It is safe to say that my longest relationship has been between myself and my music collection. Like many of my fellow DJ’s, being a music enthusiast means that you are also likely a music collector. A hoarder. A completist. I have personally witnessed record collections swallow the homes in which they were placed. A fellow collector once told me that his music library had overtaken him so much he had to store records in his oven. He never cooked at home.
I would like to think that my collection was always well managed, despite its size, or the number of times I have moved. Though I might be among the trees I’m still able to see the forest.
My record collecting started in earnest when I was in high school and consisted mainly of records I was chiefly interested in hearing at home, mostly “current” albums. This was before I would read interviews with recording artists I liked who would cite artists or records they liked, and I would chase those records down vast rabbit holes. In the beginning, record collecting was all about personal enjoyment. I was not aware of first pressings, or that they would attract certain collectors of vintage vinyl. I simply bought records as I found them. It was all interest and fun. I loved playing the records, reading the back cover credits. Noticing the producer or guest musicians. Noting when a band did a cover version, and often seeking out the original version of the track for my own collection.
At some point part of my collection began to include the aspect of function. With the invention of the Walkman portable cassette player, I began to purchase factory made cassettes as well as vinyl albums. For instance that day in 1984 when R.E.M.’s “Reckoning” was released, I purchased both, so I could listen to it almost immediately while I rode home on the bus from the record store.
When I started to make my own mix tapes I began to view my collection differently, not as entire albums, but as potential collections of songs. I thought of how a song from one record might sound when following a song by a different artist from a different record. My record collection gradually started to resemble the functional segues in my mind.
When I volunteered at a local listener-sponsored radio station, that segue mentality would serve me well. The making of mix tapes for myself and my friends prepared me for radio. The idea of starting with one song and ending up a couple of hours later with something completely different appealed to me. Being on radio changed my buying habits. I was keen to have a few new items to play each week for each show. Consequently my record buying increased, as did my record hunting.
I was lucky to be employed by a local used record store, which afforded me the chance to order new items for myself, discover all sort of used records all the more easily, as I was getting paid to flip through the racks.
This situation lead to me discovering first pressings, or original pressings. But more often than not I didn’t care. I never viewed my collection as an investment. It was mostly for the love of music, I wanted to play my records, for myself and my radio listeners.
Somewhere along the way I became a completist, I found if I liked a particular record by an artist I had to have all of the albums by that artist. This lead to filing my records away in alphabetical order, with each artists’ section being chronological, and separate sections at the end of my collection for various artists’ records (filed alphabetical by title), soundtracks, and misc. Records I found that had interesting spoken word pieces. (These all to be used as intros on mixtapes.)
My purchases of 45’s or 12 inch singles gradually increased. I discovered there were often B-sides included on 45’s that were not on the albums. So, I had to have them. For me there was a true joy of 45’s. The fact they are generally mastered louder than the album version of the same song. And often with 45’s from the sixties, the record will have a mono mix, which is somewhat different than the version that appeared on the album. All of this made it essential for the collector.
In the eighties, record labels or companies as a whole, embraced a new format, The CD. The idea of the CD appealed to me in that there would be no skipping. I was not precious about vinyl records, and thought that the play of the records was odd, with each play you are dragging a needle along the groove of the record and I assumed somewhat damaging with each play. I looked for upgrades for my most loved records. The CD seemed like just another upgrade.
Once the CD got rolling and record companies began to issue titles from back catalog onto the emerging format, I discovered it made finding formerly rare record easy to find. For instance, The Modern Lovers had released “The Original Modern Lovers” on Blackhawk records, and I did not have a copy. In one week it was released on CD. The following week I was flipping through a new arrivals rack at a record store in San Francisco and found three copies available. I discovered a lot of records paying attention to new CD releases each week.
Working a record store meant that I could collect CD’s even before I had a CD Player. The store had a player as part of the in-store stereo system. So I started my CD collection beginning with The Mission Of Burma CD released by Rykodisc. A great collection of all of their studio recordings, almost 80 minutes of music in total. It was amongst the best use of CD technology, then and now.
As I upgraded my collection to CDs, eventually I found myself now entering the world of record selling. I would bring records into the store where I worked and use the money to buy new CDs.
When it came to doing my radio show, the use of CD’s became essential for me. I loved that I could program the CD player to play just one song at a time. No more mistakes from not lifting the needle soon enough from the record to avoid it playing the next track.
The debate between which sounds better, vinyl or CD, never bothered me. I suppose it might have, if I had a turntable and listening system that cost $5000 along with a gold record needle. Perhaps then I might be able to detect the difference.
I read an interview some years after the CD had been introduced, in which David Thomas of the band Pere Ubu discussed the issue of CD versus vinyl. He spoke of the “warm” sound people often cited as the reason they prefer vinyl, and pointed out what they were in fact hearing was distortion, a sound they were used to with records. The clean, pure sound of a CD was unnatural in that regard.
As more CD’s were released, more records left my collection. I mainly kept the vinyl records I had been unable to replace with CD’s.
Moving to Portland lead to some hard choices. I sold a large portion of my records, and kept the CD’s. Easier to move, easier to pack, easier to shelve. There were also fresh music opportunities. I found a new job at a record store, a radio station where I could have a weekly show. Through connections I made from both of those parts of my life, I began playing records in bars and clubs.
I was shy at first DJing out at a club, in front of people. My first slot was at the Someday lounge. Nervous and unsure that I would be able to do that simple act of getting from one record to the next in a live setting. But, after a few minutes of warming up to the mixer, I was more than capable of pulling it off. My first night behind the tables lead to other nights at East End, Ground Kontrol, The Tonic Lounge, The Twilight, Beech Street Parlor, The Matador, and The World Famous Kenton Club. On some of these nights I would spin records for four hours straight. It was fun and they paid me well.
My success as a public DJ is questionable. Personally I felt very happy with what I did. But few people knew my name. I made it a point to play rock records, punk rock records, eschewing any soul or groovy records. There were plenty of soul DJ’s and soul nights. I wanted to be a rock n’ roll DJ!
DJing in public shifted my relationship to my own collection. Again, I found myself buying records, mainly 45’s because they sounded so much better. And I still played CDs when I did weekly radio shows. For whatever reason these two thing felt separate to me, although the selections were mine to make, and I treated them differently. In some ways my collection was split along factors of ease of play.
Changes in life and situations behind the scenes lead to me giving up my physical music collection. I no longer play records at bars and at clubs. These days my collection is purely digital. All zeros and ones, all on a laptop in the core memory. No more covers or liner notes. I no longer spend hours on end, tediously absorbing details related to the music in my collection. I simply gather music and listen.
Noah Fence hosts It’s a Nice World To Visit – Punk, Post-Punk, Garage Rock, Psych…A mix of new tracks and old favorites. On Freeform Portland Radio.