Record collecting isn’t only about scarcity and obsolescence; it’s also about space and time. Shellac and vinyl records – as both objects and music formats - have provided means for transportation. The sounds that records emit can carry listeners from their own confines to the location of the artists, whether that be the Metropolitan Opera or the Mississippi Delta. It can also bring the artists to them. The records themselves are both temporally and spatially marked. Their designs show evidence of where and when they were made; their analogue nature means that they wither in time, just as their owners do.
Record collecting was originally focused on space but it has become more interested in time. The playing of records was once marketed as a means of geographical transplantation. In the early 1900s the advertising of companies such as Victor and the Gramophone Company was focused on the idea that, by purchasing records, you were inviting the artists who had made them into your home. It was suggested that, if you played the finest records, it was the equivalent of entertaining elite guests. Consequently, their marketing was focused on the output of operatic ‘celebrities’, such as the early recording star Enrico Caruso. These records were demarcated with special ‘Red Seal’ labels so that your more quotidian visitors could, at a glance, see the standard of musical company that you had been keeping. It has been suggested that the displaying of these records took on more importance than the playing of them. Louis Barfe has stated, ‘Later collectors noted the preponderance of mint single-sided Red Seals and were led to conclude that they were rarely if ever played’.
Consumers weren’t necessarily encouraged to keep hold of their records, however. Prior to the First World War the attention among gramophone enthusiasts was as much on the advancement of sound recording technology as it was on the musical contents of the cylinders and discs: this was an era of upgrades. Neither producers nor purchasers believed that record collecting would be a worthwhile practice. Why hoard records if they were only going to degrade or if a new one would sound better? As late as 1923, the classical music journal Gramophone was noting that there is ‘no need to be too careful of the life of records, you can wear them out and get the latest’.
This neglect of records nevertheless helped to make them collectable. They became scarce and valuable, something to hunt down. Time was also waiting in the wings. In their search for older records, collectors were able to transport themselves (or the people who had made the original discs) temporally as well as spatially. Both factors were of importance to early jazz record collectors. Melody Maker reported in 1933:
It is apparent that quite a number of dance-music students jealously guard their collections of early ‘hot-jazz’ records as much as they do their more contemporaneous ‘New Rhythm’ styles, and, as a fellow fanatic, I can well understand their hobby … The collection of old-time records is a fascinating one; I personally get as much thrill from the capture of an original ‘Dixieland’ disc as a philatelist does from some scarce foreign stamp – and I might say that there are so many like me that the price is soaring, and even a very worn-out affair costs more than the latest Ellington. (Butterworth 1933: 183)
Many of these ‘hot jazz’ records were being re-issued, often with more accurate label information than on the first issue, but collectors still went in search of the original releases, even if scratched and worn. Stephen W. Smith commented on the practice of some of the earliest American jazz collectors: ‘There are those who will have nothing but the original label, and who will turn down a clean copy of a record in preference to one in bad condition because the latter has what is known to be an earlier label’ (1939: 289–90).
There were acoustic justifications for such behaviour: Smith argued that in the dubbing of jazz reissues the high and low frequencies of the original recordings were usually lost. There were also extramusical reasons for searching out the first issue: it could locate the purchaser there, at the point of origin. In response to the mass reproduction of records there was a desire amongst some collectors to escape the ‘commercial’ and find the ‘authentic’. The record posed the problem, but it also provided the solution. What better than if non-commercial music – rendered so by both its origins and its age – was housed on a ‘non-commercial’ disc? Forget the major-label reissue (which came out when everyone was buying this music) find the original release on the obscure label, whose original audience was the 'race' or country market (transporting you back to the record’s pre-mainstream days).
According to Smith, America’s first collectors of jazz records came from the Princeton and Yale universities. Similarly, in England, Melody Maker could point out ‘How the Varsities Pioneered Jazz’. These enthusiasts wished to travel cross-culturally in space as well as time. Smith states that:
Many of the collectors’ items were originally issued purely for Negro consumption and consequently were sold only in sections of the country which had a demand for them. Copies which found their way into private homes were usually not given the best of care since many of the Negroes, for their own reasons, did not care to change the needle frequently enough to save the record surface.
Here we witness one of the stereotypes of the record collector. The white, middle-class male who is immersing himself in music that another culture has neglected, both physically and temporally. It remains to be asked: why this class and why this gender?
From the jovial sexism of Afflatus writing in Sound Wave in the 1920s (‘has the gramophone enthusiast any room or time in his life for a wife?’) to the gloom of High Fidelity (‘men, always young men’), record collecting has consistently been portrayed as being a male activity. This has been backed by empirical research. At least 95 per cent of those who volunteered to take part in the film Vinyl, Alan Zwieg’s 2000 study of record collecting, were men. The respondents to Roy Shuker’s 2004 survey were also largely male. He discovered that both males and females viewed record collecting as being primarily a masculine hobby:
Most [64 out of 67] of my respondents, especially the males, drawing on personal observation, argued that record collecting is largely a male activity. Conversely, the majority of women collectors [7 out of 11] are conscious of being a visible minority.
And yet, when it comes to collecting in general, Frederick Baekeland has argued that ‘Girls are more likely than boys to collect at all ages’. In his study of the gendered aspects of record collecting, Will Straw indicated that ‘were one presented with statistical evidence that the typical record collector was female, one could easily invoke a set of stereotypically feminine attributes to explain why this was the case’. Straw, therefore, struggles to find an explanation for the gender bias. His own conclusion is that it reflects a masculine need to order the world: ‘the most satisfying (albeit under-theorised) explanation of the masculine collector’s urge is that it lays a template of symbolic differentiation over a potentially infinite range of object domains’. In Straw’s opinion the male collector is a ‘nerd’: his expertise fails the ideal of masculinity because it is ‘acquired through deliberate labour of a bookish or archival variety’. However, he can counter this behaviour with ‘hipness’ if his collection is cultivated with ‘the air of instinctuality’.
Straw argues that another way in which the record collector can attain hipness is through a desire to ‘refuse the mainstream’. Elsewhere Matthew Bannister argues that ‘To resist the passive consumer/fan tag, male record collectors often adopt a bohemian, anti-commercial stance, typically by “valorising the obscure” and transgressive’. This chimes with the jazz collectors, introduced by Smith above. For those middle-class enthusiasts, black American jazz was both obscure and transgressive. Smith’s text indicates that the origin of at least one strand of record collecting lies in cross-cultural immersion, in the need for an ‘other’. This helps to explain its gender bias: such immersion allows the nerd to unveil the hipster within. This is largely a male preoccupation, as Simon Frith has pointed out:
To understand why and how the worlds of jazz (and rock) are young men’s worlds, we have to understand what it means to grow up male and middle-class; to understand the urge to ‘authenticity’ we have to understand the strange fear of being ‘inauthentic’. In this world, American music – black American music – stands for a simple idea: that everything real is happening elsewhere.
I would add that, equally pertinent, is the idea that everything real has happened elsewhere. Music can provide a link to this past. The original record can go further still: it is an artefact that has been retrieved from this domain. As the cartoonist and collector Robert Crumb pointed out: ‘Somebody of that era bought it and listened to it, and that record carries that aura from whoever else had handled and appreciated that object’. It is the record label that offers proof. It is no coincidence that many American independent labels have retained strong regional associations (Sun in Memphis; Chess in Chicago; Philadelphia International – a label name that neatly combines localism and globalism – in Philadelphia). Through these labels elsewhere can enter the home.
Vinyl continues to be one of the totems of authenticity. There are modern collectors who focus on the music of particular regions and from particular times. It is the case, however, that vinyl now more broadly now symbolizes the past. It is a relic from a time when people did things differently. The past, as everyone knows, is a foreign country. It is also one whose vast spread tends to blot out any other regional boundaries.
This is the source of John Harris’s complaints about Record Store Day. He argues that the event is a ‘benefit for a struggling musical genre’, one that uses vinyl as its appropriate emblem. The format, in his reckoning, is a rallying point for those who wish to keep faith with outdated, guitar-driven rock music. He also suggests that:
Record Store Day may be a collective rejection of what technology has done to music, but it is not immune from its effects: indeed, in the panoply of specially reissued records that puts the Sex Pistols next to the Grateful Dead, there is a very modern sense of music being completely uprooted from its original context.
He depicts old and new record collectors and old and new vinyl records all lost in a haze of nostalgia. The contemporary record collector doesn’t care where their vinyl records have come from, what’s important is that they have come from the past. In this scenario, space is no longer the place. Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in time.