By Dave Thompson
Obsessions. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
Some people specialize, devoting their time to the pursuit of picture discs, or colored vinyl, or import 12-inch singles. Some indulge themselves in Chicago blues, in punk rock, in country. Some seek only first pressings on the jazz-centric Blue Note label; others will gather anything released by Sub Pop or the black label years of Nipper the dog.
There are Sinatra collectors who can reel off the matrix numbers that are scratched in the “dead wax” (the blank plastic between grooves and label) of every album as though they were telephone numbers that they call everyday.
There are Grateful Dead collectors who have gathered up a vinyl recounting of every show they ever attended. There are Carter Family fans who only want records that have been autographed by a band member. There are David Bowie hoarders who simply pick up every reissue of every release, and aren’t they having a fun time in the years since his passing?
Record collecting is a science, an ever-unfolding microcosm of music and marketing — there are people who will only collect records that still have the manufacturer’s “hype sticker” on the sleeve.
It is a sociological study — there are those who file their records not alphabetically by artist, but by release date, tracing shelf-by-shelf from the first days of rock and roll through the British Invasion and psychedelia, from the singer-songwriter boom through the heyday of disco and onto the new world of the new wave.
It is a journal of your own life, tracing from the first record that you ever bought, all the way to your most recent purchases; and a record of your quirkiness, too — exactly how many versions of Gustav Holt’s The Planets does one person really need? Or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, for that matter? (Well, there’s the original with all the posters and stickers; there’s the quadraphonic pressing; there’s a couple of reissues with sleeve variations; there’s the remastered vinyl; and a few CDs, there’s the box set with the bonus marbles, and the SACD… ummm…..)
It’s anything and everything that you want it to be. You don’t even have to like music to collect records. There are people who collect the artwork alone — fifties designs by Andy Warhol, seventies fantasies by Roger Dean; intricate sketching by George Underwood; gorgeous photographs by Annie Liebowitz; twenty-first century masterpieces by Gregory Curvey.
We collect individual artists… Woody Guthrie and Cyndi Lauper, Robert Johnson and the Mississippi Sheiks, Shostakovich and Sibelius. We pursue individual producers… Phil Spector, Joe Meek, Todd Rundgren, Bob Ezrin…. Conductors and orchestras. Genres and labels, forgotten fashions and Rolling Stones spin-offs. All those Bill Wyman solo albums, Mick and Keith, too. Ronnie Wood, Mick Taylor… Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka.
Short-lived formats and conversation-starting gimmicks fascinate. We’ve already mentioned twelve-inch singles, but there’s a world of other sizes, too—five-inch and six-inch discs made great novelty releases in the late 1970s; and shaped discs, too. Who needs a boxful of boring old round ones when you could have every other geometric configuration under the sun?
There’s other fabrics, too, beyond the familiar vinyl—lightweight flexi discs, Polish postcards, records pressed on X-Ray film, or on the back of breakfast cereal boxes. Back in 1972, the Himalayan nation of Bhutan even issued a series of playable postage stamps! They were too small, unfortunately, for most record players to handle, but if you were to play one, you might hear an encyclopedia-like account of Bhutan’s geography and politics, or a thirty-second snatch of local music. How many future World Music collectors got their start via a pen friend from the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu? Or via a childhood fascination with philately?
But enough with the examples and suppositions. Suffice to say, there are almost as many different forms of record collecting, and reasons for it, too, as there are record collectors to begin with, and many (but not all — how dreadful it would be, after all, if everyone agreed on something?) will acknowledge that there has never been a more exciting time to pursue the hobby than today.
True, the rarities are more expensive now, and the obscurities are more obscure. “If I’d known then what I know now…” is one of the seasoned collector’s most familiar laments, as he or she surveys the sums for which such-and-such a record now sells for, while recalling the day, many years ago, that they completely ignored the box full of copies being sold for a buck at their local record store.
But the Internet has opened the market wider than could ever have been imagined even 20 years ago; and though there may not be as many brick-and-mortar record stores standing as there were back in the '70s and '80s, or as many record fairs taking place as there used to be in the '90s, there are more opportunities to buy, and sources to buy from, then ever before. Especially if you’re willing to build the cost of shipping into your budget, as well.
It may (and, indeed, does) hurt to know that you are often paying more to the mailman than you are to the seller, especially when the record(s) you’re buying are priced at the lower end of the spectrum.
But maybe the pleasure of crossing them off the wants list more than compensates for that. After all, if the disc in question was that easy to find without that added cost, you’d already have a copy. Wouldn’t you?