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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Death of a Record Collection

posted by on September 16 at 12:45 PM

Right now, my esteemed colleague Dave Segal is on the phone negotiating the long-delayed transport of his record collection from Orange County. Segal has been here for just over a month; these should have been here just days after he arrived. “These are extremely valuable to me,” he’s telling the person on the other end of the phone. “I’m not going to let this go.” It sounds pretty grim.

Last week, I was in NYC. I walked by Other Music, Victory Records, various little vinyl boutiques, and while, on some abstract level, I wanted to support all these businesses, I didn’t come home with a single record. At my kind host’s stylish but small railroad apartment, we listened to music on a nice set of speakers plugged into mp3 players and laptops. They had maybe two boxes of records. I can’t remember whether or not they had a turntable set up (I don’t think so).

At home, I have the same brand of shelving as every other vinyl owning young person, the one made out of 16 squares perfectly sized for 12”s (your model may have 25 squares if you’re fancy). It’s half full of vinyl, half full of books and other media. I have a few crates worth of records on additional shelving or in actual crates on the floor, but I’m lately convinced that I’m never going to fill the rest of this shelf up with vinyl, let alone have to someday spring for the 25 square model.

I find no joy in this conclusion. I would love to live in a house lined with shelves of records. I would prefer my living room to look like these. I just don’t think it’s going to happen.

Vinyl is relatively big and heavy. Airlines are charging for extra baggage, and even when they weren’t, traveling with vinyl (say, enough to DJ with) is grueling compared to traveling with mp3s or even CDs. Shipping is apparently a drag as well. Apartment space for record shelving is limited.

Music is expensive. We’re diving headlong into what looks to my admittedly not economically expert eyes like a serious recession/depression, and records just aren’t a necessity as much as food and shelter (Segal will likely debate this point with me). Rising fuel prices only aggravate the flying/shipping issues as well. As much as I want to support these small business and be a parton of artists, I just can’t give any more than I can afford. Before this job, that meant buying records as carefully as possible, downloading what I couldn’t afford to buy, and supporting artists at shows and by buying other merch. Now, it frequently means building my collection through promotional copies. Both means meant more CDs and mp3s than vinyl making their way into my collection. Morgan Geist might complain that I’m not listening to his records on the proper hi-fi setup in the ideal format, but audiophile gear is a luxury that most music fans probably can’t afford. Hell, even Sasha Frere-Jones is selling his record collection.

These are gloomy, doomy times—every time someone in New York asked me how work was going, I would reply that it’s great, the music business is tanking, print journalism is tanking, so print music journalism is the most exciting place you could hope to be. In seriousness, it’s an awesome job, I feel fortunate every day to have it, but I’m not sure it’ll ever launch me comfortably into the middle class. I think I may never own a home; maybe I won’t be able to hold on to all the music I love for posterity either. Maybe formats—or other, larger paradigms—will shift and force people of my class situation to leave certain things behind. I think record collections, as opposed to mp3 collections, will only become increasingly a thing of class privilege rather than of ardent music fandom (I suppose it was always this way; perhaps music fans of less means have just moved from dubbed cassettes to mp3s).

Sacrilege, maybe, but as much as I love the look and feel of vinyl, records are only of marginally more value to me than the equivalent mp3s. Or: If I have to, I can let record collecting go. At least it’ll be easier to move when rising rent finally prices me out my current place.

RSS icon Comments


i feel you

Posted by ndrwmtsn | September 16, 2008 12:53 PM

Mp3s are convenient, but vinyl has substance.

And yes, journalists are poor. If not for Taco Tuesday I would be hungry right now.

Posted by Jeff | September 16, 2008 1:17 PM

The older one gets, the larger the commitment music and books represents. Books, CD's and vinyl are big and heavy, and if you're not a homeowner the prospect of packing up, moving, unpacking and storing all that media into each new rental becomes daunting as one's collection reaches several thousand objects.

Posted by Tiktok | September 16, 2008 1:41 PM

quit talking out your ass again, Grandy.

Vinyl isn't dead, you just are.

Posted by bobcat | September 16, 2008 4:02 PM

I still don't understand how the tech or music industry hasn't been able to digitize music in a way that satisfies audiophiles. Why does it have to be one or the other?

I would have to say that I probably side with Grandy here on the vinyl issue. I mean... really, how many cassette tapes have all of us saved?

Not many.

Posted by godsactionfigure | September 16, 2008 4:14 PM

Errr, what do cassettes have to do with anything?

This is weird, because I feel like I've been hearing about more and more people buying vinyl (especially with all the mp3 downloads labels are including with vinyl sales). I'm pretty sure vinyl is on the upswing overall these days.

Posted by Levislade | September 16, 2008 4:40 PM

what is this mp3 you speak of?

the Ford Taurus I just bought has a cassette player in it that works rather well. I still have plenty of tapes lying around and they still sound basically fine. I can't afford an iPod and don't have nearly a satisfying enough CD collection to rip onto it anyway. vinyl is still the way to go. and also, Eric, you neglected to mention how many labels from the very small like Prank, to the huge like Universal, now offer digital versions with vinyl sales. you're just getting lazy. or overly particular with the kind of music you listen to, which you are. not that there's anything wrong with that.

Posted by Lee | September 16, 2008 4:46 PM

Easier said then done to just jettison all or some of your record collection. It's a noble thought but years of ones life going into building one up is hard to let go of. Maybe we would all be better off if we had gotten our lives sorted out better at an earlier age and never needed music as a distraction to life's problems and enhancers to our lives and loves. We record collectors took it and take it to the next level.
Next time I move maybe you can help me move " the collection". Which might be sooner than I think. That way you can feel even better about yourself and not being weighed down by possessions.

Posted by Biggie J | September 16, 2008 4:55 PM
Posted by justanotherreader | September 16, 2008 5:07 PM

Interestingly enough, vinyl sales have been climbing the past two years in a row, as have the sell of turntables with those USB ones. CDs are the most disposable format, electronic files can easily be stored on your computer and MP3 player, analog vinyl cannot. CDs sales have plummeted, and while they still outsell vinyl, I'm not sure they will two years from now. Also of note is most old vinyl collections continue to go up in value, which isn't the case with CDs. Yeah, in all practicality, it's hard to lug around 5,000 records when you move, I've done it a few times and it sucks. And I've been weeding down my vinyl to the essential 500-1000 for the past couple years. The nice part is you can make thousands of dollars selling it on Ebay in the process, I've sold a bunch of punk singles I bought for $1 or $2 for $100-$300, you can't say that about CDs or MP3s.

Posted by dan10things | September 16, 2008 5:08 PM

Spinning vinyl will be an ART left to DJ's like Kid Koala. Most DJ's today don't need vinyl. The iPod & laptop will do just fine. They don't need to be carrying around boxes of records and heavy equipment to simply operate a stereo system that the club or venue usually provides.

Armed with mp3's, computers and iPods, most of todays DJ's should change they're title to "MP" -Music Programmer. The term "DJ" should be left to the Kid Koala's, Cut Chemists and the turn-tablists who still actually have the skills to spin records.

Posted by Static Invasion | September 16, 2008 5:10 PM

There are digital formats that satisfy audiophiles (so long as they're routed through sufficiently slick systems); Geist is specifically criticizing earbud headphones, which are of course less than ideal sonically.

Cassettes? Overtly (sp?) particular listening habits? Download codes bundled with vinyl? I don't know. Clearly, there are a few things going on here—class, consumer choice, new technology, shelf space, the usual stuff—but what's been most interesting me lately is the collector's impulse to amass and save for posterity. Such collecting is always going to be a luxury at some point, it's just a question of where that point lies. And the idea that you'll be able to hold on to all this stuff indefinitely—I just have a hard time putting stock in such permanence these days.

I don't think I'm being lazy. I'm just having a crisis of faith in the idea of record collecting.

Posted by Eric Grandy | September 16, 2008 5:12 PM

Hey, Dan, I finally find myself agreeing with you on something. I think perhaps the key here is to cap things off at a certain point, to be constantly weeding and reselling old stock. I suppose part of being a collector is also being a trader, which isn't really part of mp3 or cd ownership. I'm not saying vinyl is dead, or that those with means should stop buying it, I'm just not sure it's worth it (for me) to collect records these days.

Posted by Eric Grandy | September 16, 2008 5:20 PM

#11 - you're confusing DJ's with turntablists. That has its place at a club - no disrespect to their craft, but at most bars I frequent, people would just assume hear actual, entire songs. Having the DJ will always bring more people in (if their doing their end), and this system works out quite well for everyone.

I know it seems senseless, but most any place I ever lug records do, simply to play one after another in no particularly creative order, would rather someone actually spins vinyl. It's hard to explain in a way that makes any logical sense, but you let any random dude with an iPod plug into you bar's sound system and fiddle around for 5 hours, things will get ugly.

Oh, and Eric - Until you get to a certain age where you're sick of the dead weight, most people severely pad their collections with useless dollar records just to fill out those shelves. Trust me, go to someones place and grab an LP from the bottom middle square, it's bound to be a Mormon Tabernacle Choir LP from Value Village (or similar). Lord know I could stand to loose at least 15% of what I've got sitting up there.

Posted by Dougsf | September 16, 2008 5:29 PM

"I'm not saying vinyl is dead,"

yes you are and of course you are wrong as usual

Posted by just anotherreader | September 16, 2008 5:38 PM

Where did I say that?

Posted by Eric Grandy | September 16, 2008 5:49 PM

"Most DJ's today don't need vinyl. The iPod & laptop will do just fine."

@11... most of what I bring to play on vinyl when I DJ has never been released in an electronic format, or if it has, it's a home-done burn from vinyl by a record collecting blogger and sounds shittier than the original. I think it really depends on what type of music you're spinning, but if you're playing punk, ska, soul, killed by death, older crust, old country, r&b, oi!, hardcore, blues, various latin american genres, etc. you most definitely need vinyl, some of the best older shit, and often your rarest and coolest stuff your gonna drop on the crowd, isn't available digitally. Much like I keep a VHS player around to watch movies like "Dogs in Space," "Breaking Glass," "Decline of the Western Civilization," and "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains," because they haven't been released on DVD. Luckily the last one is coming out on DVD this week. But in some cases, the original format is still the only format. Plus playing a laptop or an MP3 player is really fucking boring.

Posted by dan10things | September 16, 2008 8:30 PM

I think vinyl is still the best format to enjoy an album. There's something about hearing an entire side A followed by the physical act of flipping the record for side B that does it for me.

As for CDs?

Can we get rid of them all together? They are worthless. I'd rather have an entire library of MP3s sussed out by a stellar collection of rare vinyl than a cluttered stack of broken jewel cases and burned CDs any day.

The new USB turntables are a gift from God himself.

Posted by Jeff | September 16, 2008 9:51 PM

To me, the only redeeming qualities about vinyl are the sound, and the size of the artwork on the cover. Everything else about it turns me off on owning vinyl. I hate the durability. I hate the fact that you have to treat a record like a priceless antique, and be so delicate with it. I hate the weight of lugging them around. I hate turning a record over just to hear the other half of an album. I'm not really much of a nostalgist that gets off on that kind of ritual.

Say what you want about the Ipod, (Of which I don't own.) but it takes effort to break the thing. You almost have to go out of your way. I mostly just listen to music on my desktop computer.

I don't ride the bus, so I don't really need music on-the-go. but I'm also one of those types that rarely travels farther than a couple blocks. I'm not afraid of whatever music (friends, work, restaurants, cars driving by, etc.)that the world will subject on me. Sometimes I even like it.

Posted by godsactionfigure | September 17, 2008 5:28 AM

"As for CDs? Can we get rid of them all together? They are worthless. I'd rather have an entire library of MP3s sussed out by a stellar collection of rare vinyl than a cluttered stack of broken jewel cases and burned CDs any day."

This is where I'm at. I've moved past CDs, I've pretty much stopped buying them and have been slowly burning the ones I have onto my PC and boxing them up or selling them. Why buy a CD when you can buy the music online cheaper from your home and don't have to go through the effort to burn it? In the end I hope to have a mammoth library of MP3s and a well-trimmed vinyl collection of around 1000 records. I'd definitely call Compact Disks a dead format before vinyl. DVDs are next, I give them about 2-3 years until their sales fall like CDs as everyone gets their movies digitally across the Web.

Posted by dan10things | September 17, 2008 9:12 AM

I still buy CDs all the time.

They are small enough to not be so cumbersone to own (yet), yet they are an essentially DRM-free format *WITH LINER NOTES* that allows replay for at least two decades -- probably longer -- without degradation.

CDs were never a "sexy" format, but who the fuck cares.

Dan10Things: when digital stores start providing a convenient document format for liner notes in addition to the mp3s *in conjunction with* digital players that can show these liner notes, I'm not ditching CDs. Just my thoughts.

And maybe we're spoiled here in Seattle, but some new CDs at sale price can be cheaper than buying the albums from iTunes. And of course, used CDs are almost always cheaper than digital albums.

Posted by mackro mackro | September 17, 2008 9:44 AM

In response to questioning the idea of permanence in music, that's one of the appeals of vinyl. In an age when our landmarks are quickly disappearing around us, it's nice to be able to hold on to something small that lasts. I've dealt with the hassle of hauling around boxes of vinyl records for 20+ years now, and sometimes they sat unplayed for several years until I found the right space for them, but ultimately they're still with me. And its incredibly rewarding now to pull out something that sounds as good as it did 20 or more years ago. It is a lot more convenient to have all your music in the palm of your hand, but convenience does not necessarily equate to a better experience. It's a lot more convenient to eat a frozen pizza at home, but it's nowhere near as rewarding as the one you have to wait for at Via Tribunali.

I think record companies are acknowledging that no one format is gonna be right for every music consumer, and even if vinyl only represents a tiny niche right now, it's great that someone is still attempting to meet that niche. Would you rather have the choice of format, sound quality, convenience and price point that works for you, or just go with the status quo?

Posted by Mr_Friendly | September 17, 2008 10:42 AM

"Dan10Things: when digital stores start providing a convenient document format for liner notes in addition to the mp3s *in conjunction with* digital players that can show these liner notes, I'm not ditching CDs. Just my thoughts."

If you look at national music sales for CDs, they are totally tanking, down something like 30-40% a year. So you may be a hold out, rather than representative of the norm. But your right on the design and delivery of digital music, it's lame. The megacorporations that control most of the music industry really need to learn how to market and sell digital music that comes with appealing digital artwork, band info, in high quality formats that don't have dysfunctional copying abilities, and deliver it quickly and cheaply. They aren't spending anything on manufacturing costs, so they should be selling it a lot cheaper and in a more dynamic way than they currently do. My guess is they don't really want people to be dropping the CD format, which they can control more. They just have to keep up with Apple, who out of nowhere (to those slow moving giants) got their foot in the door of the music industry.

Posted by dan10things | September 17, 2008 1:04 PM

Ah, it's the "This Thing That is Happening to ME Represents A Universal Trend and is a Defining Moment in Music's History" article.

You people sitting in an empty room with your iPods plugged into some little cardboard speakers - we LAUGH at you.

Posted by Quank Xigot | September 18, 2008 5:31 AM

24 - it's what all the 'cool kids' in NYC are doing though. We're just a bunch of backwoods beaver trappers wearin flannel and sippin starbucks.

Posted by bobcat | September 18, 2008 11:44 AM

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