At a time when markets for used LPs like eBay and Discogs have snuffed the mystery from record shopping, Bob Abrahamian and Patrick Lundborg were the kind of collectors who actively sought out unexplored territory. Over decades of discovery, their lives’ work accumulated meaning that exceeded the value of the vinyl on their shelves — even if those records were breathtakingly rare. Their sudden deaths (Abrahamian took his own life at age 35; Lundborg passed away of unspecified causes at 47) this past summer left the record collecting world in mourning. They were important voices, snuffed out too young.
Both men used their fandom as a means to uncover lost narratives. In the mid ’80s, as the Stockholm garage rock scene discovered psychedelia, Lundborg became part of what was known as the Lumber Island Acid Crew, a social circle where his interest in lysergic experimentation led him to write both Acid Archives, an indispensable encyclopedia of obscure LPs, and a subsequent 520-page research opus, Psychedelia: An Ancient Culture, A Modern Way of Life (2012). His last major bit of research lead him from a cryptic ad placed in underground newspapers in 1966 to the discovery of the only known copy of LSD Underground 12, a mysterious LP of psychedelic musicians tripping and jamming in a Los Angeles studio, recorded while LSD was still legal.
The Chicago-bred Abrahamian’s passion for soul music led him to the hidden byways and lost stories in his hometown as he tracked down and showcased forgotten soul musicians on Sitting in the Park, his weekly show on the community radio station WHPK. He befriended elderly musicians in a way unknown to many disc diggers, and built up an irreplaceable and mostly untapped body of knowledge. His interviews and research became liner notes, his tireless digging often feeding the renowned Chicago-based archival label the Numero Group.
“Bob was at the top of his world, and was able to take advantage of special powers,” says Numero co-founder Rob Sevier. “He had a combination of really incredible intelligence and memory, plus insomnia and the obsessive traits that gave him almost super-human abilities for collecting and archiving.”
But to listen to the chorus of tech pundits and the most passionate among streaming advocates, that kind of adventurous, passionate collecting may be a thing of the past. “We are no longer collecting music,” New York Times tech writer David Carr observed in a column in June, “it is collecting us on various platforms.” Spotify and YouTube continue their seemingly infinite expansion, as album sales continue to hit record lows. A recent essay by Ian Svenonius argued that Apple’s minimalist technological and design aesthetic subconsciously equates possessions with poverty. The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross made a similar point. “What was once known as building a library is now considered hoarding,” he wrote. “One is expected to banish all clutter and consumer culture in a gleaming, empty room.” While vinyl’s small share of the market continues the grow, the amount of listeners purchasing mp3s is plummeting at a much faster rate, 5 percent over the course of last year, another 13 percent during the first quarter of 2014. It is increasingly clear that a majority of listeners are happy to let far-off server farms fulfill their needs for recorded music.
The difference between listening to music from the cloud and listening to a music that’s saved on a hard-drive is, in large part, that one cared enough to get the music onto the hard-drive in the first place. It is that assignation of value that makes collecting a distinct activity from clicking. Streaming rates aside, collected music has a different kind of fidelity. For those overwhelmed by the deluge of music, the act of collecting functions as a way to make sense of it. Collections “make public events private,” the scholar Susan Pearce once suggested, “and move history into the personal sphere, giving each person a purchase on what would otherwise be impersonal and bewildering experiences.”
And while physical media is slowly becoming a thing of the past, there still remains plenty to collect. There’s a vast musical world that falls beyond Spotify’s officially licensed purview, and even outside the realm of established retailers like Amazon and iTunes. It may not have the allure of tracking down rare LPs, but it’s a good bet that the Bob Abrahamians and Patrick Lundborgs of the future will be stalking digital music: the Bandcamp albums that appeared for two weeks, Soundcloud mixes zapped by record companies, vanished YouTube covers, ProTools sessions stored on unsupported peripherals, old MySpace pages, out-of-print LPs lost in the Megaupload purge. A few years ago, the songwriter Aaron Freeman — formerly known as Gene Ween — posted a large batch of recordings to his Soundcloud account, including some of his most experimental and personal material in years. Within a few months, he deleted nearly all of them. All of which raises the question, if there’s music you care about and you don’t save it, who will?
“Digital is different from analog recordings,” says Butch Lazorchak, a digital archivist in the Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. “It’s a little more ephemeral.” The earliest MySpace accounts and ProTools versions have begun a swift slide into inaccessible obsolescence, and preserving them is far more complicated than, say, maintaining a reel-to-reel. For those who value music made at the turn of this century and beyond, collectors — especially collectors of digital ephemera — are more necessary than ever.
“Institutions have always relied on collectors to collect,” says Lazorchak. “But people and organizations have to start collecting these [digital objects] earlier in their lifecycle. In the past, we could wait for a collector to collect over decades, and then acquire those materials, because they were in a format that was still understandable.” To help combat the loss of years of recorded material, the Library is engaged in a variety of outreach programs, advocating for file standardizations, staging events (like this summer’s three-day Digital Preservation 2014 summit and accompanying CURATEcamp “unconference” and maintaining an unofficial blog, the Signal, as a clearinghouse for digital preservation news. Above all, the Library wants to encourage an uprising of what Lazorchak and others call citizen archivists.
“The idea of the citizen archivist isn’t new,” says Lazorchak. Citizen archivists are “the first responders of history,” he has written, “arriving early on the scene to gather, capture, describe and preserve ephemeral artifacts of interest and helping to ensure they survive over time to share with the future.” He cites local Washington, D.C., hardcore hero Ian MacKaye and the extensive Dischord vault of master recordings, live tapes, countless demos by other bands and show flyers as a sterling example of the practice.
Can SoundCloud or any of the streaming companies be trusted to preserve their endless feed of casual recordings? “I don’t think we trust anybody,” says Lazorchak, sounding more like Fox Mulder than a government librarian. “[Data] can disappear over time and no one realizes it, because no one has taken responsibility for it. Those are the twin challenges of organizations like ours. You want to preserve things, but there’s also the ownership aspect. You want to navigate that landscape very carefully.” As an official government librarian, Lazorchak has to be careful about the rights-holders of the material he is intending to preserve, another reason why casual collectors and citizen archivists are fundamental to the historical ecosystem.
Someone who has no such reservations is Kenneth Goldsmith, the conceptual poet, sloganeer and radical collector behind UbuWeb, a massive and proudly unlicensed online repository of rare avant-garde music and film. “Copyright is Over — If You Want,” he titled an editorial on Billboard, (“Guest Post,” Billboard was sure to note in the headline.) He agrees with Lazorchak on one point: “These streams are enjoyable and I use them. Use these things, just don’t trust them,” he says. (“How many times do we have to remind you?” one tweet from UbuWeb read recently. “#donttrustthecloud. Control yr servers.”)
Goldsmith’s UbuWeb is defiantly anti-institutional. Goldsmith bristles at the formal practices of the Library of Congress, and the idea that a “real” archivist must keep scrupulous backups. “There are many levels [of collecting],” he says. “A kid with an mp3 blog is an archivist just as much as these guys are.” Goldsmith compares the disappearing libraries of Megaupload and other similar sites to theorist Hakim Bey’s temporary autonomous zones, where the landscape changes from one generation to the next.
Another method of preservation, and one that Goldsmith fully endorses, is sharing. Arguably the most successful citizen archivists of modern times are the Deadheads. Over the course of the 1970s and ’80s, they built an unbreakable fan network to distribute Grateful Dead live recordings within days of their performance. Available online in high fidelity as early as 1998, the decentralized head-maintained repository (currently most accessible via archive.org or listentothedead.com) has multiplied so extensively that it seems a good bet that many versions of the Dead’s jam epic “Dark Star” actually will survive for future generations.
The instinctive impulse to share is the common trait linking all collectors, from Deadheads to enthusiastic experts like Bob Abrahamian and Patrick Lundborg. “A MAJOR psychedelic discovery,” the late Lundborg raved (in what would be his final blog post) about the forthcoming LSD Underground 12 reissue on Subliminal Sounds, “a fukkin GAME-CHANGER both musically and historically.”
One got the sense that this wasn’t hype. Lundborg was honestly overjoyed that he had dug up something huge, and couldn’t wait to share it with the world. For anyone wondering if modern music has lost its meaning, weathered away by the kind of temporal relationship with song that streaming can foster, collecting is a perfect antidote. As Kenneth Goldsmith suggested, copyright is over, if you want it — collecting, meaning and maybe even history itself. But none of it has to be.
Illustration by Suzy Exposito