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Music

The Lost Mystery of Record Collections

Michael Gerbrandt

Since stacks of vinyl are quickly disappearing, is it possible that we will be handing our kids our old hard drives for them to look through or USB drives for them to play with?

In June, Elton John announced that he was going to be playing live in my hometown of Winnipeg for the first time since 1999. Seeing his picture in the newspaper instantly took me back to being six years old and listening to my brother’s record of Elton’s Greatest Hits. It seems that most people are introduced to music this way, through the record collections of their older siblings or parents. I can draw a line from my parents’ taste right through to my own. My mom listened to Neil Diamond, Abba, and Paul Anka (see: Belle & Sebastian) whereas my dad listened to the more raw sounds of Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard (see: TV on the Radio).

The house that I grew up in had a loveseat at one end of the living room and a stereo at the other end. The loveseat with wooden armrests provided the perfect size goal with built-in goalposts in which I would shoot tennis balls at with a toy hockey stick. I constantly had the radio on in the background while I pretended to be Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders. Taking a break in between "periods", I would sit at the stereo and flip through the records my family owned.

All of our records were lined up in a row beneath the record player in no particular order. Though the Beatles' White Album scared me at that young age, I instantly fell in love with their classic Red and Blue compilations, especially the seamless segue of “A Day in the Life” into “All You Need Is Love”. I listened to a fair amount of Queen, because I liked the song about the bike and also discovered Billy Joel, Def Leppard, and Iron Maiden. It didn't really matter what genre I listened to, I didn't even know what a genre was at that time. It was all just music to be discovered; good or bad didn't enter into it.

At that time, the joy of finding an old record buried in my family's collection, then looking at an album's cover art, was an important way of discovering new music. I still remember the bright yellow cover of Judas Priests' Screaming for Vengeance or Supertramp's Breakfast in America, that features a city made out of items you'd find in a diner.

Earlier this year, after hearing some remixes of Sally Shapiro songs, I wanted to track down the original LP, Disco Romance. Rather than order it online, I did what I have always done, which is to go trolling through Winnipeg’s record stores, preserving what seems to be one of the primary joys of being a CD collector: the thrill of the hunt. But after several weeks of searching and coming up empty-handed, I gave up finding it at a store in the city. At this point it became a decision of ordering the actual CD online or just the MP3s. At the time of making this decision, the cheapest I was able to find the physical release online for is $16.99 plus tax. But on iTunes I could download Disco Romance for less than half of that.

From a monetary point of view, the choice is rather simple. Downloading the MP3s is the far better decision. And conveniently enough, I could then enjoy the music right away instead of having to wait a week to receive the CD by mail. But as a collector, it would feel like something was not right. What's missing is actually being able to hold the CD in my hand. Collectors of stamps or baseball cards could have their entire collections scanned so that they could look at them on the computer, but I'm sure most collectors of those items would find that thought absurd. They would much rather have them out on display to look at and show people.

So why would music collectors find this any different? There is an intangible joy about being able to hold the object in your hand. By doing this, it feels like it's yours to keep and to own.

During my search for Sally Shapiro, I ended up at my favorite record store, Music Trader, looking over their selection of newer releases. I found the re-released version of the Young Marble Giants classic Colossal Youth. It was the first time I had ever seen it in a record store. This version, released by Domino Records in 2007, has the original CD on one disc, a compilation of singles and rarities on disc two, and a John Peel Session on disc three. Basically it’s everything Young Marble Giants ever recorded. It also comes with an excellent booklet containing the history of the band written by music critic Simon Reynolds, author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984. This lavish CD is well worth the money, and I did something that fewer and fewer music lovers are doing: I bought it.

While reading the booklet and listening to the Young Marble Giants CD, I thought about what the effects will be of an entire generation downloading music. In years to come, is it possible that we will be handing our kids our old hard drives for them to look through or USB drives for them to play with? Would this not be akin to handing them your journal where your dirty secrets might be sidling along things you'd actually wanted to share? And, of course, old hard drives will be erased and new ones created. Libraries of collected music will be constantly evolving, much more rapidly than any physical collection of records in crates could evolve, so there would be nothing physical and enduring to pass down, no continuity between the generations.

Future generations will certainly discover the music that came before them but will not discover them the same way we did as children. Sites such as last.fm are great resources that will only improve in time to help guide future music fans. But what may be lost is the joy of finding old records, books, photographs in the attic or basement as a child. These completely random discoveries open up a whole other world that may be very different from what their friends and schoolmates discover in their homes. It's these discoveries that can lead kids down many different musical paths rather than just hearing several bands that all the sound the same found on a website.

In years to come, I don’t expect my kids to go through my CD collection band by band listening to everything. But perhaps when they find a Throwing Muses CD beside a Conway Twitty disc, something will hopefully spark in them to listen to both. It's a combination of music I’m pretty sure Last.fm won't be coming up with anytime soon.

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