On Record Collecting

I’ve always been a bit of a collector. When I was a little kid I had a collection of bottle caps my dad helped me press onto a cork board. Later I went through phases with stickers (all the rage in grade five), stamps and hockey cards. These days it’s records. But it wasn’t until recently that I gave much thought to the seemingly straightforward – you like something, you gather examples of it – impulse to collect. What got me going was Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past by Simon Reynolds, which includes a chapter (subtitled “Record Collecting and the Twilight of Music as an Object”) about what it means to collect vinyl records in the age of the internet. Why would anyone bother with records when virtually all of them can be found on the internet, for free if you’re so inclined, and stored on a hard drive smaller than one LP (or online, with no hard drive at all)?

There are a few practical reasons people still collect vinyl. Some claim they sound better than CDs and MP3s (I’m inclined to agree, but that’s a nice side benefit rather than a reason unto itself). Collections of records (and books, for that matter) are still more visually impressive than a hard drive full of files, which is integral to the pride-of-ownership aspect of collecting (“My records are cool, therefore I am cool”); photos of collectors posing with their records aren’t a whole lot different than seventeenth-century paintings of dudes chilling out with their awesome stuff. You’re just never going to get that visual impact with a playlist, no matter how cool it is.

"How dost thou liketh me now?"

Reynolds also theorizes that in the age of infinite online music record collecting can be a defense against “overwhelming plenitude.” When he quotes Susan Orleans writing about orchid hunter John Laroche (“I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a manageable size”) it strikes a chord with me because as I write this I have 15,733 songs on my iPod. It would take me 42 and a half days to listen to all of them. And yet, I spend most of my time listening to my records or the 1000 or so songs from LPs I’ve digitized because hitting shuffle sometimes feels like getting lost in a featureless hedge maze (and I haven’t even dipped my toe into cloud services like Spotify or Grooveshark).

But beyond all that collecting raises some interesting psychological and philosophical questions. The ongoing maintenance of my old audioblog necessitated the purchase of a lot of records. I’d return from thrift store expeditions with a backpack full of vinyl, go through them one by one to determine which ones I wanted to keep, cart the rejects back to the store and file away the keepers. After a while I’d amassed a fairly immense* collection; after I filled all of the admittedly limited space available for record storage in my living room, I bought a bookshelf for the overflow and stuck it in my basement. Problem solved! But before too long the new shelf started to fill up, and this is where the existential dread began to kick in.

I’m fortunate in that my desire to collect has always been mitigated by a dislike of clutter; even as a kid collecting stamps I was never a completist and continually weeded my albums, keeping only the “best” (i.e. my favourite) ones. But I liked to think of the blog as a sort of net I used to “rescue” underappreciated LPs from a stream of pop culture detritus that led to the landfill, and oblivion, so I felt obligated to hang on to a lot of albums I normally would have gotten rid of. Eventually things got to a point where all of the records sitting on my shelves stressed me out for reasons I didn’t fully understand; who am I keeping these for? When will I have time to listen to all of them? Where does it all end? Which brings me to this quote from Reynolds’ book:

The music obsessive’s version of a midlife crisis is when all those potential pleasures stacked on the shelves stop representing delight and start to feel like harbringers of death. Which is a cruel irony, because the standard psychoanalytic interpretation of obsessive collecting is that it is a way of warding off death, or at least a displacement of abstract, inconsolable anxieties, often rooted in childhood feelings of helplessness. Having all this stuff, the unconscious logic goes, protects you against loss. But eventually having all this stuff keeps on reminding you of the inevitability of loss.

Gulp. This might explain why I felt as though I were being carried along by angels when I finally made the decision to ruthlessly purge my collection to the point where it fit in my living room (a policy I have adhered to since), have a big garage sale and then cart the ones I didn’t sell off to the Goodwill. Personally, I’m not unduly bothered by the thought of my collection being cast to the four winds one day, but a lot of record collectors feel quite differently. Issue #11 of Wax Poetics has an essay entitled “The Future of Collecting” in which a collector is quoted as saying “When I die, I’ll still be holding a stack of my records as the coffin closes,” and others note with regret that their private collections are unlikely to be kept intact after they pass away, negating all the time, effort and passion that went into their assembly.

Cheerful! But surely it’s not just the subconscious fear of death that motivates the collector? In 1931 Walter Benjamin** wrote an essay entitled “Unpacking My Library.” It’s about his book collection, but you could go through it and replace the word “books” with “records” and it wouldn’t be any different. The antiquated books he describes being carefully stacked in glass cases could be records being slid into plastic sleeves, and his stories of tracking down precious volumes of Balzac and the Brothers Grimm bring to mind diggers’ stories of scoring rare 45s at flea markets and garage sales:

Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationary store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!***

Benjamin discusses how items in a collection attain a value separate from their utilitarian function, which is why collectors can treasure books they never read or records they never listen to (and why many are still worth a lot of money even though their content can be downloaded for free):

Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. The period, the region, the craftmanship, the former ownership – for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.

Here we have another aspect of the allure of records for the collector; poring over liner notes and credits, researching obscure regional genres and labels (Wax Poetics and reissue labels like Numero Group and Soul Jazz owe their existence to this sort of thing), admiring cover and label art, taking note of the names of former owners and mentally cataloging (and/or savoring) the circumstances of a given record’s acquisition.

Lastly, there’s the collector’s desire to create order out of a chaotic world, or as Benjamin puts it; “For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” If you’ve ever sorted through a massive pile of records at a thrift store you’ll know things don’t get much more disordered than that, and if you’re naturally drawn to order the way I (a librarian by trade) am there is pleasure and satisfaction to be found in plucking a few (or more than a few) diamonds from the rough to be placed in your personal menagerie. Benjamin, again:

The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.

“Magic circle” in this case can be translated as “record collection,” which is why Julia has mockingly but not inaccurately characterized vinyl nerds like me as “Gollums” greedily tucking their thrift store or record show treasures away to be admired later, in private (“My preciousss!”).

Using your collection to momentarily reverse the flow of entropy is great and all, but the problem with that is that you’re fighting a losing battle, and even if you win you still lose. You’re never going to buy all the records. Which is fine by me, but during my blogging days I set myself a more modest task; collecting every album put out by a Canadian company named Arc Records. At first it was fun and a great motivator, but as I crossed off numbers on my want list the remaining gaps in my collection weighed more heavily on my mind (it didn’t help that there was no master list to consult, that there were sometimes two records with the same number, and that half seemed to be by bagpipe bands or Irish pub singers). Eventually I ditched the idea, got rid of the bulk of the collection and felt much better for having done so. Again, I didn’t really understand why it was stressing me out so much, but here’s Reynolds laying it out for me:

“[The] drive to collect is as much about anxiety as desire: it’s driven by a will to master, to create order. If you completed the collection, this would interfere with the displacement of anxiety achieved through the neurotic activity of collecting itself. The spectre of death and the void would loom up again.

Well…damn. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be collectors.****


* “immense” by any regular standard, I mean. Compared to some of the guys – and it’s almost always guys – I read about in Wax Poetics, it was (and is) chicken feed.

** one of the writers I now wish I’d read closely in university, instead of cracking lame jokes about hitting him in the head with a brick to prove that objects are, like, totally more real than images!

*** some things never change; this sounds like my trip to Parry Sound last summer.

**** damn, this was bleak. There are upsides, too. It’s not all Fear Of The Void and ceaseless anxiety, I promise!

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3 thoughts on “On Record Collecting

  1. Outstanding! You’ve hit so many nails on their heads here Beau! Bravo!

  2. Edith says:

    Great article.
    And something for me to ponder as my 2.5 year old boy has firmly established his first collection (obsession) of little plastic animals.

  3. Nice post. I can relate to all of it, particularly the parts about creating order. I’ve been building and organizing and pruning my music collection since I was a teenager. Sometimes it feels like I’m focusing more on the process than enjoying the music. It’s as if I’m always looking forward to some idyllic future time when I will be enjoying all my records, having people over to listen to music, etc. Meanwhile, the reality is that I only listen once in a while, and 99% of the time I am doing it alone. Still, I’ve been enjoying my harbingers of death a lot more lately, and have started posting my favorite album covers on my blog.

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