In Defense of the Music Collector

A few days ago, I received a copy of the Black Crowes’ latest release, Wiser for the Time, for review on PopMatters. I was excited when I realized what the package was for numerous reasons. Among those reasons were the following:

1. At this point, it’s more than a month old, and we here at PopMatters enjoy having reviews published as close to the product’s release date as possible. (Now, if only major record labels could be more accommodating in making that happen.)

2. The wonderful people at Silver Arrow Records actually sent me the quadruple-record vinyl copy of the album, which was greatly appreciated because the only source outside of my computer on which I can listen to music at home is my trusted turntable. 

3. In addition to the pounds of wax that sat in the package’s box, a tiny piece of paper giving me a code to redeem the exact same performances of the exact same songs online for free was offered as part of the deal.

It wasn’t until I came across reason No. 3 that a smile brushed across my face with the inspiration of a master painter doing work. Twenty-six tracks. More than 160 minutes of live performances. Extensive jams that sprawled into covers and rarities. The only way I could ever find the time to actually listen to it properly was if it could become portable, and that tiny piece of white paper was all the mobility I would need. Also — and speaking selfishly, of course — such a quick exercise would also reserve it imminent residence among the thousands of other songs I have stored on my computer.

Let me repeat: The downloadable aspect of the product would also reserve it imminent residence among the thousands of other songs have I stored on my computer. Stored, not streamed. Owned, not borrowed. Saved, not lost. This release was mine now, another notch in a collection of which I have been working for decades, and after opening that package, I knew the album was mine to keep forever.

Interestingly, such sentiments don’t seem to hold much credence these days. The notion and subsequent practice of owning music to form a personalized library of one’s own tastes and quirks is quickly becoming more and more obsolete by the gigabyte. Songs are the stars while complete albums are relegated to the makeup chair. The popularity and abundance of streaming and mobile services has dumbed-down the common music consumer in a way that is indicative of how popular culture itself currently operates: Quick, impatient and unimpressed. The result has been a growing disinterest in the value of a collection. 

“I am a collector,” Esquire‘s Tom Junod wrote on 16 April. “I am not on Spotify and only occasionally make use of Pandora. I disdain both. I am the listener Steve Jobs had in mind when, in 2007, he said that music subscription services were doomed to fail because ‘people want to own their music.’ I like to own my music. I have arranged my iTunes ‘library’ not in alphabetical but rather in archaeological order — by date of acquisition. I know the first song I downloaded to my computer, three computers ago. I have been collecting music on my computer for ten years and can see not what I was listening to at crucial times in my life but rather what I was getting and grabbing and calling my own. Like all collectors, I regard my collection as nothing less than a creation, though I created none of it, and the achievement of a lifetime, though it required less effort than buying groceries. I am also somewhat embarrassed by it, because I know Jobs was wrong. My collection is already outmoded — not by my taste (which is, of course, peerless), but by the taste of the technology that put it together. Music subscriptions will eventually replace music collections because the digital universe is oriented against the idea of ownership — because music ownership is itself the eight-track of the Internet.” (“It’s getting harder and harder to love a song”, Esquire, 2013)

For the longest time, I begrudged the two words, “digital” and “download”. Don’t forget — organizing collections on a computer was at first fairly unreliable. Some track names weren’t correct. The orders of songs could be out of whack because of alphabetical sorting and/or that obnoxious flaw that occurs when numbers accompany names into iTunes. Colorful packaging and extensive liner notes were replaced with PDFs of designs that half of us couldn’t even figure out how to access anyway.

And maybe the biggest hurdle for me was the following simple question I could never seem to wrap my head around: What happens when either your computer crashes, it runs out of memory space, or you just simply decide to upgrade to a different machine after spending years putting up with a horribly slow and outdated electronic device? Computers will always be expensive, I thought, and why would we want to hold our collections hostage to something that could, in a matter of seconds, erase years worth of purchasing, bootlegging and compiling?

Obviously, I have since come around to the notion of digital downloading (remember: Black Crowes, paper, smile, etc.), but that’s only because of how advanced and high capacity hard drives can be these days. A little more than a year ago, I landed a computer with terabytes of memory space, and rather than worry myself about when in the future I will have to somehow seek more digital real estate for my song collection, I have forced my mind into ease based on the age-old “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there” mantra. Hey — ignorance is bliss, remember.

But — and this is a fairly sizable but — I have not stopped, and nor will I ever stop, buying CDs or vinyl copies of albums for as long as I live. Luckily, Wiser for the Time instituted a practice that many artists are doing these days with the resurgence in popularity of turntables: Offer up a code for consumers who purchase these large pieces of round sound to receive digital ownership of the product, as well. The move allows fans the convenience of multifaceted storage possibilities, which is valuable in this day and age because of how wide the platforms for music ownership have expanded. Or, in other words, a digital copy of a record might not look as aesthetically impressive as walls lined with album covers, but at least it still enables a collector to keep collecting.

If anything, compact discs seem to be the next unlucky victim facing extinction because of both how rapidly the CD section in stores is shrinking and the evolution of what has become the online buying experience. In short, it’s cheaper to buy digital copies of records these days than CDs, because there’s no jewel case (packaging costs) or production costs for which labels would have to pay, and the shipping and handling charges for buyers essentially have become moot (which is also speeding up the demise of the U.S. Postal Service, mind you, but that’s another conversation for another day). To those of us who grew up during a time when CDs were new, exciting and fashionable, the mere notion that compact discs will more than likely end up being nothing more than a 10-to-20-year footnote in the history of music consumerism is disappointing at best — and downright depressing at worst.

The most unfortunate part of it all, however, is that all of these things add up to the following inevitability: The days of The Collector are now almost certainly numbered. 

Ironically, the issue’s most troubling facts lay somewhere between the exact type of flippancy and naivety that creates such a special bond between art and consumer. Falling in love with songs and records is a whimsical exercise at its core, and a large part of its allure was once predicated on ownership. That’s changed. These days, there’s no time to fall in love with entire albums because as soon as opinions are formed, we move on to another fix, another song, another artist. Listening to 10 or 14 songs consecutively by a single group or artist and then immediately pressing repeat to do it all again is compromised by the popularity of streaming services that focus more on singles and viral hits than they do complete stories or elongated snapshots of time. It’s like watching only the third episode of a six-part television series and never caring about why you didn’t understand the first 15 minutes of the show — our interest in knowing a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little, has reduced the relevance and/or impact of longer-than-normal works of art.

Thus the appeal of taking pride in one’s own collection has not just been diminished; it’s become archaic. I, for one, have been asked several times by a wide range of people, “why I still have so many CDs” or “when I’ll just sell them off in favor of downloading the music onto my computer.” My answer to the latter question has forever been and will always be the same: “Why would anybody want to do that?” Sure, we can access anything at any time on the Internet these days, and yes, the growing world of streaming services and viral videos is making a closet filled with plastic jewel cases seem more and more impractical by the second, but to me, the Pandoras and Spotifys of the world are nothing more than whore houses, ready to accommodate fringe enthusiasts whenever they find themselves longing for a quick connection. There’s a market and a place for them, sure, but has anyone ever really walked away from a brothel with a fiancé in tow?

That’s my point: Building a record collection takes time. It takes effort. It takes concentration. It takes patience. And most of all, it takes pride — an amount of pride that is only earned through years of work dedicated to chasing an endgame that nobody can really define. Is the goal to own everything? Probably not. But do we ever formulate a point we could reach that would force us to cease our desire to keep searching, purchasing, dealing and trading to further our own personal libraries? Nope. Still, that’s the fuel that helps ignite every true collector’s gas tank — the notion that part of the practice’s allure is its allergy to resolution. Collecting becomes fluid because it can never be completed.

And maybe most importantly, collecting becomes fluid because it can never be compromised. And God bless it for that.