The Perfection Index
Sometimes I wander around record stores for hours and come away empty-handed.
If you are a reasonable person, this doesn't sound like a strange thing to say. If, however, you are a vinyl collector, you may be re-reading that statement, struggling to make the words cohere into a meaningful sentence because they look like complete nonsense the first time you read them. Eagle-eyed readers will note here that I am drawing a clear line between "reasonable people" and "vinyl collectors". This is not an accident, and anyone who collects vinyl will understand why.
Collecting records is a many-sided thing, comprised of multiple different skill sets and disciplines. You need to have the alphabetization skills and manual dexterity of a file clerk, the stamina of an intramural-level athlete, the patience of a team of oxen, the pattern recognition and reflexes of a raptor, the ear of an orchestra conductor, the social skills and awkwardness of a baby giraffe, the untreated obsessive compulsion of a high-functioning sociopath, and the sense of humor to laugh at all these things about yourself. Though to be honest, we're really just scratching the surface with this list. (The finer points of individual collectors' mentalities are wonderfully illustrated in Eilon Paz's book and website, Dust & Grooves, if you are interested in delving more deeply into this morass.)
Few activities are more important in the record collector's routine than the act of shopping for vinyl. It is, after all, the lifeblood of a growing stockpile. Each excursion becomes an opportunity to find a Holy Grail piece of music, each new row of vinyl is a foray into unmapped territory. Record collectors can be the most optimistic people you've ever met, but we all have to be realists as well. While not every single trip is a fruitful one, they all start out with unlimited potential. If you think about that there is a sort of naïve beauty in it: any day spent record shopping could end as the best day of our lives. And our accumulation-based lifestyle choices prove out that it is ultimately a numbers game: statistically speaking, you will strike gold at some point - it's just math. So we achieve a sort of magical thinking through a qualitative thought process, each hour spent foraging increases our odds of making the collection better or of finding that one elusive unicorn.
There are as many methods of collecting as there are collectors. Some adhere to time periods or genres as archivists, some are in it for the volume and the scope, some like what they like and want what they want. I won't pretend to set forth any definitions here that can be applied to the group as a whole, but I can explain what I strive for in my own collection.
If money weren't a factor, I would probably be the type of person that has an entire room dedicated to vinyl - 20-foot Kallax shelving with librarian-style ladders to reach the top rows, humidity and temperature control independent of the rest of the house, a regal air of tasteful elegance throughout and the slight stink of unearned pretension - with the goal of a comprehensive collection, a body of material that contains multiple examples of any and all genres of music along with every truly Classic work ever recorded. I know that I would be this type of collector because I tend to be the type of guy that gets addicted to things and goes all-in. To be sure, most collectors would cop to this same quality in themselves - there is an element of the irrational, the obsessed, the hyper-attentive that is foundational to the endeavor of collecting in general. For me, that compulsion is something that is present in other walks of life, so I know that it would take over with vinyl if given the opportunity.
Luckily, I don't have the resources to be this type of collector. As with any addiction, it would consume me: a dedicated room would become a whole new building, record-buying would become a chore necessitated by maintenance that would have to be done regardless of the desire to do it, and my pleasure in enjoying the collection would be increasingly subsumed by an oppressive anxiety about all the records I didn't yet own. It would be a dark road for me, to say the least, but I have nothing but respect and admiration for people who can walk that road and keep their enjoyment fully intact (I see you, ?uestlove…).
When I realized this years ago, the way I decided to acclimate was by curating a "perfect" collection. Let's define that: "perfect" doesn't mean objectively perfect, it means perfect for me; and it's in quotes because it isn't really attainable - but it is always worth striving towards. I say it's not attainable, and that's true…BUT there are fleeting moments when I add to the collection and I am 99.999999% there, just this short of absolute subjective perfection, and it feels amazing. Beyond the obvious pleasure of listening to the music itself, this is the feeling I am chasing in my collection - that boost of dopamine that comes from being oh-so-close to an unrealistic perfection.
But let's be clear on a couple things: not every record gets me closer to that. While I do actively cultivate choices that I think will add verifiable value to the collection, there are times when the choices are redundant and don't actually increase the "perfection index™" (PI). These could be albums that I simply want to own even though I have similar enough titles that there's nothing groundbreaking about having them, or they could be miscalculations on my part where I initially think I am adding to the PI but after a couple of listens it turns out that I didn't. Neither of these outcomes is detrimental, though: I can always default to the baseline "the more the merrier" philosophy.
Realistically, even when records do benefit the PI of the collection, the sensation is fleeting. When I describe it in the transitory sense of a feeling I'm "chasing", it is because the feeling never lasts. In those moments when my collection is so close to perfection, I know that it will inevitably be imperfect again soon - in an hour, a day, a week, I'll find a deficiency that needs to be addressed before I can reclaim that dizzying harmony of near-completeness.
And in no way does that bother me. Quite the opposite actually: as long as I know there is something I am lacking, I know beyond a doubt that my love for the art form records represent is still alive and kicking. If I could actually reach a level of perfection that were static, my passion for the music would lose its vitality and sense of wonder. There would be nothing new under the sun, which is always the refuge of the lazy when it comes to appreciating at a high level. At the end of the day, vinyl (or CD's, or digital files, or tapes, or any medium) is merely the product of a larger artistic ideal - if I were to lose my appreciation for the art itself, then what would be the point of any of this? My love of collecting music feeds my love for music and my love for music feeds my love of collecting music…and so on, an infinite symbiosis that goes a long way toward defining who I am as a fan and as a person.
So sometimes I wander through record shops for hours and walk out with nothing. I always find records I would like to own, I always hold things in my hands as "maybe"'s which often turn out to be records I buy on a later trip. I always weigh the pros and cons of any potential purchase and ask myself if what I am considering will add to my perfection index. Occasionally I will buy records that I already know won't bring me closer to perfection, and I am more than OK with it.
But every once in a while I find the right thing, the perfect thing. I will file a new LP in its place on my shelf and bask for a time in a warmly fulfilling glow. I will take a step back and marvel in awe at a priceless jewel that somehow just gained a new facet, a Sistine Chapel that was just somehow slightly improved. Sometimes my collection is perfect.
Until it's not.