Lessons from a lifetime of music collecting

Binder 1: From King Sunny Adé and the Afro Celts to Alejandro Escovedo and Cesária Évora


AFTER a few decades of music collecting, I have amassed about a thousand CDs (not including another stash of vinyl albums in boxes in the closet). At the height of my music buying, I would go to my favorite record store the Tuesday after payday (Tuesday is when new releases traditionally come out) and spend up to $100 on new music. That would be total some $200 a month. I don’t remember having that much disposable income, but that’s what I spent — buying six or seven compact discs at each visit, ranging from independent labels to perennial pop favorites, classical or jazz to hidden gems I had heard about from magazines (then list-serves, then websites), and word of mouth.

And that’s just what I spent on recorded music. I would also go out at least one night a week to a venue to hear a band.

When I worked at TIME and wrote a little (very little) about music and covered events like SXSW, I got on music publicists’ lists, and they’d send me new releases in advance. That made my collection balloon so much that I ran out of shelf space in both my office and Brooklyn apartment. They ended up in boxes. And, too lazy to sort through before I moved midwest, they were schlepped to my Chicago condo and have been sitting in closets.

All of that has tapered quite a bit these days. I don’t go hear live music as often as I used to (though I have lots of tickets for upcoming shows — including the Stones in Milwaukee in June — and I subscribe to the Chicago Symphony). And because I now have much of that collected music at my fingertips — either from the discs I’ve digitized in iTunes or via online music services — I don’t buy many CDs these days. That $200 I used to pay to support the music industry has dropped to my monthly Spotify $10.99 premium account payment.

I still buy the latest work of favorite artists at my local record store — to support both the artists and the shop (recent purchases include the latest releases from Lucinda Williams and My Brightest Diamond). And I make it a habit to buy the CD of any musician I hear at a live venue whose music I dig (recently, The Maytags from Iowa and Swedish Americana artist Sofia Talvik). It gives me a chance to chat with the musicians after, and to support them with a little gas money as they drive to their next gig.

disks1Yesterday, after a bout of yard work, I made an impulse buy at Staples: a 260-sleeve CD “wallet.” I thought I would get down to the task of finally organizing all those CDs in boxes in my closet. I’d put them in binders, freed from the plastic jewel cases, saving just the discs and the front sleeve/booklets. I dug in, and made a complete mess of my house. I pulled out the boxes and suddenly felt like the sorcerer’s apprentice — unfolding a task that quickly got out of hand. Ankles deep in discs, I began sorting alphabetically and made it through artists (not counting jazz and classical) from letters A to C in a few hours before I had to leave on a date.

Some lessons learned in this task:

– My listening habits have changed drastically. I no longer pore deeply into complete albums. I know some of these old CDs so well. I know the songs in order on many of them. I know the lyrics to every song on lots of them. I know the color and imagery of the cover art. Now, I listen to Spotify playlists created by others, and I’m often too lazy to get up and check which artist is playing. I used to know artists and albums. Now I know songs.

– I ache because of that. Maybe it’s nostalgia, and that I don’t remember as well as I used to, but the digital age has disrupted my deep listening as much as it has my deep reading. And I need to make time to sit and absorb, just as I am now making space and time for reading from printed pages rather than glowing screens.

– I had no idea I owned so many albums by the Cowboy Junkies and Cocteau Twins. Or that those two groups had so many albums. But you can’t have too much Margot Timmins or Elizabeth Fraser.

– I wonder if part of the retro vinyl movement has something to do with finding that satisfaction I used to have in listening to a full album (and the difference between side A and side B) and knowing it well.

– Putting disks in order of their release was like reliving time. I felt that most with Elvis Costello, whose discs in my collection span from my high school days in the 70s to as recently as a few years ago.

– After about 100 discs, I began to wonder why I was doing this at all. Why should I keep all these things? Why not just dump them in a charity donation box? I decided that the CDs I know well — or that are by artists I particularly admire — I would keep all them. But as the tedium of sifting and sorting, and breaking open jewel cases to get out the back cover art sheets, set in, I started making a donation pile. Brace yourself for a couple hundred disks coming at you Brown Elephant.


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