Conversations with My Collection : A Vinyl Odyssey
As I type these words, Record Store Day 2018 is nearly upon us. Regardless of the growing antipathy about what it has turned into over the past decade, there remains an unmistakable kernel of goodwill at the heart of the endeavor that I find comforting even when I don’t always agree with the methodology at work. The idea at the center of it is that music lovers and vinyl addicts and even casual fans should be allowed a day to fully connect with their local record stores, a day to participate in a community that is active 24/7/365 but that often takes a certain amount of pride in being a little bit off of the larger pop-culture reservation. RSD is a day to come together, meet fellow appreciators, and hope for that one magical find that you can forevermore have a story about which to tell. There is a time and a place to discuss the rampant issues inherent in how this has all evolved into something else, but it’s not here.
The impending national holiday has had me thinking for a couple of weeks about record collecting in a more general sense. This is certainly ground that I’ve been over before on Re-Critic, but I recently took a step that I have wanted to take for a while and was finally able to get around to: I built out my vinyl collection on the record-collecting website Discogs. Discogs can be described as many things: eBay for vinyl, Facebook for records, Amazon for audiophiles, etc. None of these things totally capture it, and I won’t fully capture it here, but to understand it for the purposes of this article all one really need know is that it is likely the foremost database of user-generated vinyl content in the world and it allows users to host a collection, build a want-list, and buy and sell records with others fully within the confines of the site. I have been putting off doing this for a while for a few reasons: 1) I’m old, and learning new websites and interfaces is still a bit daunting; 2) It takes a not insignificant amount of time to build out a decent-sized collection; 3) I wasn’t sure what the value in it would actually be, outside of having my collection available at a glance. As it turned out, there was plenty that I could glean that wasn’t apparent before I started.
I have said many times before, both in writing and in conversation, that one of the best ways to get to know someone is to look at the music that they collect. The music that we hold dear means a lot in some philosophical way, but the music that we physically keep in our home means even more in an existential way – to be allowed to view someone’s collection is to be allowed inside their mind. There are always surprises there in the recesses if you know where and how to look. With that in mind, I have made my collection viewable to you, dear reader, should you choose to slosh around inside my music-brain (click here, or you can find the link in the Re-Critic menu). And by way of explaining why this is all so interesting, I wanted to lay out a few of the things I was able to learn about my collection, and a couple of things I learned about myself.
Firstly, there are the basic numbers involved. I have avoided the act of counting my collection for a while, content to think of its numerical value in relativistic ways that allowed me to say things like "Oh, I have a few hundred records or so…" After all, the collection is growing all the time, and getting a solid count only puts a parameter on it that I would want to immediately expand - philosophically speaking, I struggle with the empiricism of numbers. But putting my collection on Discogs allows me to see that I have 467 pieces of vinyl in my collection at the time of this writing, including all one-off's, 7"'s, 10"'s, and proper LP's. My collection contains representatives from 6 decades, from the 60's onward - which isn't remarkable, but it is novel to see it in such starkly data-based terms. It also covers 13 genres and 114 styles, although if I am being honest I don't even really see what differentiates a label like "Cool Jazz" from one like "Soul-Jazz" - or, I mean I guess I can see it, but these are probably not all distinctions that I would make. That said, I can definitely see why the distinctions are spelled out - I am sure plenty of collectors out there feel pretty strongly about those subtle differences and what they mean within their own collections.
Since Discogs is also a marketplace, you get to see a snapshot of determined value of each of your records, as well as the collection as a whole. Each entry is listed with the minimum value it has ever sold for on the site, a maximum value it has ever sold for on the site, and the median between the two. Using this tool, I was able to see the assigned theoretical monetary value of my collection, which is in the range of $8500-$13,000 between the median and the maximum (minimums are for suckers). This is kind of interesting in itself, but let's face it, I'm getting buried with my collection (if not inside it) so what it would fetch on the open market really isn't a concern for me. However, seeing the going rates for individual pieces is something that IS very interesting. Discogs is able to show me that my top-value records are very surprising: in the top 10 are releases by WU LYF, Radical Face, Fall Out Boy, MF Doom, and Mr. Oizo. But the numero uno top dog of them all? Duster's Stratosphere, worth a maximum of $350 (although my copy is pretty beat). This is remarkable because I got this in a $1 bin, it's still got the price tag on the jacket to prove it. Discogs tells me that at this moment 143 people have it in their collections, but over 1000 people want it in their collections - supply-and-demand at work, ladies and gentlemen. If you had asked me to pick an album that wouldn't be at the top of the value list in my collection, this would have been on my shortlist - and yet, here we are. Weird, wild stuff.
Besides those quantifiable aspects, the experience of virtually building my collection allowed me to reconnect with it. For one, I did much of this work while away from my house, reconstructing large swaths of the collection from memory. When I looked back on how much I was able to remember with no, or very little, assistance, it was a gratifying feeling that my curation has not (yet) gone beyond the point of reasonability - it was proof that I still have a pretty firm grasp on what I have, even if I can't listen to everything as often as I might like.
When it did come time to get on hands and knees to search for individual barcodes and flip through one-by-one to make sure everything was accounted for, I was reminded that my collection tends to stray into the bizarre in ways that give it its own personality. Lil Bub's Science and Magic, Vitamin String Quartet's tribute to Modest Mouse, and Summer Cats' Songs For Tuesdays on multi-color splatter vinyl are all fun diversions from the normal fare. Hand-printed and/or ultra-regional releases by Cock and Swan, Young Lovers, The Watery Graves of Portland, Boy Eats Drum Machine and others are reminders of places and people and shows and they patchwork together to chronicle a lifetime spent around music. It's these seemingly random intersections of timing and desire and luck that define our collections, each entry another paragraph in the memoir of our appreciatory existence.
None of this is meant to shed light on anyone else or their collection – each is uniquely a reflection of its owner. What is true for any one of us is probably true for very few others, so the point isn’t to illustrate anything about collections overall. What this information does do, though, is bring to the surface some of the oddities, the rarities, the trends, the throughlines. We collectors can so often get caught up in admiring our beautiful one-of-a-kind forests, it's easy to forget to occasionally examine the trees that comprise them.
Whether you’re concerned with your overall collection or with drilling down into the minutiae of all your vinyl babies, have a wonderful Record Store Day. Happy hunting, if that’s your thing. Happy listening, if you’re staying in. Either way, happy collecting - whatever that means for you.