STARTING A COLLECTION: PART 1

Photo by Eilon Paz
(Photo by Eilon Paz for dustandgrooves.com)

First off, I don’t know why this never occurred to me sooner but I created a Tumblr-like “Ask Us Anything” page. Not that I expect a flood of questions but I do get random queries every once in a while and as someone who writes and teaches for a living, I’m more than happy to take people’s inquiries into…whatever.

On that note, I received this email today:

I’ve been following your blog Soul Sides for a while now, and I’ve finally decided to expand my vinyl collection (from a measly 2). I couldn’t help wonder what recommendations you might have for someone starting their own collection. I’ve pretty much loved everything you’ve posted in recent history, especially that extended cut of “Steppin’ Out” by Lionel Robinson that you linked in your blog, but really anything that you regard as a must have I guess would be awesome.

Here was my initial response and I think it works for anyone who’s contemplating the same question:

First off, I’d like to think there’s a taxonomy of basic collecting personalities:

  • Completionists: whether by artist, label, genre, or whatever other organizing principle you have, the goal here is to own as “complete a collection” as possible. At the mega-extreme end, you have this dude. But even without going that far off the deep end, completionism is ultimately a desire for mastery and thus, is a common impulse behind all collecting.1

  • Obscurists: Having a “complete collection” is one form of bragging rights (and to be sure, much of collecting is about bragging rights) but so is “having sh– no one else has.” The obscurist is interested in discovering the “ungoogle-able” records out there. They seek out private press releases, acetates, records in “foreign” (to them) countries, et. al. If it’s common enough to be on iTunes, no thank you.
  • Eclectics: These are the jack-of-all-genre collectors, the ones who are interested in “all kinds of sounds” and tend to be more impulsive around what they want/look for. Their collection may not have the same kind of logical organization as a completionist but it doesn’t thrive on rarity the same way it would for the obscurists. The eclectic likes a little bit of everything (or so they claim. In reality, I find that people who claim to “like all kinds of music” almost never do).2

That’s far from a complete rundown of potential collector types but in the collecting circles I came of age in, they’d be the big three.3 I don’t think these are “goals to strive for” so much as individual motivations that will end up guiding your collecting behavior over time.

Step One: Pick a genre

Musical genres may mostly be the product of arbitrary labeling but I still find value in them insofar as they provide a useful starting point to building a collection regardless which personality you are. One benefit of genres is that almost all of them have extensive resources available to anyone who wants to learn more about them: record guides, histories, compilations, “best of” lists, et. al. Sure, this approach is canon-driven and you’re most likely to begin with those records that everyone already has/recognizes (obscurists beware) but personally, I don’t have a problem with that. Anyone who claims to like soul music should own Aretha’s I Never Loved A Man or Al Green’s I’m Still In Love With You even if they’re both multi-platinum albums.

Remember: we’re talking about starting points. If a particular artist or label or set of personnel catches your fancy, then you can start digging deeper but beginning with the obvious/common records is a perfectly valid, sensible and useful strategy. Besides, one of the advantages to living in a post-Youtube/Spotify world is that if you’re reading about a record and you are curious what it sounds like, you have easy, free options to do so. You don’t have to “take a chance” on buying something blind (though that can be fun in its own way).

Step Two: Read the liner notes

It takes a team to make a record. As appealing as the auteur theory may be, almost no record is the product of a single genius mind behind it. Rather, it’s a team of musicians, producers, engineers and songwriters who help contribute to making that magic happen. Therefore, reading the liner notes, even if it’s just back cover credits, is useful to developing a sense of which people seemed to have that magic touch. If you looking at some Memphis record you’ve never seen before but you notice “W. Mitchell” in the credits, that may be worth taking a chance on. 4

It also helps to develop a feel for “era” and this is always tough because styles of music change very quickly and a particular sound you like from 1970 may not sound remotely the same if you jump back or forward even a few years. Some collectors have particular rules around this, basically record equivalents to “don’t order fish on Mondays” but I feel like you need to figure this out on your own, given your own tastes. I mean, there must be some people out there who really like, say, James Brown’s disco era (shudder). The point being: read the credits/liners and learn you something.

Step Three: Care about quality

Record collecting is always a challenge of finding good records but at good prices. One common error is that beginning collecting is often driven by the impulse to stock up quickly but too often, people’s desire for accumulation comes at the cost of finding records that actually sound decent vs. having been skated on. This is a problem that aspiring completionists run into frequently, especially in their desire to check off boxes but assuming you actually want to listen to the records you buy, it’s far better to overpay for a mint copy of something than underpay for a crackle-laced version.

There are exceptions: most older hip-hop records that don’t skip can be “good enough” since, in many cases, those records are sampling from crackly vinyl to begin with. Some claim that low rider soul sounds better with a little crackle; I don’t happen to ascribe to that philosophy but maybe firme rolas are better enjoyed if they sound rolled on.

But in general, no matter how good the deal, try to buy something that sounds good enough where, a year later, you don’t think you’ll be wincing about how crappy it sounds. (Word to the wise: the worst possible rating for records online is VG+ since that category seems to apply equally to “records that sound like crap but don’t look that bad” to “records that look bad but play pristine”. Just be careful).

In Part 2, I’ll try to tackle where one should begin as well as some basic tools of the trade.

  1. The definitive essay on why men, in particular, pursue completionism in record collating is likely Will Straw’s “Sizing Up Record Collections: Gender and Connoisseurship in Rock Music Culture.” In Mary Celeste Kearney, ed., The Gender and Media Reader. London and New York, Routledge, 2011.
  2. A fourth category could be called Mighty Collectros: This is a joke that started on Soulstrut but the Mighty Collectro might as well be defined as “all of the above.” If that sounds slightly contradictory, it both is and isn’t. In any case, though, seeking to become a Mighty Collectro isn’t a good place for any beginning collector to start. But it might very well be where we all end up eventually.
  3. I left out audiophiles for example, who surely constitute a significant population but it’s not one that I have much contact with or use for.
  4. Personnel is no absolute guarantee of quality: you could take the same people, put them on two separate records, and have them be wildly divergent in quality…but that’s more the exception than the rule in my opinion.

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