Here is the full transcript of Alexis Charpentier’s Talk: How Record Collectors Find Lost Music and Preserve our Cultural Heritage at TED conference.
I became obsessed with records when I was about 12 years old. My parents used to give me money to eat and on most days, instead of eating, I would save it and buy myself a record at the end of the week.
Here I am with a gigantic Walkman that’s about half my leg. It actually looks more like a VCR. So when I was a teenager, the obsession of buying cassettes, vinyls and CDs just kept growing. I was even working in a record store for many years and only ever got paid in records. One day I realized that I had thousands of records more than I could even listen to in my life. I became what many of us are: record junkies — or record diggers, as we like to call ourselves.
Record digging, as the name suggests, means getting your hands dirty. It means spending hours rummaging through warehouses, church basements, yard sales, record stores — all to find records that have been forgotten for decades. Records that have become cultural waste. The earliest record collectors from about the ’30s to the 1960s found and preserved so many important records that would have been lost forever. In those days, most cultural and public institutions didn’t really care to preserve these treasures. In many cases, they were just throwing them into the garbage.
Record digging is a lifestyle. We’re absolutely obsessed with obscure records, expensive records, dollar-bin records, crazy artwork, sub-subgenres. And all of the tiniest details that go with each release. When the media talks about the vinyl revival that’s been happening these last few years, they often forget to mention this community that’s been keeping the vinyl and the tradition and the culture alive for these last 30 years.
It’s a very close-knit but competitive society, a little bit, because when you’re hunting for extremely rare records, if you miss your opportunity, you might not see that record ever in your life. But I guess the only person in here truly impressed by record collectors is another record collector. To the outside world, we seem like a very weird, oddball group of individuals. And they’re mostly right. All the record collectors I know are obsessive maniacs.
We know we’re all crazy in some way. But I think we should be viewed a little bit more like this. We’re music archaeologists. We’re hunting down the lost artifact. We all have a list of records that we would do anything to get our hands on, that we’ve been chasing for years, and we actually call this list our “holy grails”.
When you’re digging for records, you’re surrounded by music you don’t know. You’re surrounded by mystery and by all these dreams — records that people once believed in. Imagine the thousands of artists who were destined to be legends but for various reasons, were just overlooked. Many of these records only exist in a handful of copies, and some have never even been found, never been heard. They’re literally endangered species.
I’ll tell you a story that for me sort of sums up the value of the work of record diggers. The story of a brilliant Montreal musician and composer Henri-Pierre Noël was born and raised in Haiti, but he lived briefly in the US and in Belgium. He passed through Montreal what was supposed to be for two weeks, but he ended up staying for the next 40 years. When he was young, he learned to play piano and developed a very particular way of playing his instrument: very fast and almost like a percussion.
His style was a mix of his Haitian influences and folklore mixed with the American influences that he grew up hearing. So he created a mix of compass mixed with funk and jazz. As a young man, he played and toured with live bands in the US and in Europe, but had never recorded an album or a song before moving to Canada. It was in Montreal in 1979 that he released his first album called, “Piano”. Completely on his own, on Henri-Pierre Noël Records.
He only made what he could afford: 2,000 copies of the record. The record received a little bit of airplay, a little bit of support in Canada and in Haiti, but without a big label behind it, it was very, very difficult. Back then, if your record wasn’t getting played on mainstream radio, if you weren’t in jukeboxes or if you weren’t invited to play on TV, the odds were completely against you.
Releasing an album as an independent artist was so much more difficult than it is today, both in terms of being heard and just distributing the thing. So, soon after, he released a second album, kept a busy schedule playing piano in various clubs in the city, but his records started to accumulate dust slowly.
And those 2,000 copies in the span of 30 years easily started to get lost until only a few copies in the world remained. Then in the mid-2000s, a Montreal record digger that goes by the name Kobal was doing his weekly rounds of just hunting for records. He was in a flea market surrounded by thousands of other dirty, dusty, moldy records. That’s where he found the “Piano” album. He wasn’t specifically looking for it.
Actually, you could say it sort of found him. You could also say that after 20 years of record digging every single week, he had developed a sixth sense for finding the gold. He took the record and inspected it: the front, the artwork, the back, the liner notes, and he was intrigued by the fact that this Haitian musician made a record in Quebec in the late ’70s, so he was intrigued. He took out his little, plastic, portable turntable that he brought with him whenever he was on these digging quests and put the record on. So why don’t we do the same thing?
He fell in love with the music instantly, but he had to know the backstory behind it. He didn’t know where it came from. He knew the artist, at the time of the recording, was living in Montreal, so for months, he tried to track him down. He even found Noël’s business card inside the record sleeve. That’s how DIY Henri-Pierre Noël was. So he found the card inside the record sleeve — of course he did try to call, but after 30 years, the number didn’t work anymore.
So it was only in Belgium, where the artist had once lived, that Kobal managed to find someone that knew the artist personally and gave him the contact. So when he finally sat down with the artist, he made him a promise to someday find a way to get the album rereleased. He then arranged for a British label called Wah Wah 45s to get the two albums reissued. And what happens very often is, in these reissue projects, that it becomes very difficult to find the master tapes — the original recording of the sessions. Art can be destroyed by fires, floods, earthquakes, thrown in the garbage, or just lost forever.
But thankfully, the Henri-Pierre Noël tapes were safe and they were ready for remastering. The record was finally rereleased and received praise from music critics, DJs and listeners worldwide — the praise that it should have received in 1979. The artist was so inspired that he decided to revive his music career, get back on a stage, and play for new audiences. The artist, now in his 60s, told me, “This changed everything for me. I went from planning my retirement to playing on the BBC Radio in London, and on Radio Canada and more.”
But also it gave him a chance to play in front of his three sons for the first time. To me, this story shows perfectly the work of record diggers at its best. Beyond the rarity and the dollar value — and I’ll be honest, we’re totally obsessed by that — the true beauty is to give art a second chance; to save art from oblivion. The work of a good record digger is a constant loop of three phases.
The first thing we do is hunt. We spend hours, days, years of our lives rummaging through dirty and dusty record bins. Everything that we can do to find our hands on the gold. Yes, you can find good records online, but for the deepest treasures, you need to get off the couch and into the wild. That’s why we call it record digging and not record clicking. So what we are is music archaeologists.
But then the next thing we do is we gather. Based on our taste, expertise, personal agenda, we choose carefully which records to save, which records mean something to us. We then try and find out every little thing we can about that record — the artist, the label and supervital information like “Who’s that playing trumpet on track three?” Then we file them, we contextualize them, and we keep them safe. We are music archivists.
And the last thing we do to close the loop is we share. Most record diggers that I know have some sort of a way to share their discovery and elevate the artist through an album reissue, a web article, a radio show. We give records back their rightful place in music history. We are tastemakers and curators. We are musicologists. So for myself and most of the record collectors I’ve encountered in 20 years, I think that we all have some sort of an outlet for these discoveries.
I think it’s our way to keep our sanity and sort of sense of purpose in this very maddening obsession, because it can be sort of a lonely one. But I think we also do it because it serves the human need to pass along cultural knowledge. Speaking of the need for curation, in an era of overwhelming choice, it’s been demonstrated that too much choice actually hinders discovery. For example, if you’re trying to watch something on Netflix, you’re actually only browsing through a catalog of 6,000 titles. Now, compare that with Spotify; if you want to pick something to listen to, you’re browsing through a catalog of 30 million songs.
So I think as you can see, this notion of paralysis by choice affects music more than movies, for example. And there’s a few studies that are starting to show the effects of this. A recent look at the UK music market shows that the top one percent of artists in the UK are actually earning 77 percent of the total revenues inside the music industry. That’s 2013, and that’s progressively getting worse, or progressing. Anyway, if you’re in the one percent, I’m sure you’re happy.
So the takeaway for me is it’s easier for people to listen to music than ever before. People have more music at their disposal than ever before, yet people choose to listen to more of the same music than ever before. And that’s a sad thing. Inspired by my love for music research, record digging and curation, I started a website called “Music Is My Sanctuary” in 2007. Our slogan has always been “Future Classics and Forgotten Treasures”. And it shows our love for discovering music and introducing music both old and new.
From humble beginnings, we’ve built a worldwide platform with a massive audience with over 100 collaborators. We’ve created over 10,000 pieces of content, over 500 hours of audio content. Our audience consists of people who just want more than what’s being offered to them by mainstream music channels. They want to do — they want to dig deeper, but they don’t necessarily have 20 hours a week like us nerds, so they trust us to do that for them.
Curation is at the heart of everything we do. We believe in human recommendations over algorithms. I could talk about the passion of record digging for days, but let me conclude this way. After many years of doing it, a record collector’s collection becomes sort of his autobiography.
Last year, I was DJ-ing in Poland, and the people that were hosting me, they had this amazing record collection, and of course I was intrigued and I said, “Are you selling these?” They then explained to me that it was the collection that belonged to their dear friend Maceo who passed away a few months earlier.
And they were doing a project of inviting different people to take the collection and to create something new from it, whether it’s sampling or DJ mixes, you know, just to give it a second life. And so after a few hours of going through the collection myself and creating a DJ mix from it, even though I never got the chance to meet him, it felt like in a special way, me and him, we got to talk about records for a few hours.
So, as record diggers, our work and our record collections are there to be passed on to the next generation. Beautiful art deserves to be cherished, shared and rediscovered. Embrace curators; we are alternative voices to the mainstream music channels, digital or otherwise.
Go beyond the algorithm. Whatever kind of music you like, there are so many websites, radio shows, DJs, record stores out there that are just waiting to share their discoveries with you. We do this work for you. All you have to do is open your ears and take risks. This music will change your life.