Paul Mawhinney claims to be the owner of the world's greatest record collection. About 3 million albums and singles in total. He owned a shop called Record-Rama, and until it closed in 2008 he kept a copy of every album that went through the place. A short film called The Archive was made about his collection, and the story of his attempts to sell the collection over the past decade or so have been talked about a little on music sites and such.
Paul worked as a travelling paper salesman, and as he travelled the USA he bought pretty much every record he could. "I fed my family and paid for my house but everything else went on records." When his collection became too large for his basement, his wife told him to either get rid of them, or open a shop. So that's what he did, and she said to call it Record-Rama. The shop was in Pittsburgh, where Paul was born and raised, and where he still lives. He made great efforts to catalogue his collection, creating a database called MusicMaster, which was published as a reference for collectors in the early 80s. For this reason, he says that his collection is not only the largest, but the best-organised collection in the world. The shop was well-known as a good place to find rarities, and did good business until the late 90s, but in February 2008 the shop closed, due to Paul's deteriorating health (probably Diabetes-related). He went to working full-time on the archive, which is now kept in a climate-controlled underground warehouse after a huge relocation a few years ago. He still works every day on organising and cataloging it, as new records keep coming in, even though he stopped dealing in new releases in 2001. And who can blame him?
He must have some interesting stories, no doubt. He once made a midnight deal in a graveyard to buy a coffin-full of copies of a record backed by a local funeral home. He literally bought truckloads of vinyls from radio stations that were switching to CDs. He helped Tom Hanks with the film 'That Thing You Do!', about a doo-wop band in the 60s. But most interesting of all, he convinced one of the higher-ups from RCA to give the album Space Oddity a second try, which led to its re-release, basically kick-starting David Bowie's career.
Some attention has been paid to his attempts at selling the collection. In 1997 he was offered over 25 million dollars and a well-paid archivist job by CD Now, an online music retailer, but the company went bankrupt three weeks later. The Library of Congress inspected his archive and offered him several million dollars for it, but funding for the purchase was an obstacle, and the deal was watered down until Paul rejected it. In 2008, he put the collection up for sale on Ebay, with no reserve price. The winning bid was three million dollars, but the bidder claimed that his identity had been stolen, and that he didn't know about the auction until he received an email with a $3m invoice. So now, the collection sits in the warehouse, as Paul waits for a new offer.
Perhaps the thing that has kept the archive from being sold already is Paul's insistence that it be sold intact. He seems to view it as more than a collection of individual records, so he won't let it be broken up. A buyer would need to be as obsessed with it as Paul is to buy it, even for one tenth of the fifty million dollars that he claims it is worth.
After watching the short documentary (The Archive, above) about him on YouTube, I was feeling sympathetic for Paul, but then I got to thinking. First of all, he talks a lot about the wealth of history that his collection represents, and how preserving musical history is his real passion, but as far as I can tell his collection really only represents 20th century American and British music. It seems like a narrow view of music to take. Also, the fact that he bought records, literally by the thousands, from jukebox warehouses and radio stations would imply to me that he would have a huge amount of mediocre music mixed in there. Imagine keeping a copy of every album that is released today, and think how much of that would be worth keeping. He has cast a very wide net, so perhaps the size of his catch isn't the most important thing to consider. And in a similar vein, how many duplicates must he have? He seems to have been quite indiscriminate in his purchases, as well as being a former record shop, so I get the feeling that a considerable fraction of the collection is just stuff that never sold well.
He also may be overstating the rarity of the collection, to an extent. He says that the Library of Congress inspected it and found that 83% of his records from 1948 to 1966 were not on CD at that time (and probably not now either), which is certainly believable. However, he then rephrases this as, "83% of the music that I have on those shelves, you can't buy at any price, anywhere." This is nothing but a gross misquotation. Also, what he says is the most valuable record in the collection, a promotional Rolling Stones album that wasn't commercially released, was at one time available for as a buy-it-now on Ebay for less than half of what he claimed it was worth†.
A funny thing is how he talks about the current state of music, as if it's the musical apocalypse: "the world is dead out there, they have their ears closed. They don't understand what's going on at this moment. And it's gonna take them ten, fifteen, twenty years to wake up and realise what they missed." We've all heard that kind of talk before, but then he doesn't talk so much about the music itself, rather the recording process. He says, "The music is a hundred times better on a vinyl album... They chop off the highs, they chop off the lows, and then they compress everything... There's no comparison to what they're selling for music these days." Perhaps it's just the way the film was edited, but it seems strange that he would be focused on the recording fidelity, rather than the music itself. Perhaps he really isn't being self-aggrandising when he talks about wanting to preserve music for future generations.
I have to wonder what will become of Paul's collection. Perhaps he'll find that buyer he's been wanting. Perhaps one day he'll give up on trying to sell it, and just donate it to a museum somewhere. Perhaps he'll die, and whoever manages his estate will have a nightmarish time selling it off. I also have to wonder how truthful he is being about it all. There is no doubt that this is an obsession for him, and it's genuinely his life's work, but is it really about future generations? Is he really that altruistic, or is that his justification for a collection that got out of hand? I can't help being skeptical when he says, "I spent my whole life being a collector for the world", but his website says that to buy something from the collection you must spend a minimum of five thousand dollars††. Was this his retirement plan, maybe? Whatever is going on, I doubt that Paul is being entirely realistic about his collection's importance. He points off into the distance and says, "they don't seem to care", and I have to wonder if he's been alone with his records for too long.
† - http://captainwrong.blogspot.com/2008/02/more-thoughts-on-worlds-greatest-music.html
†† - http://recordrama.com/invite.htm