I am facing the heart-wrenching decision that confronts everyone of my generation eventually: Do the vinyl records stay or go?
I live in a tiny shack, but I have thousands of records. I recently ditched my sagging, overloaded shelves for a smaller sturdier unit, and while I was transferring stack after stack of LPs, it got me to thinking: Do I really need these things?
They started accumulating in the mid-1970s at the dawn of the punk/new-wave era. I've thinned the collection over the years, but not much. The biggest purge was in 1982. Disillusioned by the growing violence in the local scene and the break-up of my own punk band, I gave most of my collection away to a kid who was still excited about the new music. I've never stopped kicking myself for that. Original LPs and 45s of hundreds of punk pioneers—how much would that mint-condition clear vinyl YES LA compilation on Dangerhouse be worth now?
But the truth is that no matter what it's worth, if my lost punk collection miraculously returned, I'd more likely to play it than sell it. After all, most of the few that survived the purge of '82 still get a spin now and then, and the wagonloads of records of all types that I've collected subsequently—never having completely abandoned the record- and thrift-store bin-scouring habit—have survived many moves.
Another record regret: In the early 1990s, I gave a restaurant-manager acquaintance the cream of the crop of my jazz and blues 45s to fill the classic Wurlitzer jukebox that was his joint's centerpiece—and never got them back when the place folded a few years later.
When friends visit, especially the under-30s, they are drawn to the records. “Go ahead, play one,” I'll say. They get a kick out of flipping through the artful covers, selecting a disc, removing it from the sleeve, placing it on the turntable, setting the needle in the groove, and hearing that first analog crackle as delicious as a freshly poured bowl of Rice Krispies.
Most of them don't even buy CDs anymore. Music is just computer files. A $200 hard drive smaller than a CD player can hold more than 18,000 hours of music. You could play your collection non-stop for two years and never hear the same song twice.
The lure of digital is incredibly seductive. How can I resist its charms?
Earlier this year, I gave the cement-bag-heavy, R2D2-sized 1960s stereo speakers I inherited from my dad to a friend. They sound great in his big wood-floored apartment. When I visit him, I get to visit the memory of those speakers in 1974, more than half my height, blasting “If You Really Love Me” by Stevie Wonder in an Illinois basement den, my family driven beneath our house by a tornado to dance up a storm.
I recently also ditched all my bulky but solid 1970s stereo components for one convenient but cheaply-made TEAC record player with a built-in CD recorder and speakers. Every time I burn an LP to disc and then download the disc to my iTunes, I wonder if I'll ever play the record again. And if not, then why am I keeping it?
There are some records that get a lot of attention: I like to play the 1960s debut LP by the great Spanish Flamenco/classical guitarist Mario Escudero when I'm cleaning the house. I found it for a couple bucks in the International section at Amoeba in San Francisco about three years ago.
But some records in my possession have literally never been played and never will. Why do I have a Van Halen record? I don't like and have never liked Van Halen. I don't know where it came from. I wish this one would inspire me to at least purge the records I don't like. If you want the Van Halen, it's yours.
When people discover that you collect records, they want to give you theirs. They have a couple milk crates in a closet somewhere that belonged to their dad. Most of the records are terrible. But there's no room for records in their life, so you get them. It's rude to take their Elvis Costello and leave behind their Whitney Houston, so you take them all. It feels like you've struck gold, but don't forget: People keep gold bars in vaults not just because they're valuable; they take up space and weigh a ton.
When I imagine my future, it's not hard to picture that elegant little box that contains a terabyte of storage, my Mac, an iPod and a dock with built-in speakers, and that's it. It makes me feel clean, modern, sophisticated, streamlined and clutter-free. With a single gentle touch, I activate a seven-hour playlist perfectly suited to the occasion. The music seems to come from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. No clunky machines, needle replacement, getting up to flip a disc every 15 minutes, or boxes and boxes of heavy vinyl to schlep.
Frankly, my records have begun to feel like a burden. I'm not a DJ. I have never collected for value, so they're not worth a lot of money. A lot of them aren't even in very good condition. It would feel so liberating to pick up the phone and have someone cart them away.
I hoped writing about it would help me decide, but it hasn't. I realize it makes sense to give up records, but there's one reason I still may not be ready to do it.
I like them.