"Vinyl Junkies" by Brett Milano

Disclaimer: I know you idiots only come here for the mp3s, but fuck y’all. Sometimes people like to read, too.

So, I finished reading Brett Milano’s “Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting” published by St. Martin’s Press a couple days ago. It’s basically a rather short book that attempts to explain the psyche of your average record collector through firsthand anecdotes and interviews with people like Peter Buck from REM, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Robert Crumb, Egon, Cut Chemist, and a bunch of other folks. Much of the text is based on Milano’s ability to (a) write cutsey anecdotes that are pretty funny and entertaining and (b) his attempt to perform his collector mentality through his prose (saying stuff mid-paragraph like “Oh, I’ve just added something new to my want list!”). The book isn’t very lofty and doesn’t really attempt to draw any grand theoretical conclusions or lessons from the culture of record collecting which both works to its advantage and disadvantage. To its advantage? Well, it’s simplicity makes the book easily likable and very easy to get through (I’d be surprised if it took you more than 4 or 5 sittings to finish it), but it’s simplicity also keeps the book from really being anything more than just a sort of freak show where these eccentric record collectors are put on display as these silly oddities that may or may not have psychological problems. To be sure, the portrayal of these eccentrics isn’t vicious and is done with a quite a bit of humor and light-heartedness, but I think the average reader would have a hard time relating to most of the characters that make an appearance in the text. Furthermore, I think the book would’ve greatly benefited from including at least a chapter or two that discussed the issues and questions that record collecting undoubtedly ask us all to consider (i.e. issues of “authenticity,” an artist’s or a work’s “aura,” how record collecting relates to capitalism, etc), but I really can’t be too mad at the book for not doing something it had no intention of doing in the first place. So, suffice it to say that if you’re interested in record collecting or you find eccentric people interesting, than the book is worth a read—just don’t expect to be particularly enlightened or challenged.

But, I think it’s worth addressing here some of the questions that the book hints at but never explores. So, off we go:

1. Nature or Nurture?: What’re we to make of these obsessive collectors who collect seemingly just for the sake of collecting? Or, in other words, how can we account for their obsessive desire to collect these random pieces of wax that magically contain music in their grooves? Are these collectors simply psychologically different than the rest of “us” (I’m using the third-person plural “us” because I’m pretending at this point that I’m not one of these pathetic obsessive collectors), or are these obsessive tendencies cultivated and nurtured by late capitalism? Is there something in our postmodern culture that has “created” the collector or are these collectors just innately weird and obsessive?

2. Authenticity and Aura: What’s with the obsession with “authenticity” and “aura”? Many of the collectors in the book seem much more interested in collecting the “authenticity” of a certain piece of recorded music than they are the actual music itself. After all, how else can you explain the fact that many of these collectors have CD copies and/or repressed vinyl copies of some of their “holy grail” records, and yet still drop obscene amounts of money on the “original,” first-pressing? The argument goes that the “original” is as close to the artist’s “original” vision as possible, but that argument wears thin very easily. So, why and how are these pieces of vinyl fetishized to such a great degree? And, by extension, what does this fetishization tell us about capitalism? Is this fetishization a sort of anti-capitalist reaction to capitalism (i.e. consuming something with no regard for it’s actual “use-value” or even its “exchange-value” but simply its “aura” of authenticity and its history a la Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library”) or is the fetishization simply a slightly more complicated affirmation of the logic of capitalism (i.e. just plain ol’ conspicuous consumption)? Of course, the answer to this question probably varies from collector to collector depending on how and why each collector consumes what he (and, yes, it’s almost always a “he”) consumes, but suffice it to say that the collector occupies an interesting space and might have a different relationship with what he consumes than other consumers have with what they consume.

3. Race and Gender: The book does briefly mention this issue, but why are most record collectors white males? Anybody that knows anything about hip-hop knows that this isn’t an entirely accurate question since record collecting has been a fairly important part of the creative process since hip-hop’s incipient moments, but I think hip-hop is the exception more than it is the rule. If I remember correctly, I believe that literally everyone interviewed in the book is a white male (except for the one or two white females that Milano surely went out of his way to incorporate into the narrative). How do issues of race and sex relate and/or create the collecting mentality? It isn’t, after all, rare to find a white male who collects mainly black music (go on over to soulstrut if you need some proof of that) so there’s issues of racial fetishization and potentially issues of cultural appropriation (colonization?) at stake here, too. But, even if we throw out all the race-based questions, we are still left with many gender-based questions because of the simple fact that it is no secret that males are much more likely to be collectors than women. Milano briefly explores this, suggesting that perhaps it’s the male’s innate instinct to horde and collect, but I wonder if there’s something more sinister and ideological at stake. Are women not collectors because culture doesn’t allow them to have that type of relationship with products? If we accept the notion presented in bullet # 2 above that collectors have a different relationship with what s/he consumes than other consumers do, then we need to ask: is there something in our culture that encourages women to consume in a somewhat more “simple” manner that upholds the traditional consumer-product relationship? Or, in other words, if collecting is somehow a form of consumption that subverts the status quo (which I’m not necessarily saying it is), why are men the only ones that desire to consume — or are capable of consuming — in this manner?

Of course, I don’t have the answer(s) to any of these questions and I’d be being completely unfair if I criticized Milano’s book for not attempting to answer these questions. In general, I do think “Vinyl Junkies” is a good introduction to the world of record collecting (especially if you know nothing about it but are interested in it) and is a good starting point if you are interested in any of the questions above but it doesn’t even come close to giving them any serious consideration. But, fuck it, it’s a fun book and sometimes that’s all you need.

-e

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One response to “"Vinyl Junkies" by Brett Milano

  1. As a recovering collector, I think I can tell you why the issues you mention are not explored by any writer.

    Collecting records is fundamentally anti-intellectual and, to a large extent, antisocial. You don’t write – or write well – about it, and you certainly don’t bother letting anyone in who isn’t already initiated. So much for anyone telling the story who could.

    Collectors as a fraternity (and I say fraternity, not community) do not exist as a part of the greater culture. In fact, they are usually dead-set against it. Their curiosity about the world they live in is limited to occasional cynical observation. They do not give a wet squirt about anything but the music, or sometimes, the records themselves. They are, despite a certain bitter humor, entirely lacking in irony.

    Women don’t do it because, due to that singlemindedness, it’s so competitive that you can’t find the good stuff and still care about anything else – such as other people or your world.

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