The record holder Meet the Brazil­ian vy­ing to own all the vinyl in the world

Brazil­ian bus mag­nate Zero Fre­itas is ob­ses­sively buy­ing up all the vinyl in the world. By Monte Reel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -


AUL Mawhin­ney, a for­mer mu­sic-store owner in Pitts­burgh, spent more than 40 years amass­ing a col­lec­tion of about three mil­lion LPs and 45s, many of them bar­gain­bin re­jects that had been thor­oughly for­got­ten. 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 who agreed. He struck a deal for $US28.5 mil­lion in the late 1990s with the in­ter­net re­tailer CDNow, he says, but the sale of his col­lec­tion fell through when the dot­com bub­ble started to quiver. He con­tacted the US Li­brary of Congress, but ne­go­ti­a­tions fiz­zled. In 2008 he auc­tioned the col­lec­tion on eBay for $US3,002,150, but the win­ning bid­der turned out to be an un­sus­pect­ing Ir­ish­man who said his ac­count had been hacked.

Then last year, a friend of Mawhin­ney’s pointed him to­wards a clas­si­fied ad in the back of Bill­board mag­a­zine:

RECORD COL­LEC­TIONS. We BUY any record col­lec­tion. Any style of mu­sic. We pay HIGHER prices than any­one else.

That au­tumn, eight empty semi­trail­ers, each 16m long, ar­rived out­side Mawhin­ney’s ware­house in Pitts­burgh. The con­voy left, heavy with vinyl. Mawhin­ney never met the buyer.

“I don’t know a thing about him — noth­ing,” Mawhin­ney says. “I just know all the records were shipped to Brazil.”

Just weeks be­fore, Mur­ray Ger­shenz, one of the most cel­e­brated col­lec­tors on the west coast and owner of the Mu­sic Man Mur­ray record store in Los An­ge­les, died at 91. For years he, too, had been shop­ping his col­lec­tion around, hop­ing it might end up in a mu­seum or a pub­lic li­brary. “That hasn’t worked out,” The Los An­ge­les Times re­ported in 2010, “so his next stop could be the Dump­ster.” But in his fi­nal months, Ger­shenz agreed to sell his en­tire col­lec­tion to an anony­mous buyer. “A man came in with money, enough money,” his son, Irv­ing, said. “And it seemed like he was go­ing to give it a good home.”

Those records, too, were shipped to Brazil. So were the in­ven­to­ries of sev­eral iconic mu­sic stores, in­clud­ing Colony Records, that glo­ri­ous mess of LP bins and sheet-mu­sic racks that was a land­mark in New York’s Times Square for 64 years. The store closed its doors for good in late 2012, but ev­ery sin­gle record left in the build­ing — about 200,000 in all — ended up with a sin­gle col­lec­tor, a man driven to get his hands on all the records in the world.

In an of­fice near the back of his 2320sq m ware­house in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Zero Fre­itas, 62, slips into a chair, grabs one of the LPs stacked on a ta­ble and ex­am­ines its track list. He is wear­ing wire-rimmed glasses, khaki shorts and a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt; his grey hair is thin on top but curls along his col­lar in the back. Study­ing the song list, he ap­pears vaguely pro­fes­so­rial. In truth, Fre­itas is 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 says.

His com­pul­sion to buy records, he says, is tied up in child­hood mem­o­ries: a hi-fi stereo his fa­ther bought when Fre­itas was five, and the 200 al­bums the seller threw in as part of the deal. Fre­itas was an ado­les­cent in De­cem­ber 1964 when he bought his first record, a new re­lease: Roberto Car­los Sings to the Chil­dren, by a singer who would go on to be­come one of Bra- zil’s most popular record­ing stars. By the time he fin­ished high school, Fre­itas owned roughly 3000 records.

After study­ing mu­sic com­po­si­tion in col­lege, he took over the fam­ily business, a pri­vate bus line that serves the Sao Paulo sub­urbs. By age 30 he had about 30,000 records. About 10 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 says. “I don’t know.” He soon had a col­lec­tion in the six fig­ures; his best guess at a cur­rent to­tal is sev­eral mil­lion al­bums.

Re­cently, Fre­itas hired a dozen col­lege in­terns to help him bring some logic to his ob­ses­sion. In the ware­house of­fice, seven of them are busy at in­di­vid­ual work­sta­tions; one reaches into a crate of LPs marked “PW #1425” and fishes out a record. She re­moves the disc from its sleeve and cleans the vinyl with a soft cloth be­fore hand­ing the al­bum to the young man next to her. He ducks into a black-cur­tained booth and snaps 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 — notes that it once be­longed to Paulette Weiss, a New York mu­sic critic whose col­lec­tion of 4000 al­bums Fre­itas re­cently pur­chased.

The in­terns can col­lec­tively cat­a­logue about 500 records a day — a Sisyphean rate, as it hap­pens, be­cause Fre­itas has been bury­ing them with new ac­qui­si­tions.

Be­tween June and Novem­ber of last year, more than a dozen 12m-long shipping con­tain­ers ar­rived, each hold­ing more than 100,000 newly pur­chased records. Though the ware- house was orig­i­nally the home of his sec­ond business — a company that pro­vides sound and light­ing sys­tems for rock con­certs and other big events — th­ese days the sound boards and light booms are far out­num­bered by the vinyl.

Many of the records come from a team of in­ter­na­tional scouts 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 on the of­fice turntable is from his man in Ha­vana, who so far has shipped him about 100,000 Cuban al­bums — close to ev­ery­thing ever recorded there, Fre­itas es­ti­mates. He and the in­terns joke that the is­land is ris­ing in the Caribbean be­cause of all the weight Fre­itas has hauled away.

Al­lan Bas­tos, who for years has served as Fre­itas’s New York buyer, is vis­it­ing Sao Paulo and joins us in the ware­house of­fice. Bas­tos used to col­lect records him­self, of­ten post­ing them for sale on eBay. In 2006, he no­ticed that a sin­gle buyer — Fre­itas — was snap­ping up vir­tu­ally ev­ery record he listed. He has been buy­ing records for him ever since, fo­cus­ing on US col­lec­tions. He has pur­chased stock­piles from age­ing record ex­ec­u­tives and re­tired mu­sic crit­ics, as well as from the oc­ca­sional celebrity (he bought the record col­lec­tion of Bob Hope from his daugh­ter about 10 years after Hope died). This north­ern sum­mer Bas­tos moved to Paris, where he’ll buy Euro­pean records for Fre­itas. BAS­TOS peers over the shoul­der of an in­tern, who is en­ter­ing the in­for­ma­tion from another al­bum into the com­puter. “This will take years and years,” Bas­tos says of the cat­a­logu­ing ef­fort. “Prob­a­bly 20 years, I guess.” Twenty years — if Fre­itas stops buy­ing records.

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 de Janeiro a cou­ple of years ago, a Brazil­ian news­pa­per re­ported that the buyer was a Ja­panese col­lec­tor — an iden­tity Bas­tos in­vented to pro­tect Fre­itas’s anonymity. His col­lec­tion hasn not been pub­li­cised, even within Brazil. Few of his fel­low vinyl en­thu­si­asts are aware of the ex­tent of his hold­ings, partly be­cause Fre­itas has never listed any of his records for sale.

But in 2012, Bob George, a mu­sic ar­chiv­ist in New York, trav­elled with Bas­tos to Sao Paulo to pre­pare for Brazil­ian World Mu­sic Day, a cel­e­bra­tion George or­gan­ised, and to­gether they vis­ited Fre­itas’s home and ware­house; the breadth of the col­lec­tion as­ton­ished George. He was re­minded of Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst, the news­pa­per mag­nate who lusted after seem­ingly ev­ery piece of art on the world mar­ket and then kept ex­pand­ing his pri­vate cas­tle to house all of it.

“What’s the good of hav­ing it,” George re­calls telling Fre­itas, “if you can’t do some­thing with it or share it?”

The ques­tion nagged at Fre­itas. For the truly com­pul­sive hob­by­ist, there comes a time when a col­lec­tion gath­ers weight — metaphysical, ex­is­ten­tial weight. It be­comes as much a source of anx­i­ety as of joy. Fre­itas in re­cent years has be­come in­creas­ingly at­tracted to mys­tic tra­di­tions — Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Bud­dhist. In his house, he and his sec­ond wife cre­ated a med­i­ta­tion room, and they have be­gun tak­ing spir­i­tual va­ca­tions to In­dia and Egypt. But the teach­ings he ad­mires don’t al­ways jibe with his life as a col­lec­tor — ac­quir­ing, pos­sess­ing, never let­ting go. Ev­ery new record he was buy­ing seemed to whis­per in his ear: What, ul­ti­mately, do you want to do with all this stuff?

He found a pos­si­ble model in George, who in 1985 con­verted his pri­vate col­lec­tion of about 47,000 records into a pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble re­source called the AR­Chive of Con­tem­po­rary Mu­sic. That col­lec­tion has grown to in­clude roughly 2.2 mil­lion tapes, records and com­pact discs. Mu­si­col­o­gists, record com­pa­nies and film­mak­ers reg­u­larly con­sult the non­profit ar­chive seek­ing hard-to-find songs. In 2009 George en­tered into a part­ner­ship with Columbia Univer­sity, 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 its board.

Fre­itas has re­cently be­gun pre­par­ing his ware­house for his own ven­ture, which he has dubbed Em­po­rium Mu­si­cal. Last year he got fed­eral au­tho­ri­sa­tion to im­port used records. Once the ar­chive is regis­tered as a non­profit, 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. SOME of the records are highly valu­able. In Fre­itas’s liv­ing room, a cof­fee ta­ble is cov­ered with re­cently ac­quired rar­i­ties. On top of a stack of 45s sits Bar­bie, a 1962 sin­gle by Kenny & 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 is another sin­gle — Heartache Sou­venirs/Chicken Shack by Wil­liam Pow­ell — that has fetched as much as $US5000 on eBay. Nearby sits a Cuban al­bum

by Ivette Her­nan­dez, a pi­anist who left Cuba after Fidel Castro took power; Her­nan­dez’s like­ness on the cover is em­bla­zoned with a bold black stamp that reads, in Span­ish, “Traitor to the Cuban Revo­lu­tion”.

While Fre­itas thumbs through those records, Bas­tos warns of a fu­ture in which some mu­sic might dis­ap­pear un­no­ticed. Most of the Amer­i­can and Bri­tish records Fre­itas has col­lected have al­ready been dig­i­tally pre­served. But in coun­tries such as Brazil, Cuba and Nige­ria, Bas­tos es­ti­mates up to 80 per cent of recorded mu­sic from the mid-20th cen­tury has never been trans­ferred. In many places, he says, vinyl is it, and it’s in­creas­ingly hard to find. Fre­itas slumps, then cov­ers his face with his hands and emits a low, rum­bling groan. “It’s very im­por­tant to save this,” he says. “Very im­por­tant.”

Fre­itas is ne­go­ti­at­ing a deal to pur­chase and digi­tise thou­sands of Brazil­ian 78rpm record­ings, many of which date to the early 1900s, and he ex­pects to digi­tise some of the rarest records in his col­lec­tion shortly there­after. But he says he could more ef­fec­tively save the mu­sic by pro­tect­ing the ex­ist­ing vinyl orig­i­nals in a se­cure, fire­proof fa­cil­ity.

“Vinyl is very durable,” he says. “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, Bas­tos says, Fre­itas some­times buys records he doesn’t re­alise he al­ready owns.

This north­ern spring he fi­nally ac­qui­esced to Bas­tos’s pleas to sell some of his du­pli­cate records, which make up as much as 30 per cent of his to­tal col­lec­tion, on­line.

“I said, ‘ Come on, you have 10 copies of the same al­bum — let’s sell four or five!’ ” Bas­tos says.

Fre­itas smiles and shrugs. “Yes, but all of those 10 copies are dif­fer­ent,” he coun­ters.

Ear­lier this year, Fre­itas and Bas­tos stepped into Eric Dis­cos, a used-record store in Sao 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.

Some­times Fre­itas seems ashamed of his own eclec­ti­cism. “A real col­lec­tor”. he says, is some­one who tar­gets spe­cific records, or sticks to a par­tic­u­lar genre. FRE­ITAS’S de­sire to own all the mu­sic in the world is clearly tan­gled up in some­thing that, even after all th­ese years, re­mains ten­der and raw. Maybe it’s the nostal­gia trig­gered by the songs on that first Roberto Car­los al­bum he bought, or per­haps it stretches back to the 200 al­bums his par­ents kept when he was small — a mi­cro-col­lec­tion that was dam­aged in a flood long ago but that, as an adult, he painstak­ingly recre­ated, al­bum by al­bum.

After the trip to Eric Dis­cos, I de­scend into Fre­itas’s base­ment, where he keeps a few thou­sand cherry-picked records, a pri­vate stash he doesn’t share with the ar­chive. Aside from a lit­tle area re­served for a half-as­sem­bled drum kit, a cou­ple of guitars, key­boards and amps, the room is a labyrinth of floor-to-ceil­ing shelv­ing units filled with records.

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, turns it slowly in his hands, star­ing at the cover as if it were an ir­re­place­able arte­fact — as if he does not, in fact, own 1793 ad­di­tional copies of al­bums by Roberto Car­los, the artist who al­ways has, and al­ways will, oc­cupy more space in his col­lec­tion than any­one else.

Nearby sits a box of records he hasn’t shelved yet. They come from the col­lec­tion of a man named Paulo San­tos, a Brazil­ian jazz critic and DJ who lived in Wash­ing­ton, DC, dur­ing the 1950s and was friendly with some of the gi­ants of jazz and mod­ern clas­si­cal mu­sic.

Fre­itas thumbs through one al­bum after another — Duke Elling­ton, Ella Fitzger­ald, Leonard Bern­stein, Dave Brubeck. The records are signed, and not with sim­ple au­to­graphs; the artists have writ­ten af­fec­tion­ate mes­sages to San­tos, a man they ob­vi­ously re­spected.

“Th­ese ded­i­ca­tions are so per­sonal,” Fre­itas says, almost whis­per­ing.

He holds the Elling­ton record for an ex­tended mo­ment, read­ing the in­scrip­tion, then scan­ning the liner notes.

Be­hind his glasses, his eyes look slightly red and wa­tery, as if some­thing is ir­ri­tat­ing them.

Dust, maybe. But the record is per­fectly clean.

Zero Fre­itas in one of the ware­houses in Sao Paulo where his col­lec­tion is stored

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