What sets Numero apart from other reissue labels is their mission statement, which probably puts label founders Tom Lunt, Rob Sevier, and Ken Shipley philosophically closer to Alan Lomax than David Geffen or Ahmet Ertegun:
Time kills off precious bits of passed-over sound, story, and ephemera every day, just as fast as we can haul out of exile our sprawling treasury of under-heard recordings—along with the musicians, writers, and entrepreneurs who created them. [...] Every recording we unearth is painstakingly re-mastered and carefully researched, with obsessive attention to narrative and factual detail unmatched in the so-called reissue field. By self-imposed law, everything numbered by Numero is a stunning new artifact of image and word, tailored to the sounds it safeguards.
IP: Numero occupies a space where you probably have the same concerns as other independent labels about your material, but what you release is gathered by people who may have also been doing the same kind of saving-of-material. Can you tell us what it's like to be stewards of your own material, which is also someone else's work?
RS: It’s interesting, because much of what I encounter has not been well cared for, or preserved at all, really. For the most part, we’re basically encountering catalogs that are totally in disarray. So, a big part of what we do is sort of rebuild… I mean, the releases look really coherent, but usually what we get, [we] have to dig out of boxes of personal items. You’re lucky to find something in a file, or in a file cabinet. Every once in a while that happens, but for the most part these were things that were shoved away in people’s homes.
The first step is to sort of rebuild what happened and to get every piece of document you can. That involves tracking down and getting in touch with everybody who was involved -- as many people as you can find who were involved. It’s really not cut-and-dried... We never encounter a catalog that’s just sitting there, ready to be rebuilt, it takes a lot of putting together pieces. Sometimes, there might be some sort of documentation that’s intact -- for instance, where someone takes photographs -- but then do they save the records and the master [recordings]? We’ve never really come across a situation where they had both… Usually, one or the other gets discarded. Sometimes, you might look at it and you say, “That’s a well-tended catalog,” but actually we bought the photos from someone online, and we had to put together the records by buying copies, finding copies, borrowing copies from other collectors to make that coherent document.
IP: It’s really interesting you use the term document… One of the things that we think sets Numero apart from a lot of other reissue labels is the amount of work you put into the context and history. The kinds of backgrounds that we’re familiar with [in our field] are people with archival and historical backgrounds. Was that ever a point of interest for you, or did you just come at this out of being totally interested and wanting to educate yourself on the backgrounds of these records?
RS: I would say I’m coming at it more from a record collector background, but of course, we’re liberal arts-types of people -- we read a lot and write a lot, so none of it is foreign to us. But none of us got a Master’s degree in library science, so none of us has that strict training. We come about our methods more Socratically than anything.
IP: I imagine that sort of thing could be freeing, in terms of letting you do the sort of things you want to do…
RS: Yeah. I don’t even know to the degree that it’s freeing… Someone would have to explain to me first the “right way” to do it, and I’d see how we do it differently. In short, [we] really don’t have an academic background, but we’re also not engineers that just happened across this.
IP: Most articles about Numero -- for example, the 2012 Spin article -- focus on your legwork in finding people and tracking down sources. Less told, I find, are the stories of what happens after you ink the deals and start working with the materials. Can you take us through what that's like?
RS: There’s not really a clear-cut division between the two. We might ink a deal with one person and still have to track down five other people. To me, it’s much more fluid and unconventional, because I’m always talking to people, and constantly interviewing new people, and constantly taking notes on things. So the process of finishing a project can take a lot of different forms.
IP: In that article, there was some discussion of the future of Numero, as tapes begin to decay and the people with history and contextual information of that material pass on. There likely would be a day when Numero, or a label like Numero, releases music that is entirely born digital. What will that be like for you when we enter that age?
RS: I kind of think we’re already encountering some of those problems. We’ve sort of seen a first-wave of that of sorts, because we’ve encountered a number of people over the years who, in the ‘90s, were still sort of involved in the music business, and everyone got so entranced with the DAT tape… There were a handful of times where we got-- you know, people took all of their masters, transferred them to DAT, and threw their masters away, because DAT was such a superior format. Nobody knew that DATs degraded at a pretty quick rate. A 10-year-old DAT is basically worthless -- you get into really bizarre digital loss. A handful of tracks on the Twinight comp essentially had to be reconstructed… There’s a Renaldo Domino track where we had to cut out a verse -- the track was fine, but all of a sudden it completely degrades, and then it was fine again. So basically we had to repeat a verse -- chop out a section and put in another section -- just to salvage this [track]. There was all this stuff on the same set of DATs that were fine, but enough stuff were destroyed just by the DAT getting old.
It’s sort of the same, in some respects, as the way it is now: if a master gets left at a studio, and the studio gets shut down and [the master] gets thrown away, there’s no way to get it. But if you press it up on even a hundred records, the storage of that music is sort of crowd-sourced, in a way. You, as the artist, might lose the track, there’s 99 other people that have it, and one of those might just turn up. So you’ve got a better chance of finding something if it was actually released. We’re dealing with the same sort of thing, I think -- large chunks of people’s creative output have always gotten lost, and will always get lost. Hopefully, there’s going to be sort of a burgeoning data salvage industry -- people pulling things off of floppy disks first...
IP: We actually do that here -- we just did that the other day.
RS: Yeah, so you guys know better than I… We haven’t really encountered yet. It’ll be interesting if there ever is a massive data loss, because I feel like it’s replacing people’s attics as places to store their family heirlooms on some level, and how would it affect people? In the indie world, a lot of stuff was still cassette -- people are still doing four-track cassettes. And those are pretty damn sturdy -- it’s pretty hard to mess up a cassette. They don’t sound great but unless you literally submerge it in water, or you accidentally erase it if you magnetize it, there’s not a whole you can do with a cassette to destroy that material. We’ve got, like, a hundred live Codeine cassettes in our archive. They don’t sound great, but they sound as great as they ever sounded. We’ve been slowly archiving those, actually.
IP: Maybe you could tell us about your on-site archive? We’d love to hear about that…
RS: We have nothing proprietary -- we have our metadata tagged in an organized manner, [and] hard drives full of stuff that we rotate and back up in at least one or two places. We [also] have a normal, temperature- and humidity-controlled room in our office -- nothing like a Jack White fire-proof vault. We save everything physically, but if it’s something we know we don’t want, we may not transfer it -- we may just keep it in its physical format. We got all these tapes from a producer, and a bunch of the stuff is actually just their sub-masters of actual production masters… And the production masters are in the Universal vault, because it’s actually material that’s owned by Universal. We would never throw it out, but there’s really nothing for us to do -- there’s a better version elsewhere, and we are not going to get the rights. That’s a situation where there’s nothing for us to do, but we’ll physically keep the masters.
We’re evolving our systems all the time. We’re not storing massive amounts of data though -- we have a couple of terabyte drives that store absolutely everything in high-res formats, so we’re just not at a place where we’re acquiring catalogs more massive than we can handle. We’re planning projects three, four, five years in advance, but still not that, you know, insane -- we just did a pretty massive transfer of files over the last couple months of a pretty interesting archive of recordings from Philadelphia. It all sits on a terabyte drive in full-format -- we’re talking a hundred, hundred and twenty-odd tapes, most of which had just two songs intended to be singles. So we’re not talking about something so massive and onerous that we can’t deal with the data storage.
Follow Numero news on Twitter at @numerogroup and their By the Numbers blog. In late October, Numero will release New York, New York, a box set telling the story of Terry Ork’s legendary Ork Records label; Scott eagerly awaits his preordered copy.