It takes longer than it should for me to pack and unpack vinyl. I grab a big chunk from a shelf, bend over to shove them in a milk crate and stop. I look at the covers. There’s that copy of Z-Trip and DJ P’s Uneasy Listening Vol. I that I bought at a Z-Trip gig about ten years ago and a 12″ single for “I Eat Cannibals,” a Total Coelo track I should play more than I do. There are well-worn Kinks and Stones records, a handful of DFA singles still in pristine shape, even a 12″ for Tom Jones and the Cardigans covering “Burning Down the House.” And out of all these records, a couple thousand of them at the least, I can remember their stories. I can tell you which ones I picked up at shows, which ones were souvenirs from my first trip to New York, which ones I found for $2 when they usually sold for closer to $50. I can’t say that about the bulk of CDs haphazardly collected in boxes, nor can I say that about any MP3 in my collection. This attachment to vinyl goes beyond any sort of preciousness for a specific medium, at least in my case. When I try to understand this obsession with vinyl, I think about more than cover art or grooves or sound. I think about how the record came into my possession. More often than not, I bought it and, to buy it, usually took a certain amount of digging.
This isn’t the boring old paid music vs. free music argument. I don’t really care how you get your music. Besides, if you write about music, or play it in clubs, I would bet that a large segment of your library came without cost. Music writers and DJs get promos, advanced copies of releases. Labels, PR and marketing firms send these out to garner some sort of excitement about an album before it’s available. Maybe you’ll write about the band. Maybe you’ll play them at a club or on the radio. More often that not, that isn’t the case. If you work in this industry, you’ll end up with more promos that you have time to hear, and a lot of them suck.
By the time I started DJing at KXLU and writing for magazines, vinyl promos were a rarity. I have very few of those– a couple of weird Nine Inch Nails remixes, a bunch of releases from the brilliant, but now defunct label Emperor Norton and a few albums from my musician friends. Mostly, we got our stuff on CD. Sometimes, the jewel cases were already cracked by the time I opened the package. Other times, they came in tiny sleeves. They piled up in various stages of distress. Now, promos typically come as digital files, which I prefer because they are far less messy. To be fair, though, I don’t really care one way or another about how the free music came my way. If I actually liked it, chances were I would still run out to the record store and by a vinyl copy, should one exist, on the release date.
There’s a certain beauty in ownership, which, at least for me, doesn’t come with the downloads. (Maybe it could happen with CDs, but I rarely buy those.) The records I bought become miniature time capsules, not of the era in which the music was made, but of my life at the time I bought it. I look at my Godspeed You! Black Emperor records and think about that time my awesome friend and I caught them at the Troubadour. We bought their records at the merch booth, which was run by members of the band, and ended up chatting with them for a long time. The vinyl that came as gifts are even more significant, symbols of special friendships marked by songs. And because my boyfriend and I are both vinyl dorks, there are stories of our relationship hidden in the grooves. I look at the records he gave me when we first started dating and think, yeah, this was meant to be.
My vinyl collection has become more than a source of bragging rights, more than tools I use at nightclubs. It’s my personal history, one that wouldn’t make sense to anyone who wasn’t with me at the record store.