Vinyl Fantasy: How To Start Collecting

So you want to get into vinyl. It’s not going to be exactly as treacherous to navigate as buying a used car, but there are landmines everywhere, that most people wish they knew before they started. 

It’s full of snobs telling you the “right” way to do it, and frankly, half of them got into it because they thought there was only one correct way to listen to music. It can take over your life. There are rip-offs, and gatekeepers, and it’s not hyperbole when I say that it can become an addiction.

“It’s like black crack, man,” my roommate said to me back when I was a teenager. We were camped out in front of one of our local record stores, waiting for them to open for their big sale. Earlier that week, we had set up one of our elaborate hijinks to shoplift food from the local big box grocery store, considering ourselves a group of Merry Men where the “poor” were our bellies. We were saving our money for records. Nobody else was camped out that day, and we had our pick of the sales racks, as the owner chuckled to himself about us. Today, I know that morning-drunk shopkeep likely could smell more than just Jagermeister burps, because he sniffed out two of his own kind that day. He knew we were vinyl addicts. Don’t be like teenage me, although if you need tips on how to plan a supermarket heist, my DMs are always open.

Riding the Nostalgia Wave

Vinyl now outsells CDs for the first time in decades. It’s got to be considered the biggest, if really the only technology that rode a wave of nostalgia to relive economic and social relevance. GM definitely likes making muscle cars again, and you can find banjo-plucking urban-ruralizers at any indie club, singing about hay and silos even though they live in a condo made of glass, but none of our flux capacitors have collectively brought back anything like we’ve brought back vinyl. There are teenagers who don’t even own record players pinning them to their walls. DJs boast about all-vinyl sets. Collectors travel great distances just to get some modern soul boogie 12” to show off to their other spoiled rich friends. Saying that vinyl is back is both underselling it and several years too late of an observation.

The Vinyl Rabbit Hole: What It Means to Be A Collector

I’ve been collecting for about twenty years. It started with finding my father’s Cheech & Chong LPs in the family’s storage room, playing them on an old Fisher Price plastic turntable, and pretending I understood why “Lebanese blonde hash” was a hysterical prize to win on a game show. (Note: I still don’t get it.)  It continued through my teenage years, finding Smiths and B52s records at Salvation Army stores, and later spending my entire first paycheck at nineteen years old on Florida breakbeat singles, which would become my first step into being a nightclub DJ for the next two decades. Through record fairs around the world, estate sales, and stores, I’ve collected thousands. Like most of my peers in the vinyl world, I can probably name you where I got every one of them, and likely what year it was. That said, I do not call myself a collector. If you want to have meaningful relationships in your life and have more than ten dollars in your checking account, don’t be a collector.

Vinyl Fancier Vs. Vinyl Collector

I’ve always considered there to be a difference between a vinyl fancier and a collector. A collector to me were those types who were completionists, a group of people who needed every record, actually thinking that was possible. Their records are labeled by condition, and all in uniform plastic sleeves. They were not the type at record fairs to buy or sell, but usually just wafted around the room, knowing they already own everything that’s on sale. To me, records are not for collecting, they’re for playing. Keeping a first pressing of Copper Blue under glass like you’re The Little Prince and Bob Mould’s guitar wailing is the rose, never made sense to me. Put that record on when your 90s-obsessed pals are wrecked at your place at 1 AM. Keeping records to yourself is tacky. As a yet-to-be-famous Jon Favreau is told by pre-hair plugs Jeremy Piven in PCU, “Don’t be that guy.”

Don't Listen To The "Experts"

“So what kind of guy do you wanna be?” A question I ask a few times a year when I’m approached by a friend or colleague about them sniffing around the idea of becoming a vinyl person. As with collecting anything, it can quickly take over your life. If you buy a classic car, anyone in that world will tell you that within a year, you’ll have opinions about stock turbos in Buick Regal projects, and it’s the same with vinyl. You may start with a Crosley all-in-one turntable you buy from Urban Outfitters after you notice you prefer the way the Green Day album artwork looks on vinyl rather than a cheap t-shirt. However, be prepared for one day being the type who takes a second job to afford a hand-crafted in Japan headshell for your Thorens TD-295. That’s not to say we all become those people, just most of us. In a (hopefully) more peaceful age of “let people enjoy things,” it’s important to not feel overwhelmed by the snobbiness and competition of a subculture. 

No matter what the jackass expert at the store says about your collection beginning, or what your gear setup is at home, just buy what you like. Those people are usually the type who were never good at sports so they turned the idea of personal enjoyment and artistic intrigue into a competition. Feel sorry for them, and don’t ask them about their Biz Markie t-shirt. Do you want to start with a greatest hits collection? Do it. The majority of artists who are old enough to warrant a best-of compilation were putting out albums with two great songs and ten filler trash tracks, and charging the public triple what they should have for the privilege. Greatest hits compilations likely just added another addition to their summer homes. Do you want to care about re-pressings? Nah. I mean, some of them sound like trash (Wu-Tang, I’m SMDH at you) so listen to them first, but who cares? I had an original pressing of Belle & Sebastian’s Tigermilk that was my Holy Grail for twenty years, but I gave it to a friend because it felt good to do so.

Pro Tip: Cross-Genre Scouring

Okay, so what else do you need to know about becoming a record fiend? Don’t listen to pretentious collectors. Don’t worry about starting off with cheap records and gear. Oh here’s a good one: if you like a certain genre, go to the opposite store. This is a great tip. If you like 80s records, go to hip hop stores and ask to be pointed towards that section. If you like hip hop, go to the indie store. It’s not always going to satisfy you, but you’ll be surprised by what you find. I can’t list how many times I found a Gravediggaz 12” at a store mostly known for having a display about Tame Impala, or equally, found a Joy Division original pressing completely by accident at a place that is having an Ultramagnetic MCs in-store event that weekend. Not only are those sections rarely picked over, but you’ll also often find what you have been searching for at a low cost. 

Stay Calm & Shop On: Avoid Expensive Impulse Buys & Sales Pressure

Being at a record store is stressful sometimes even for me still after all these years, so you gotta know your way around them. I believe it was Frank Black who once said something like “Record stores were like temples to me as a kid, and that meant the staff there should have acted like monks,” and of course if you know anything about culture, those people can be just dreadful. If you need a 45 RPM adapter (that little widget you put on the turntable to fill the larger hold on 7” records) don’t buy them from the upscale store. Just get them online. These are impulse items at stores, and they’re usually insanely expensive for what they are (basically just a piece of plastic or metal). Also, if you can, know the value of records. These store owners can unfortunately still want to rip off people, especially young/novice shoppers. The record store can be a place of joy, but it can also take advantage of you like a mechanic telling you that it’s a hundred dollars to change your air filter. Remember everything you learned from Street Cents: Be wise.

Stick With What You Like

Vinyl collecting can be anything you choose: from having it as an accessory in your life like a cool Soviet watch, to defining your personality every time you leave your home. Remember that it’s music, and that it’s a personal preference. As I age into my “build a Tiki bar in my backyard” years, I’ve become a collector of exotic and easy listening. I now have to find the records I want at estate sales or weird stores outside of Austin, Texas. Alas, my scorching hot collection of DJ Icey and Huda Hudia breakbeat bangers have little personal and cultural value to me, (although I will never get rid of them). 

The point is that I’ve learned to deal with the criticisms of me playing “soap opera music” on my turntable because Les Baxter albums you might hear at your grandfather’s dinner parties is what makes me the most content. There is a great joy in collecting anything, and vinyl has more layers than most, but that also means it has more mud to wade through sometimes. Either way, good luck with your approach, and remember that if it’s a choice between food and vinyl, you may want to start finding out when your local bakery throws out their day-olds.

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