When it comes to music obsession, a commitment to collecting can take many forms. Two generations ago, a “record collection” was literally just that. But in the past 30 years or so, the means of accumulating music have grown exponentially, with new technologies offering collectors more options than milk cartons crammed with LPs or teetering CD towers.
Physically collecting music is now considered decidedly old-school, of course, and for those with shorter attention spans, interest only in individual songs, or the need to travel with 10,000 songs in their pocket, streams and downloads have increasingly replaced libraries that saddle entire rooms with nothing but shelves, album spines and little space for anything else. Record stores have receded ever further in the rearview. But it’s not quite so simple. Sales of vinyl records actually hit a 25-year high in 2016, with more than 3.2 million LPs sold. Spending on vinyl also outstripped revenue generated by digital downloads as listeners turned more to streaming services and re-embraced tangible music formats. Many new albums pressed to vinyl, including movie and TV soundtracks, now come with a free download code, encouraging people to give records, with their superior sound and vintage cachet, a try.
“One of the advantages of CDs over vinyl was that they were easier to store. That’s true until you just have too many of them, which has been my case for several years.”
As the saying goes, to each his or her own, and while the industry debates the most efficient ways to get music to the masses, collectors stay intrinsically bound to the forms of accumulation that best suit their desires. But what is it that compels a music lover in the 21st century to keep buying vinyl, or CDs, or cassettes, or any format that takes up space? Is there something inherently valuable about a physical piece of music? Or about owning music and not just leasing it from Spotify? Many still think so, but why?
Barnes Newberry, host of the Americana roots show My Back Pages on Martha’s Vineyard radio station WMVY, is adamant about his preference for physical forms of music, particularly CDs. “Being in radio, I suppose downloads make the most sense for ease and quickness,” he says, “but I have also been a major collector most of my life. So for me, the physical product has always been the primary object of my desire and affection. Thus, records first, eventually superseded by compact discs.”
Newberry , music whose collection numbers some 15,000 volumes, including both vinyl albums and compact discs, says his preferences these days lean toward the latter. “I do not even collect vinyl records anymore for three main reasons,” he says. “Number one, I have too many already; two, the new ones are way more expensive; and three, the days of cueing up records for radio are simply gone!”
As for downloads, Newberry insists that he doesn’t have any use for digital music, not only for quality concerns, but because it robs him of an integral part of the experience. “Downloading mp3s is a waste of time, since you often get a compressed sound—not a good thing—and there’s often little or no artwork and credits,” he explains. “That’s fine for many, but as a collector, I don’t want to download all that and have random papers and burned CDRs in my collection. Not this guy, thanks. I like artwork, credits and seeing who played what and where. Collectors are spoiled and precise… Give me the whole thing or nothing.”
Duncan Clark, an avid collector and attorney who lives in upstate New York, owns approximately 12,300 pieces of music. Nearly half are vinyl albums (including roughly 1,000 45s). “There are also a couple of hundred cassette tapes, although that was never a favorite format of mine, except when it came to making mix tapes,” he says. “A lot of the cassettes are bootlegs of questionable audible clarity. Most of the vinyl albums were purchased prior to 1990. While I always purchased a lot of vinyl from 1965 on, the bonus years were, without question, in the mid and late ‘80s, when the industry was trying to change everything to CDs. Record stores couldn’t get rid of their vinyl stock quickly enough, and that’s when I picked up a lot of old rock and soul albums. A lot of them were reissues that you could pick up for a couple of bucks.”
Like Newberry, Clark prefers CDs over records these days—an interesting choice for any collector, since most prize analog sound above all. “The main reason is the storage factor in that, at least in the beginning, you could pack a lot more CDs in a smaller place than you could with vinyl album,” says Clark. “Additionally, it’s harder to damage a CD than it is create a skip or a jump in vinyl.”
Clark is the rare record collector who doesn’t consider himself an audiophile. “But generally, I find that the sound on vinyl has more of a presence than any other format,” he says. “CDs can be more of a mixed lot, particularly when it comes to remastered analog recordings. Generally, the quality of CDs is better than streams or mp3s.”
Robert Roser, a Miami collector, hunts records like rare coins or first-issue postage stamps. He still loves reading liner notes, though concedes they’re getting harder to read as he gets older. “There’s the fun and a challenge that comes with collecting and amassing a large collection,” he says. “Generally, I find it more relaxing as opposed to the constant distraction of gazing at a computer device. Besides, well cared-for LPs and CDs can last a lifetime.”
But there’s also a counterintuitive angle to Roser’s preference for the tactile. Streams and downloads may not scratch—but they do break. “Hard drives can break at a moment’s notice, making it necessary to continually create a backup,” he says.
Besides, he adds, “I find that most people who are into streams and downloading are not serious music collectors anyway. They just want a large collection of songs as opposed to a large collection of albums.”
On the other side of music demilitarized zone, Dennis Double, a music enthusiast and former DJ for East Tennessee radio stations WDVX and WFIV, says he prefers to have his music reside on his computer. At last count he had some 50,000 albums on his hard drive. “The main reason I collect the way I do is because of space,” he says. “I would have to have a warehouse to store all of the music that’s on my hard drive.”
Most collectors yearn for the warehouse, but Double has other reasons for buying the occasional physical copy—“mostly to get the covers autographed,” he says, pointing to the walls of his den, which are wallpapered with LP album covers bearing the names of the luminaries that recorded them. “However, most of the music is on my computer to save space and for pure convenience.”
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If it seems surprising that any collector would prefer CDs to vinyl, consider Clark, for whom amassing as much as possible trumps all. “One of the advantages of CDs over vinyl was that they were easier to store,” he says. “That’s true until you just have too many of them, which has been my case for several years. I had one room in the house just for storing music, but I outgrew that around seven years ago. I just got new storage cabinets, but they’re being stored down in the basement in order to keep peace with my wife.”
One word that rarely comes up in collectors’ circles, but shouldn’t be ignored, is “cassette.” To some, tapes may be the answer. Most remember the brief chapter between 8-tracks and CDs as cheap, flimsy and unreliable. But they also boasted a unique combination of traits: portable, analog and customizable—hence the “mixtape,” which has never died. Now, more artists are opting to release their music that way. There’s even a Cassette Store Day to complement Record Store Day. Shellina Ryals, who helms the indie band Cavalen, chose to distribute her band’s self-titled EP on cassette, and she’s happy to share her fondness for that format.
“Am I a tape collector?” she muses. “Well, I never intended to be, but I’ve had the hilarious luck of finding many treasures at yard sales, thrift stores or my favorite local music store. I do love vinyl, and my father had a wonderful collection that was completely off limits for us kids to touch—which means I never owned my own record player.”
Collectors at the 2013 WFMU Record Fair in New York.
That’s what she says led her to favor cassettes. “My parents were rather strict about what music was allowed in our home,” she recalls. “My mother found a Guns N’ Roses tape that my brother and I bought together, and she was so upset at our supposed dedication to ‘devil music’ that she threw it away. So one way to get around it was to borrow a friend’s tape and then to record our own copy of the album onto a blank tape. We’d label it ‘Gospel Music’ and hide it!”
The tapes she was allowed to keep helped Ryals become the artist she is now. “To this day I love the jackets that accompany the tapes,” she says. “One of my favorite artists, Stevie Nicks, would include the lyrics and the story behind each song. That’s how I learned to write songs. I also love the idea of listening to a whole album at one time. Keeping it on the deck for more than a few days means I grow in love with songs that might not have captured my attention at first glance.”
With much of the music industry fixated on the duel between downloading and streaming, it’s easy to miss the fact that vinyl is ascendent again, cassettes are having a moment of their own and CDs, well, they’re probably dead. However the race is run, physical formats are likely to remain part of the landscape for good, even if the people collecting them spend more time hunting than listening to what they’ve found.
“CDs seem to be going the way of the dinosaurs and real record stores,” he laments. “When they go away completely, I guess it means I will have time to finally listen to all the albums I’ve amassed so far. And then I’ll be buried with them all. Just dig a deeper hole.”