Friday, January 20, 2012

Things I Have Learned Collecting Records (which have nothing to do with music)

# 1 – Organization

I am not the most naturally organized of humans. However, collecting records have taught me that proper care and storage of a collection requires diligence. It takes a lot of time to maintain a constantly used collection in it's proper organizational structure, especially if you want ease of access.

Every collector has their own chosen way to organize what they collect. I have a large 5' x 5' square shelf unit from Ikea. I arrange my records alphabetically by either the musician or the group, and within that subset I arrange the records chronologically, which helps me place the records in context to each other. I have created filing labels to mark my collection, so the individual letter's are easy to see.

Some musical groups have a more extensive archiving. Sonic Youth, for example, have been making music together for over thirty years. Since they are my favorite band ever, I try to collect as much of their output as I can. Because of this I have divided their records up by studio releases, SYR releases, full-length bootleg releases, 12” singles, 10” singles, 7” singles, group side projects, and individual side projects, all in respective chronological order. It is where my anal-retentive obsessive side is allowed to shine. Believe me when I say my Sonic Youth collection is not yet complete.

# 2 - Patience

The world we live in does not place a premium on patience. Music consumption these days is no different. We want the world and we want it now. That's what Jim Morrison sang. Living that way burns one up. Jim did not make it to thirty. Collecting records is a compulsive hobby, driven by desire. Whether that desire is for the music itself, or the fetishized object that is a rare gate-fold album, it is omnipresent.

When looking for old, out-of-print records I must have the patience to look through hundreds or thousands of records before finding one I want to spend money on. I may run across multiple copies that I do not buy due to scratches, damage, etc. Sometimes I find records that I have been looking for actively for several years. I still have dozens on my personal wish list yet to find. Only patience keeps me from going crazy when looking through a record convention's worth of bins and boxes!

Apart from the acquisition of the records, the enjoyment of them requires patience. Records are fragile and need to be well-kept. Playing them requires careful handling of the media and equipment, even with the simplest turntables. Listening to records I have collected is not just about wish fulfillment. For every album I listen to and instantly connect with, there are two or three that take multiple listens, allowing for time to do it's thing on the brain. “Difficult” music, whether Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, or Sonic Youth's Bad Moon Rising requires patience to at first understand, and then secondly to enjoy what is being given to your ears. Records, due to their nature, are more likely to be played straight through than CD's or digital media. Having a little button that instantly skips anything your ears find initially off-putting does not teach patience, but the exact opposite, a sense of entitlement due to an inflated sense of self-worth that breeds urgency and instant wish-fulfillment. Good things take time.

#3 – Collecting is a lonely existence

Due to it's time-consuming nature, the hobby of collecting becomes quite a solitary enterprise. The enjoyment of the collection can happen alone on in social settings, but the acquisition of the individual items is done by you alone. If you are lucky you have a few friends who are also bitten by the same collecting bug and who are willing to go with you and spend hours browsing through old, dusty, shitty records hoping you find something golden.

Even then, you may end up actually interacting with them just a few times an hour, because you are focused. You are flipping two separate boxes of records with both hands, scanning with your eyes like some sort of factory machine designed to spot imperfections, only you are looking for perfection, or at least that cool album by Miles Davis where he sang with the Muppets. (Does it actually exist?) The joys are solitary too. Those same friends you go record shopping with may scoff at your selections, and often will. The joy and pain are yours and yours alone.

As the collection grows it begins to take up actual living space around you. The pride in such a collection is again just yours alone. Your loved ones may admire and enjoy your collection but it is not their collection. It has not been built up by them through hundreds of trips to record stores, garage sales, or record conventions. Those long car trips were made by you. Those shelves or cases or boxes were arranged by you. The knowledge of it's totality exists solely in your head. As you have had to add new records to the already arranged stacks you sort through them, again and again, seeing older records as old friends, much like people see their books. You know exactly where to reach to find the real favorites among the bunch, either because you play them often or because you like to pull them out to show off to fellow collector nerds.

If you think collecting something like records or books or stamps is a lonely thing, imagine the worst aspect of collecting, those people who collect whatever is en vogue currently. For a brief period of time people such as those who collected Beanie Babies flourish among what seems like a ton of other people sharing your passion. It seems that what is being collected actually matters to normal people. The prices go through the roof for the rare ones. It can be quite a rush for some. The ride always comes to an end and usually way too soon for most people's tastes. Those collectors are then left alone, with no collecting pals, with a collection of shit they overpaid for and which will likely never see an increase in value within their lifetime. That is truly lonely.

# 4 – Value exists in your own head

Everything you value, every single tiny bit of worth you see in anything is purely a product of your own creation. How did collecting records teach me this? For one thing, record collecting shows you how value itself is an ephemeral illusion. What is worth money to one person is worthless to another. What is worth little today is a sought-after collector's item tomorrow, and vice-versa. Value does not exist independently of everything else. Value is a purely subjective idea, dependent on everything from rarity to condition to location. Because of this, record collecting needed to be about something more than just the accumulation of monetarily valuable objects for me. The value of the records lay in how I chose to think about them.

This applies to every aspect of life where value judgments must be made, and it informs what becomes meaningful to me. I am better able to understand what is really important to myself, because I know that I am the only one who sees it that way. What I find valuable in life is important because I find it valuable, not because the value is an inherent quality. This can refer to anything from Unsane's music to what restaurants I enjoy. It has allowed me to try and resist the throngs that are seemingly swept away every second of their lives by what others consider valuable. It has also sucked in that part of the joy of music is sharing the love of it with others. It is sad seeing whole chunks of one's record collection becoming slowly forgotten by the world around you.

The sad truth is that everything is forgotten in time. Even those people, places and things that become legendary are remembered erroneously, their true selves forgotten in favor of an easy to tell legend. Someone like Robert Crumb, who amassed a definitive collection of very early delta blues 78's, lives in a world within his own mind, enjoying a music that most of the world has forgotten existed. Upon an owner's death, some collections are kept intact as historical archives, others are sold off to other collectors in auctions, and yet others are disposed of as if worthless, for a collection is only important to those who know and understand it's contents. That is the ultimate loss of value, knowing that your collection may well end up discarded after your death. These thoughts come to the true hardcore collectors.

With such heavy shit it is a good thing music is so fantastic!

January 2012

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