Brazilian Owns All the Music
In an office near the back of his 2500-square-meter warehouse in São Paulo, Zero Freitas is studying the song list of an old album. While his close examination of the record makes him look like a professor, Freitas is actually a wealthy businessman who, since he was a child, has been unable to stop buying records. “I’ve gone to therapy for 40 years to try to explain this to myself,” he said.
His compulsion to buy records is tied up in childhood memories: a hi-fi stereo his father bought when Freitas was 5 years old, and the 200 albums the seller included as part of the deal. Freitas was an adolescent in December 1964 when he bought his first record, a new release called “Roberto Carlos Sings to the Children.” By the time he finished high school, Zero Freitas owned roughly 3,000 records.
After studying music composition in college, he took over the family business, a private bus line that serves the São Paulo suburbs. By age 30, he owned about 30,000 records. Ten years later, his bus company expanded, making him rich. Not long after that, he split up with his wife, and the pace of his buying exploded. “Maybe it’s because I was alone,” Freitas said. “I don’t know.” He soon had a collection of over 100,000 albums. Today, his best guess at a total is several million records!
Paul Mawhinney, a former music-store owner in Pittsburgh, spent more than 40 years amassing a collection of some three million LPs and 45s. The world’s indifference, he believed, made even the most neglected records precious: music that hadn’t been transferred to digital files would vanish forever unless someone bought his collection and preserved it.
Mawhinney spent about two decades trying to find someone to buy his collection. He struck a deal to sell his entire collection of three million records for U$28.5 million in the late 1990s with an Internet retailer, CDNow. But the sale of his collection fell through. He contacted the US government’s Library of Congress, but that didn’t work. In 2008 he sold the collection on the Internet auction website, eBay, for about U$3 million, but the winning bidder said his Internet account had been stolen, and he hadn’t really bid for the collection. After 20 years, Mawhinney’s collection was still for sale.
Then last year, a friend of Mawhinney’s showed him an advertisement in the back of Billboard magazine: “We buy any record collection. Any style of music.” Later that year, eight empty trucks, each 17 meters long, arrived outside Mawhinney’s warehouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The trucks left full of vinyl. Mawhinney never met the buyer. “I didn’t know a thing about him — nothing. I just know all the records were shipped to Brazil.”
For years, Zero Freitas has been buying vinyl record album collections anonymously. Besides Mawhinney’s, he’s purchased numerous other collections, such as from Murray Gershenz, one of the most celebrated record collectors in California.
Recently, Freitas hired a dozen college interns to help him bring some logic to his obsession. In his warehouse office today, seven interns are busy at their computers. Each intern examines every record, one by one. They remove the disc from its sleeve and clean the vinyl with a soft cloth before handing the album to another young intern. This intern goes into a black-curtained booth and takes a picture of the cover. Eventually the record makes its way through the assembly line of interns, and its information is logged into a computer database. An intern types the name of the artist (the Animals), the title (“Animalism”), year of release (1966), record label (MGM) and — referencing the tag on the crate the record was pulled from — noted that it once belonged to Paulette Weiss, a New York music critic whose collection of 4,000 albums Freitas recently purchased.
The interns can collectively catalog about 500 records per day — an insufficient rate, as it happens, because Freitas has been buying them faster than they can be cataloged. Between June and November of last year, more than a dozen 15-meter-long shipping containers arrived, holding more than 100,000 newly purchased records in each container. Thus the computer information cannot keep pace with Freitas’s continual purchases.
Many of the records come from a team of international buyers Freitas employs to negotiate his deals. They’re scattered across the globe — New York, Mexico City, South Africa, Nigeria, Cairo. The brassy jazz the interns are listening to today on the office turntable is from Freitas’s buyer in Havana, who so far has shipped him about 100,000 Cuban albums — almost everything ever recorded in Cuba, Freitas believes.
Collecting has always been a solitary pursuit for Freitas, and one he keeps to himself. When he bought the remaining stock of the legendary Modern Sound record store in Rio a couple of years ago, a Brazilian newspaper reported that the buyer was a Japanese collector — an identity invented to protect Freitas’s anonymity. Until recently, his collection hasn’t been publicized, even within Brazil. Few of his fellow vinyl enthusiasts are aware of the extent of his holdings, partly because Freitas never listed any of his records for sale.
However, in 2012, Bob George, a music archivist in New York, traveled to São Paulo to prepare for Brazilian World Music Day, a celebration that George organized, and he visited Freitas’s home and warehouse. “What’s the good of having this amazing collection,” George remembers telling Freitas, “if you can’t do something with it or share it?”
In 1985, Bob George had converted his private collection of 47,000 records into a publicly accessible resource called the ARChive of Contemporary Music. That collection has grown today to include 2.2 million tapes, records, and compact discs. Musicologists, record companies, and filmmakers regularly consult this nonprofit archive seeking hard-to-find songs. In 2009, George entered into a partnership with Columbia University in New York, and his archive has attracted support from many musicians, who donate recordings, money, or both. The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has provided funding for the archive’s collection of early blues recordings. David Bowie, Paul Simon, Nile Rodgers, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme all sit on the board of directors of the ARChive.
Freitas has recently begun preparing his warehouse for his own public venture, inspired by the efforts and encouragement of Bob George and ARChive. Freitas calls his new venture Emporium Musical. Last year, he got federal authorization to import used records — an activity that hadn’t been explicitly allowed by Brazilian trade officials until now. Once the Emporium Musical archive is registered as a nonprofit company, Freitas will shift his collection over to the Emporium. Eventually he envisions it as a sort of library, with listening stations set up among the thousands of shelves. If he has duplicate copies of records, patrons will be able to check out copies to take home.
Many of Zero’s records are highly valuable. In his living room, a coffee table is covered with recently acquired rarities. On top of a stack of 45s sat “Barbie,” a 1962 single by Kenny and the Cadets, a short-lived group featuring the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson on lead vocals and, as backup singers, Wilson’s brother Carl and their mother, Audree. In the same stack was another single — “Heartache Souvenirs”/”Chicken Shack,” by William Powell — that sold for U$5,000 on eBay. Nearby sat a Cuban album by Ivette Hernandez, a pianist who left Cuba after Fidel Castro took power; Hernandez’s likeness on the cover was emblazoned with a bold black stamp that read, in Spanish, “Traitor to the Cuban Revolution.”
Most of the American and British records Freitas has collected have already been digitally preserved. But in countries like Brazil, Cuba, and Nigeria, up to 80 percent of recorded music from the mid-20th century has never been transferred. In many places, vinyl is it, and it’s increasingly hard to find. Freitas slumped, then covered his face with his hands and emitted a low, rumbling groan. “It’s very important to save this,” he said. “Very important.”
Freitas is currently negotiating a deal to purchase and digitize thousands of Brazilian 78 rpm recordings, many of which date to the early 1900s, and he expects to digitize some of the rarest records in his collection shortly thereafter. But he said he could more effectively save the music by protecting the existing vinyl originals in a secure, fireproof facility. “Vinyl is very durable,” he said. “If you store them vertically, out of the sun, in a temperature-controlled environment, they can pretty much last forever. They aren’t like compact discs, which are actually very fragile.”
In his quest to save obscure music, Freitas sometimes buys records he doesn’t realize he already owns. This spring he finally agreed to sell some of his duplicate records, which make up as much as 30 percent of his total collection. Allan Bastos, who works for Freitas as his record buyer in New York, commented: “I said, ‘Come on Zero, you have 10 copies of the same album — let’s sell four or five!’ ” Freitas smiled and shrugged. “Yes, but all of those 10 copies are different.” Then he chuckled, as if recognizing how illogical his position might sound. In March, Freitas began boxing up 10,000 copies of Brazilian LPs to send to Bob George in an exchange between the two archives. It was a modest first step, but significant.
Earlier this year, Freitas and Bastos stopped into Eric Discos, a used-record store in São Paulo that Freitas frequents. “I put some things aside for you,” the owner, Eric Crauford, told him. The men walked next door, where Crauford lives. Hundreds of records and dozens of CDs teetered in precarious stacks — jazz, heavy metal, pop, easy listening — all for Freitas.
Freitas purchased Crauford’s selections without inspecting them, as he always does. He told Crauford he’d send someone later in the week to pick them up and deliver them to his house. “Zero isn’t taking too many of the records to his house, is he?” Bastos asked a woman who helps Freitas manage his cataloging operation. She replied, “Almost every time Freitas picks up a record at the archive, he’ll tell a whole story about it. Often he becomes overwhelmed with emotion. It’s like he almost cries with every record he sees.”
Sometimes Freitas seems ashamed of his own eclecticism. “A real collector is someone who targets specific records, or sticks to a particular genre.” But Freitas hates to filter his purchases. Bastos once stumbled upon an appealing collection that included 15,000 polka albums. He called Freitas to see if he was still willing to buy the collection, knowing he would have to purchase all those polka albums. “Zero was asking me about specific polka artists, whether they were in the collection or not,” Bastos remembered. “He has this amazing knowledge of every kind of music.”
Zero Freitas’s desire to own all the music in the world is clearly tangled up in something that, even after all these years, remains a mystery. Maybe it’s the nostalgia triggered by the songs on that first Roberto Carlos album he bought. In Freitas’s basement, he keeps a few thousand special records, a private collection he doesn’t share with the archive. He walks deep into an aisle in search of the first LP he ever bought, the 1964 Roberto Carlos record. He pulls it from the shelf, turning it slowly in his hands, staring at the cover as if it were an irreplaceable artifact — as if he did not, in fact, own 1,793 additional copies of albums by Roberto Carlos.
[This article was written by Monte Reel and appeared in The New York Times. It was edited by CIE. ]