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Unlocking Wolfgang's Vault

Alumnus Bill Sagan talks discusses his online treasure trove of rock 'n' roll history

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November 3, 2011

Bill Sagan (Weinberg ’73) never knows exactly how his day might begin.

“I woke up to a call from [1980s rocker] Eddie Money this morning,” said Sagan, a Northwestern University Trustee and founder of Wolfgang’s Vault, one of the largest online collections of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia and concert recordings in the world.

Sagan returned to campus Oct. 20 for a lecture sponsored by the Northwestern Library Board of Governors. His talk, “Wolfgang’s Vault: Unlocking Rock Music History,” described his acquisition of the collection of rock memorabilia and how it coincides with his efforts to revamp the independent music industry.

Sagan opened his lecture by painting an intimate portrait of the man whose collection he purchased, legendary concert promoter Bill “Wolfgang” Graham.

“Graham started the concert hall business back in 1966,” Sagan said. Graham organized and promoted concerts for many of rock music’s biggest names, including Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin. Graham preserved merchandise and memorabilia from these concerts, including t-shirts, posters, tickets and backstage passes, and also kept audio and video recordings of the performances.

Sagan purchased the collection in 2002, unaware that Graham had amassed such an extensive collection. He soon saw the potential to make the memorabilia and performances available to a new generation of music lovers, and thus Wolfgang’s Vault -- named for Graham’s childhood nickname -- was born.

The site hosts thousands of audio and video concert recordings available for online streaming, and concert memorabilia is available for purchase.

“I want to play you something from the site,” Sagan told the audience, before playing a rare Bruce Springsteen cover of “Blinded by the Light,” which Springsteen wrote. Because of time constraints, Sagan couldn’t play the whole track, and there was an audible sigh of disappointment from an audience hoping for more.

Despite the expansiveness of the collection already available on Wolfgang’s Vault, only five percent of the recordings have been posted, Sagan said.

In addition to classic rock concert recordings, the site also features performances by up-and-coming independent musicians. This mirrors the objective of the other components of Sagan’s rising empire. Wolfgang’s Vault also owns Daytrotter.com and Paste Magazine, both major players in the independent music scene.

Daytrotter is the online counterpart to Horseshack Recording Studio, which hosts recording sessions for independent artists that are then published for download and streaming on the site. Paste Magazine is a prominent music magazine that devotes much of its coverage to the independent scene.

Sagan spoke of the importance of Wolfgang’s Vault and its sister sites in promoting the music of talented new musicians.

“So many bands are excellent,” Sagan said, “but the music industry has changed so precipitously that they cannot get the promotion that used to be available to musicians, like radio.”

“That’s where we step in,” he said. “We fill the need for that promotion and get the music in the hands of people who potentially want to buy.”

He closed his lecture with a quote from a review of Wolfgang’s Vault by the Wall Street Journal, hailing the site as “the most important collection of rock memorabilia and music recordings ever assembled in one business.”

“I probably show that quote too much,” he said.