said. "We're not sure if the physical object will outlast the digital, and so we're hedging our bets. We're collecting both."

George was a disc-jockey and started the archive with 47,000 records from his own collection. But he says the passion isn't simply about nostalgia for an older format.

"I don't own a single sound recording. I refuse to have them in my house. I can visit them here," George said. "Basically, the whole idea is preservation. We need to have this stuff around when it's needed."

In addition to records, George says the archive includes some very rare memorablia like a signed lobby card from one of the first performances of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

George says the director of the film Taking Woodstock was able to find an obscure song by Bert Sommer, who was one of the first performers at the 1969 music festival. The archive had five of Sommer's albums in the archive, even though George hadn't heard the name before.

"The collection is really all about discovery. People ask you for something — something you might not like or care about or know about," George said. "And all of sudden, by us taking everything, it becomes available."

Through the years, George says the archive has often relied on donations to help stay afloat. Famous musicians like Keith Richards, Nile Rodgers, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson have all supported the archive.

And now that the word is out about its need for a new home, George says even more people are stepping forward to help.

"We're getting wonderful offers from lots of people," George said. "The city of Stuttgart has agreed to take everything and pay for everything and bring us over to Germany."

George helped start the archive with his own collection of thousands of records. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

While he acknowledges the value of being in such a musically rich and diverse city like New York, George says he is open to all offers.

"Hey, we'll go to Vancouver," he said. "I've heard that there's a warm current that runs close to it."

The archive has until June to find a new location. For now, George is happy to browse the offers like he does the discs on his shelves.

"It's all very attractive and very wonderful that people are so supportive," George said. 

Written by John McGill with files from Chris Harbord. Interview produced by Chris Harbord.