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.