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
PTHERE COMES A TIME WHEN A COLLECTION GATHERS WEIGHT — METAPHYSICAL WEIGHT
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