Saturday, April 17, 2010

A baby, some bathwater

The fact that we humans fetishize inanimate objects just as much, if not more, than those big, puffy intangibles like life, liberty, hope, happiness, and heaven is not surprising. And yet, I always thought my record-collecting habit was more than just a sickness. Yes, I used to spend hours each day working shit jobs to make money to buy records; hours rearranging and pawing through and writing about them; hours thinking about the ones I had yet to own. But I spent even more hours listening to my records. They were only inanimate objects until I put them on a spinning turntable; as soon as I dropped that needle, they unleashed a life, a liberty, a hope, a happiness, and a heaven all their own.

About a month ago I was force by circumstance to sell off a stack of my old LPs on eBay. It was easier than I thought it would be--not the mechanics of eBay, but the relinquishing of these objects I'd clung to so tightly for so long. I'd sold many of my records off in the past, but I really let go of some treasure this time around, shit that I had a personal stake in--the biggest being an original pressing of Jawbreaker's debut album, Unfun, on clear vinyl. It's about to be reissued, and I figured now was a good time to unload it for some bucks. And I did get some bucks out of it--quite a few, in fact, and far more than I'd expected--but when I packed it up and stuck it in the mail, it felt far less the amputation I'd expected.

I blame it on the mp3. I owe it to the mp3. If my younger self could see me now, he'd probably commit suicide (or at least get a lobotomy) to prevent himself from ever turning into what I've become: a dude who doesn't give a shit about vinyl. I couldn't even put my finger on the exact moment of my conversion, but sometime over the past ten years I realized I was sick of lugging around thousands of LPs every time I moved. I was sick of spending so much time, money, and energy an building and maintaining my collection. I was sick of spending 50 percent of every vacation I took combing through record stores while some exciting city lay unexplored outside. Mostly, though, I was sick of taking the medium as seriously as the message.

Even when I collected LPs like a madman, the seeds of my demise as a collector were already there. I never took particularly good care of my records. I'd leave them laying out for weeks at at time, somehow aesthetically titillated at the disarray. I was never that concerned with the condition they were in when I bought them. Even more telling, I couldn't give two shits about owning an original pressing of anything. I'd often trade a first press for a repress PLUS another LP (or five). To me, it was all about having as much music as I could get my hands on.

Now, via the Internet, I can get my hands on practically anything, anytime I want. If it's not available through a reputable vendor, there are blogs that offer free downloads of rare classics and other, ahem, less reputable sources. In this regard, the most ironic and beautiful use of the Internet is YouTube--particularly those clips that show some collector actually playing his own copy of a record from his collection and then posting a video of it, scratchy audio and all.

My copy of Unfun was a little scratchy. But not too bad; after all, I hadn't spun it in many years. I still listen to the album all the time, but I do it on my iPod. It's perfect: I listen to it while I'm riding the bus or waiting in line or walking around town (that is, when I don't have anything else to occupy my time). It's perfect; I could never cart my turntable around in my backpack, but now I've got an entire library of songs in my pocket, music that's effectively been liberated from those slabs of plastic that have sucked up so much of my cash, sanity, and living space over the years.

Before I sound like some grandpa gee-whizzing over all these newfangled gizmos, let me say that the profundity of this basic shift in music-listening is still more striking than most people realize, even after a bazillion blogs have been written on the subject. On a personal level, it's the reason I can now throw a baby like Unfun out with the bathwater of my erstwhile materialism. I may be in denial, but I've never considered myself a pack rat by nature, and I never understood my own impulse to horde shit--even good shit--while I ate macaroni and cheese until the next payday.

It's perverse, I realize, to write this on Record Store Day (which I am). Not only do I wish the best to all brick-and-mortar music shops, I used to work in one, and I believe they're subcultural institutions that no online store can replace. But it makes me even happier that I'm letting my records reenter circulation; not only do I sell off huge stacks of good shit to my local used-record store from time to time, I honestly, truly am thrilled at the thought of some young, starry-eyed collector--you know, like I how used to be--stumbling across some LP of her dreams because some old dude like me decided not to let his collection be pried out of his cold, dead hands.

I know this whole issue is tied into vaster issues like artists getting paid for their labor; whether analog sounds better than digital; if pressing LPs is a good use of our dwindling oil reserves; and even the very future of recorded music itself. For me, though, it's simple: The music I love has been freed from the grooves it was locked into, and now it exists--at least for me--on a purer, more ethereal plane less tainted by grabbiness and gluttony.

Even better: Now that I'm selling off my LPs, I'll have tons more room in my apartment for all these massive stacks of science-fiction books I keep buying.


  1. i was very sad to get outbid on that 'mats record. i'm not even a vinyl person. but because one of the three records i do own is an old ass copy of 'tim'. and it seemed like if i was going to up my collection to FOUR records, that two out of four being replacements records would be pretty cool. but i lost.

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  2. Haha, great post. Seriously, for any sane person, moving is the biggest push toward anti-materialism I know. (Somehow, for the crazy people, it's a chance to buy More! Newer! Better! Crap. Ugh.)

    I look forward to next year's post about you've begun to embrace ebooks. ;)

  3. Phoebe: I have some other 'Mats records I might be putting up there soon...

    Laurel: eBooks, never!!!!!!!!!!! (But if someone wants to buy thousands of downloads of my novel on eBook someday when it comes out, they're more than welcome, of course.)