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TEDxMontreal

Alexis Charpentier: How record collectors find lost music and preserve our cultural heritage

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For generations, record collectors have played a vital role in the preservation of musical and cultural heritage by "digging" for obscure music created by overlooked artists. Alexis Charpentier shares his love of records -- and stories of how collectors have given forgotten music a second chance at being heard. Learn more about the culture of record digging (and, maybe, pick up a new hobby) with this fun, refreshing talk.

- Record digger, DJ, music entrepreneur
Alexis Charpentier believes record collectors, music curators and DJs serve a crucial role as cultural preservationists and alternative voices to mainstream music platforms. Full bio

I became obsessed with records
when I was about 12 years old.
00:12
My parents used to give me money to eat
00:16
and on most days, instead of eating,
00:18
I would save it and buy myself
a record at the end of the week.
00:20
Here I am with a gigantic Walkman
that's about half my leg --
00:23
(Laughter)
00:26
It actually looks more like a VCR.
00:28
(Laughter)
00:30
So when I was a teenager,
00:32
the obsession of buying cassettes,
vinyls and CDs just kept growing.
00:33
I was even working
in a record store for many years
00:37
and only ever got paid in records.
00:40
One day I realized
that I had thousands of records more
00:43
than I could even listen to in my life.
00:46
I became what many of us are:
00:49
record junkies --
00:51
or record diggers,
as we like to call ourselves.
00:52
Record digging, as the name suggests,
00:56
means getting your hands dirty.
00:58
It means spending hours
rummaging through warehouses,
01:00
church basements,
01:04
yard sales, record stores --
01:05
all to find records that have been
forgotten for decades.
01:07
Records that have become cultural waste.
01:11
The earliest record collectors
from about the '30s to the 1960s
01:14
found and preserved
so many important records
01:18
that would have been lost forever.
01:21
In those days, most
cultural and public institutions
01:24
didn't really care
to preserve these treasures.
01:27
In many cases, they were just
throwing them into the garbage.
01:29
Record digging is a lifestyle.
01:33
We're absolutely obsessed
with obscure records,
01:35
expensive records, dollar-bin records,
01:39
crazy artwork,
01:41
sub-subgenres.
01:42
And all of the tiniest details
that go with each release.
01:44
When the media talks
about the vinyl revival
01:48
that's been happening
these last few years,
01:50
they often forget
to mention this community
01:52
that's been keeping the vinyl
and the tradition and the culture alive
01:55
for these last 30 years.
02:00
It's a very close-knit
but competitive society, a little bit,
02:02
because when you're hunting
for extremely rare records,
02:06
if you miss your opportunity,
02:09
you might not see that record
ever in your life.
02:10
But I guess the only person in here
truly impressed by record collectors
02:14
is another record collector.
02:18
To the outside world,
02:21
we seem like a very weird,
oddball group of individuals.
02:22
And --
02:27
(Laughter)
02:28
And they're mostly right.
02:29
All the record collectors I know
are obsessive maniacs.
02:30
We know we're all crazy in some way.
02:33
But I think we should be viewed
a little bit more like this.
02:36
(Laughter)
02:39
We're music archaeologists.
02:40
We're hunting down the lost artifact.
02:41
We all have a list of records that we
would do anything to get our hands on,
02:44
that we've been chasing for years,
02:47
and we actually call this list
our "holy grails."
02:49
When you're digging for records,
02:53
you're surrounded by music you don't know.
02:54
You're surrounded by mystery
and by all these dreams --
02:57
records that people once believed in.
03:00
Imagine the thousands of artists
who were destined to be legends
03:03
but for various reasons,
were just overlooked.
03:06
Many of these records
only exist in a handful of copies,
03:10
and some have never even been found,
03:13
never been heard.
03:15
They're literally endangered species.
03:17
I'll tell you a story
03:20
that for me sort of sums up
the value of the work of record diggers.
03:21
The story of a brilliant
Montreal musician and composer.
03:26
Henri-Pierre Noël
was born and raised in Haiti,
03:31
but he lived briefly
in the US and in Belgium.
03:34
He passed through Montreal
what was supposed to be for two weeks,
03:37
but he ended up
staying for the next 40 years.
03:40
When he was young,
he learned to play piano
03:43
and developed a very particular way
of playing his instrument:
03:45
very fast and almost like a percussion.
03:48
His style was a mix
of his Haitian influences and folklore
03:50
mixed with the American influences
that he grew up hearing.
03:55
So he created a mix
of compas mixed with funk and jazz.
03:58
As a young man,
04:03
he played and toured with live bands
in the US and in Europe,
04:05
but had never recorded an album
or a song before moving to Canada.
04:07
It was in Montreal in 1979
04:12
that he released
his first album called, "Piano."
04:14
Completely on his own,
on Henri-Pierre Noël Records.
04:17
He only made what he could afford:
2,000 copies of the record.
04:21
The record received
a little bit of airplay,
04:25
a little bit of support
in Canada and in Haiti,
04:28
but without a big label behind it,
04:31
it was very, very difficult.
04:34
Back then,
04:36
if your record wasn't getting played
on mainstream radio,
04:37
if you weren't in jukeboxes
or if you weren't invited to play on TV,
04:40
the odds were completely against you.
04:43
Releasing an album
as an independent artist
04:45
was so much more difficult
than it is today,
04:48
both in terms of being heard
and just distributing the thing.
04:50
So, soon after,
he released a second album,
04:53
kept a busy schedule playing piano
in various clubs in the city,
04:57
but his records started
to accumulate dust slowly.
05:00
And those 2,000 copies
in the span of 30 years
05:04
easily started to get lost
05:06
until only a few copies
in the world remained.
05:08
Then in the mid-2000s,
05:12
a Montreal record digger
that goes by the name Kobal
05:15
was doing his weekly rounds
of just hunting for records.
05:18
He was in a flea market
05:21
surrounded by thousands
of other dirty, dusty, moldy records.
05:23
That's where he found the "Piano" album.
05:27
He wasn't specifically looking for it.
05:30
Actually, you could say
it sort of found him.
05:32
You could also say that after 20 years
of record digging every single week,
05:34
he had developed a sixth sense
for finding the gold.
05:38
He took the record and inspected it:
05:42
the front, the artwork,
the back, the liner notes,
05:44
and he was intrigued by the fact
that this Haitian musician made a record
05:47
in Quebec in the late '70s,
05:51
so he was intrigued.
05:53
He took out his little,
plastic, portable turntable
05:56
that he brought with him
whenever he was on these digging quests
05:58
and put the record on.
06:02
So why don't we do the same thing?
06:04
(Music)
06:14
He fell in love with the music instantly,
06:45
but he had to know
the backstory behind it.
06:49
He didn't know where it came from.
06:51
He knew the artist,
06:54
at the time of the recording,
06:56
was living in Montreal,
06:57
so for months, he tried to track him down.
06:58
He even found Noël's business card
inside the record sleeve.
07:01
That's how DIY Henri-Pierre Noël was.
07:05
So he found the card
inside the record sleeve --
07:09
of course he did try to call,
07:13
but after 30 years,
the number didn't work anymore.
07:14
So it was only in Belgium,
07:18
where the artist had once lived,
07:20
that Kobal managed to find someone
that knew the artist personally
07:22
and gave him the contact.
07:25
So when he finally
sat down with the artist,
07:27
he made him a promise to someday
find a way to get the album rereleased.
07:30
He then arranged for a British label
called Wah Wah 45s
07:37
to get the two albums reissued.
07:40
And what happens very often is,
07:43
in these reissue projects,
07:45
that it becomes very difficult
to find the master tapes --
07:46
the original recording of the sessions.
07:49
Art can be destroyed
by fires, floods, earthquakes,
07:52
thrown in the garbage,
07:55
or just lost forever.
07:56
But thankfully,
07:57
the Henri-Pierre Noël tapes were safe
07:59
and they were ready for remastering.
08:00
The record was finally rereleased
08:03
and received praise from music critics,
DJs and listeners worldwide --
08:05
the praise that it should have
received in 1979.
08:10
The artist was so inspired that he decided
to revive his music career,
08:15
get back on a stage,
and play for new audiences.
08:18
The artist, now in his 60s,
08:22
told me, "This changed everything for me.
08:25
I went from planning my retirement
08:27
to playing on the BBC Radio in London,
and on Radio Canada and more."
08:29
But also it gave him a chance to play
08:33
in front of his three sons
for the first time.
08:35
To me, this story shows perfectly
the work of record diggers at its best.
08:38
Beyond the rarity and the dollar value --
08:43
and I'll be honest,
we're totally obsessed by that --
08:45
the true beauty
is to give art a second chance;
08:48
to save art from oblivion.
08:51
The work of a good record digger
is a constant loop of three phases.
08:54
The first thing we do is hunt.
08:57
We spend hours, days, years of our lives
09:00
rummaging through
dirty and dusty record bins.
09:02
Everything that we can do
to find our hands on the gold.
09:05
Yes, you can find good records online,
09:10
but for the deepest treasures,
09:12
you need to get off the couch
and into the wild.
09:13
That's why we call it record digging
and not record clicking.
09:16
(Laughter)
09:19
So what we are is music archaeologists.
09:20
But then the next thing
we do is we gather.
09:23
Based on our taste,
expertise, personal agenda,
09:25
we choose carefully which records to save,
09:27
which records mean something to us.
09:30
We then try and find out every
little thing we can about that record --
09:32
the artist, the label
09:35
and supervital information
09:37
like "Who's that playing trumpet
on track three?"
09:39
Then we file them, we contextualize them,
09:42
and we keep them safe.
09:44
We are music archivists.
09:46
And the last thing we do
to close the loop is we share.
09:48
Most record diggers that I know
have some sort of a way
09:51
to share their discovery
and elevate the artist
09:54
through an album reissue,
09:57
a web article, a radio show.
09:58
We give records back
their rightful place in music history.
10:01
We are tastemakers and curators.
10:05
We are musicologists.
10:07
So for myself
10:09
and most of the record collectors
I've encountered in 20 years,
10:10
I think that we all
have some sort of an outlet
10:13
for these discoveries.
10:16
I think it's our way to keep our sanity
and sort of sense of purpose
10:17
in this very maddening obsession,
10:21
because it can be sort of a lonely one.
10:24
But I think we also do it
because it serves the human need
10:26
to pass along cultural knowledge.
10:29
Speaking of the need for curation,
10:31
in an era of overwhelming choice,
10:34
it's been demonstrated
10:36
that too much choice
actually hinders discovery.
10:37
For example,
10:39
if you're trying to watch
something on Netflix,
10:41
you're actually only browsing
through a catalog of 6,000 titles.
10:43
Now, compare that with Spotify;
10:48
if you want to pick
something to listen to,
10:50
you're browsing through a catalog
of 30 million songs.
10:52
So I think as you can see,
10:56
this notion of paralysis by choice
10:57
affects music more than movies,
10:59
for example.
11:02
And there's a few studies
11:04
that are starting to show
the effects of this.
11:05
A recent look at the UK music market
11:07
shows that the top one percent of artists
in the UK are actually earning 77 percent
11:09
of the total revenues
inside the music industry.
11:14
That's 2013,
11:17
and that's progressively getting worse,
11:19
or progressing.
11:22
Anyway, if you're in the one percent,
I'm sure you're happy.
11:24
(Laughter)
11:26
So the takeaway for me is
11:28
it's easier for people
to listen to music than ever before.
11:31
People have more music
at their disposal than ever before,
11:36
yet people choose to listen to more
of the same music than ever before.
11:39
And that's a sad thing.
11:43
Inspired by my love for music research,
record digging and curation,
11:47
I started a website called
"Music Is My Sanctuary" in 2007.
11:51
Our slogan has always been
"Future Classics and Forgotten Treasures."
11:56
And it shows our love
for discovering music
11:59
and introducing music both old and new.
12:02
From humble beginnings,
12:04
we've built a worldwide platform
with a massive audience
12:06
with over 100 collaborators.
12:09
We've created over
10,000 pieces of content,
12:11
over 500 hours of audio content.
12:13
Our audience consists of people
12:16
who just want more
than what's being offered to them
12:18
by mainstream music channels.
12:20
They want to do --
12:22
they want to dig deeper,
12:24
but they don't necessarily
have 20 hours a week like us nerds,
12:25
so they trust us to do that for them.
12:30
Curation is at the heart
of everything we do.
12:33
We believe in human
recommendations over algorithms.
12:35
I could talk about the passion
of record digging for days,
12:40
but let me conclude this way.
12:44
After many years of doing it,
12:46
a record collector's collection
becomes sort of his autobiography.
12:48
Last year, I was DJ-ing in Poland,
12:54
and the people that were hosting me,
12:57
they had this amazing record collection,
12:59
and of course I was intrigued
13:01
and I said, "Are you selling these?"
13:02
They then explained to me
that it was the collection
13:05
that belonged to their dear friend Maceo
who passed away a few months earlier.
13:08
And they were doing a project
of inviting different people
13:13
to take the collection
and to create something new from it,
13:17
whether it's sampling or DJ mixes,
13:20
you know, just to give it a second life.
13:22
And so after a few hours
of going through the collection myself
13:24
and creating a DJ mix from it,
13:27
even though I never
got the chance to meet him,
13:30
it felt like in a special way,
13:32
me and him,
13:35
we got to talk
about records for a few hours.
13:36
So, as record diggers,
13:39
our work and our record
collections are there
13:42
to be passed on to the next generation.
13:45
Beautiful art deserves to be cherished,
shared and rediscovered.
13:48
Embrace curators;
13:54
we are alternative voices
to the mainstream music channels,
13:55
digital or otherwise.
13:59
Go beyond the algorithm.
14:01
Whatever kind of music you like,
14:03
there are so many websites,
radio shows, DJs, record stores out there
14:05
that are just waiting
to share their discoveries with you.
14:09
We do this work for you.
14:12
All you have to do
is open your ears and take risks.
14:14
This music will change your life.
14:17
Thank you.
14:19
(Applause)
14:20

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About the speaker:

Alexis Charpentier - Record digger, DJ, music entrepreneur
Alexis Charpentier believes record collectors, music curators and DJs serve a crucial role as cultural preservationists and alternative voices to mainstream music platforms.

Why you should listen

Alexis Charpentier (also known as Lexis) is the founder of the Music Is My Sanctuary website and collective, one of the most respected and trusted voices in the independent music community. 

He is also the creator and producer of 24 Hours of Vinyl, a project that celebrates the love of vinyl culture by gathering DJs and collectors from different cities worldwide. During a 24-hour music marathon, participants share some of the best music discoveries from their vinyl collections.

A music lover above all, Charpentier is passionate about projects that that champion musicians from the past and present, while creating alternatives to commercial platforms. Through thousands of content pieces, interviews, radio sessions and events, his projects connect music lovers in a more profound manner than what’s possible with algorithm-driven suggestions. 

Based in Montreal, Canada, Charpentier runs the projects that fall under the Music Is My Sanctuary umbrella. He works as a music programmer at the PHI Center, a multidisciplinary arts and culture center. He also tours worldwide as a DJ and has regular club nights in his home city.

More profile about the speaker
Alexis Charpentier | Speaker | TED.com