Do you even archive? Ben UFO

Do you even archive? is a regular column where we’ll talk to labels and artists about their archiving, cataloguing and preservation practices.

We all know the images of someone’s Brooklyn loft stacked floor to ceiling with records in Ikea shelves. Multiply that by a couple thousand and you’ll end up with something like the British Library Sound Archive’s 6.5 million recordings. But it’s not a competition because the drive and passion is the same; a love for sound.

At archive conferences and lectures we profess that the community most excited about archives and collections after academic researchers is the electronic music community. Besides archives, DJs and producers have the most comprehensive aggregation of records in the world and the two communities can learn a lot from one another. From tracking down rights holders, cataloguing, organizing, preserving, researching and sharing, each group has its specialty but the activities remain the same.

DJs and producer excel at sharing incredible music with massive audiences and archives are the masters of cataloguing and preservation. In an effort to exchange some knowledge, we’re curious how DJs archive their work and collections, do they even? Well we thought we’d ask and who better to ask than the one and only Ben UFO.

It’s hard to not notice Ben UFO, whether it’s the fact that his name stands out on festival flyers due to the all caps “UFO” or the fact that it appears on almost every festival flyer. His ubiquity is well earned, having wound up in RA’s DJ Poll the past 5 years and the top 10 the past 3 years. His mixes are widely acclaimed, and the label he co-owns, Hessle Audio has remained consistently exciting for 8 years. Not to mention his regular show on Rinse FM and over a decade of radio broadcasting. In interviews and on stage he’s soft spoken and his passion for music and making unexpected connections between wildly different tracks continues to surprise dance floors across the globe.

With an almost scholastic approach towards researching the evolution of the UK’s electronic and dance scene Ben UFO could easily slide from world-class DJ to champion sound archivist by simply trading in his DJ sets for academic papers. We checked in with Ben to see what steps he’s taking to prepare for what we foresee as the most logical next step in his career.

How do you organize your whole collection both digitally and physically? 

My records are loosely divided into two halves – records that I DJ with regularly, and records that I listen to individually, from start to finish. There’s some cross over, for example disco and soul LPs will be in the second category, but I might find myself looking for something in there to play as part of a DJ set, and I normally spend time before my radio shows looking through records in the second category as well. The ‘individual listening’ section is split into a few loose sections – soul, disco and jazz form one; ambient, modern classical, and field recordings are grouped together; synthesized pop music and experimental music featuring drum machines form another section; folk, guitar music and ethnographic recordings form another; reggae, dub and dancehall form another, (split into 12″s and LPs).

The section of my records that I use regularly for DJing are sorted into the same kind of loose genre categories – dubstep, grime, UK garage (2-step and 4×4 filed separately), jungle and drum & bass, and a huge, unwieldy section for house, techno and electro which dwarfs everything else and feels very chaotic. 7″s and 10″s are in boxes, in no useful order. Cassette tapes are in a little shelving unit and piled up on top of my record shelves, again in no particular order. I have a separate section for records I’ve had an involvement in releasing.

Beyond these categories nothing is sorted. My style of DJing is reliant on making unexpected connections between records that may not be linked by genre, or year, or label, or any other category that you might find in a record shop or on Discogs, and I have found in the past that when my records are organised strictly, it becomes more difficult to make spontaneous and intuitive decisions whilst DJing. I find that when things are very well organised, each record may be easier to find but it becomes somehow more difficult psychologically for me to view records on an individual basis, or as having any potential outside of its designated genre category. A Chicago house record from the late 80s becomes a record to be mixed with other Chicago house records from the late 80s, as opposed to something you can mix potentially with absolutely anything across the last three decades of electronic dance music from around the world.

For my digital files I use the library in Serato’s Scratch Live software to keep my digital music organised in much the same fashion as the records I keep for DJing, with the same genre categories outlined above, and the same incredibly unwieldy, disorganised single folder for ‘house, techno and electro’.

I don’t really keep digital music for listening to at home anymore, as my tendency when I was younger was to amass and horde so many files that I couldn’t possibly hope to do justice to all the music on my various hard drives. My decision to focus on physical formats for home listening also gives me space away from computers and screens and helps me maintain a compartment of my life where music can be something disconnected from any sense of ‘work’ or duty.

You’ve said you catalog your material, is it just alphabetical or how extensive do you get with your metadata? Are there any things you’d wish to improve to make your life easier?

I catalogue my records on Discogs. I don’t input any condition data or anything like that but I at least have a record of almost everything I have which exists on their database. I’m sure I’ve missed a few though!

You’ve regularly broadcasted on radio for over half a decade. Do you keep a record of all your shows?

It’s actually been over a decade now. Our first radio show was broadcast in January 2007. I try to make sure I have the published recordings of each show, but again, I’ve probably missed a few, particularly in recent years. I’m especially happy to have an archive of each one of our weekly radio shows on the first radio station who hosted us – SubFM. Listening back to them can be a little embarrassing, but I’ve never kept a diary and so it’s nice to have these little audio documents from an earlier time in my life.

Temperature, moisture and even positioning can all have a negative effect on vinyl. Do you take any measures to preserve yours?

No, but I absolutely should. If anyone would like to help me put anti-static outers and inners on all my records or has a cleaning machine I could borrow, I’d be very grateful.

Do you digitize all your vinyl?

No, but I digitise things I know I’ll play in DJ sets regularly. I’m still working on the audio chain, but I’m making improvements all the time and becoming happier with the end results.

Are there things you’ve lost throughout the years that you really miss?

No, thankfully.

Are archives ever on your mind as a place to source new material or even donate your collection?

I think of my collection as a personal archive and somehow representative of myself as a person. I can see parts of myself in most of the records I feel connected to, and eventually I’d like to get to the point where I can feel that kind of tangible connection to every record that I own, whether that’s through giving away or selling parts of it or just having the time to spend with records I’ve neglected.

Cover image by Kmeron CC BY-NC-ND