A Highly Personal Guide to Record Collecting for Beginners
Everybody needs an online destination with nothing but good vibes. For some it might be a site with a repository of cute animal videos, others might gravitate to an archive of vintage photographs that offers a window into what appears to be a saner world. For me, it’s the Reddit group r/vinyl, which consists almost exclusively of pictures of newly acquired LPs. People comment on these images, but I rarely read the discussion; to me, the image of a few records and an excited poster sharing, “Look what I picked up today!” is enough to elevate my spirits, at least for a moment.
There’s a particular type of r/vinyl post, one less common but which still appears with inspiring frequency, that gives me an extra dose of cheer: when someone posts a shot of four or five records, and shows that these are in fact the entirety of their collection. They are newbies, entering for the first time the world of acquiring physical copies of music media, and their excitement is palpable.
I think back to my first music purchase, which still sits on my shelf now: an early 1980s reissue of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. When I purchased it in 1984, I wasn’t thinking about building a collection; I was thinking about having a copy of the album because I wanted to listen to it repeatedly. To do that with an LP back then, you had to own a copy of it, or at least a dubbed tape of your friend’s copy. That’s no longer true. People collect records for many reasons—to have a souvenir from a show, to support their favorite artists, because not everything made it to streaming.
In the 36 years since buying Born to Run at Wherehouse Records in East Lansing, Michigan, I’ve seen many changes. The CD took over and then faded away. File-sharing was massive and then became a niche. Paid downloads bubbled up and then withered away. And now streaming is taking over while the vinyl revival continues. Through all these developments, I’ve been collecting music in one form or another, and over this period I’ve developed a few thoughts on how to build a record collection. I write about music for a living — I used to edit the online music magazine Pitchfork, and I’m the rock and pop critic for the Wall Street Journal — and here and there I’ve included thoughts on collecting. But this is my first attempt to gather all these ideas in one place.
What follows is a mix of rules, prompts, and questions — things to consider as you embark on building a vinyl collection.
Editor’s note: Any gear suggestions are independently recommended by the author. However, when you purchase something through our affiliate links, Discogs may earn a commission.
1. Remember Where You Listen to Vinyl
The most significant difference between listening to a vinyl record and listening to another format is the LP is not portable. More than any other single factor, the lack of portability explains why the LP ceased to be the dominant format in 1983 (the rise of the Walkman meant cassettes supplanted LPs). Listening to your personal collection of music used to be something that only happened in a room with a turntable. And that’s still true for vinyl. So think about what you listen to in that room, and the conditions necessary for you to play records.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez
In my case, I’m a fan of 4/4 dance music, especially minimal techno, but I almost never listen to it when I’m relaxing in my living room. So I rarely buy dance music on LP because I almost always prefer to listen to it somewhere else. So think about your own space, where the record player is, and what you’ll want to hear in that room.
2. Learn How Much Record Wear You’ll Tolerate
For me, 90% of the fun of record-collecting is buying used. That’s where the history is and it’s also where the deals are. Used vinyl used to be cheap and plentiful, but that’s no longer true, in part because so many more people are interested in it now than were 15 years ago. If you buy used records in person, you will over time develop an eye for the kinds of wear that can’t be fixed with cleaning (more on that in a moment). Clicks and pops are endemic to the experience of used records, but sometimes everyone has their own tolerance level for how much surface noise is too much.
I recently bought a used copy of Van Morrison’s Common One. It’s a challenging record for vinyl because there’s so much music on each side (29 minutes on one side, 25 on the other), so the grooves are spaced closely together and the relative volume of the mastering is low. Though the copy I picked up looked relatively clean, when I got home I found that the crackle was extreme. And since songs like “When the Heart Is Open” are mostly spare with a lot of space in the arrangement, the surface noise proved to be a distraction, and I started keeping my eye out for a better copy.
Excessive surface noise bothers me, which is why I long ago stopped looking for LPs at thrift stores. I don’t enjoy listening to beat-up records. But everybody is different. For some, the experience of listening to history and the fun of finding a classic album for a buck or two outweighs the noise. Figure out where you are on this spectrum and let that be your guide.
3. Keep Your Records Clean
Though I’m a big fan of quiet pressings and old records in great condition, I’m also a big fan of good deals. I rarely pay more than $20 for a used album, and I usually try to pay a lot less than that (which has become difficult in Brooklyn, where I live). Because I’m always looking for cheap finds, I’ve developed an eye for the record that looks like it’s in bad shape but just needs a good cleaning. Sometimes, the grease, gunk, and various smudges that accumulate on the surface over decades are easily removed by a good washing. Over the past few years, I’ve relied on the classic Spin-Clean, which can thoroughly scrub old records relatively cheaply. Just by having this device, I’ve been more likely to take chances on cheap LPs that look dicey. Then I use a carbon fiber brush with each play, allowing it to spin for a few revolutions while the dust collects on the bristles. With these low-cost implements, I’m able to keep my collection sounding its best.
4. Be Realistic About Sound Quality
Not too long after I bought that copy of Born to Run, I started to read hi-fi magazines, and for a while, I had a subscription to Stereo Review. It was a weird thing for a teenaged kid to be into but the physics behind sound reproduction has always been interesting to me: I still can’t quite believe that grooves on a piece of plastic or a series of 1s and 0s can somehow, through a chain of electric gizmos, lead to a vibrating cone that makes it sound like a musician is in the room with me. It’s like magic.
My early exposure to hi-fi publishing means that I’ve been following the analog vs. digital debate for decades, to where I’ve long since concluded that there’s no “right” answer. Rather than trying to determine which mediums sound “better,” I try to focus on getting the most out of a particular set-up, regardless of its cost.
All of which is to say, if you’ve heard that “vinyl sounds amazing” and you begin your record-buying adventure by thinking about sound quality first, you might be disappointed, especially if you are starting out with relatively inexpensive equipment. Vinyl absolutely sounds different from digital music — it’s a complicated engineering process, turning record grooves into sound, one that involves a lot of electronic processing and ways to get around limitations, such as the fact that the inner groove of a record can’t carry nearly as much information as the outer bands. And that process alters the sound, in ways different with each person’s gear. Focus less on what sounds “better” and more on what sounds “different,” and also keep in mind that the sound of vinyl LPs is only part of the appeal.
5. Remember When Vinyl Was King
As mentioned above, cassette tapes overtook vinyl as the best-selling format in the early 1980s. The recording industry is a technology industry, and in the years since that milestone, they’ve devoted a lot more energy to the formats that make them the most money rather than making vinyl albums sound their best. The years in which the long-playing vinyl was the dominant format — this varies by genre, starting earlier with jazz in the 1950s and later with rock and pop music, starting in the late 1960s — are the years when the industry was most invested in making the format as good as it can be. So copies of Steely Dan’s Aja, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and, to pick a brilliant album that’s less discussed in audiophile circles, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, are still standard-bearers for sonic quality all these years later.
Photo by Kay Wood
By the middle of the 1980s, record companies cared more about making CDs sound good than they did about LPs, and by the 1990s, some of them stopped manufacturing vinyl altogether. The format came back, and there have been many terrific-sounding records since, but it’s never a bad idea to imagine where, exactly, vinyl stood as a priority when you are looking to buy LPs. A few years ago I paid a lot of money for a vinyl copy of Wrong Way Up by John Cale and Brian Eno, a wonderful and underrated album. But the vinyl pressing, initially issued in Europe, where people hung on to vinyl longer, sounded positively awful. By 1990, when the record came out, vinyl was an afterthought, and the lack of care that went into its manufacture was audible. (My understanding is that the recent reissue on Eno’s All Saints label corrects this problem.)
6. Are You a Completist?
One of my favorite things about my music collection is that roughly 90% of the records I have are good-to-great. If I buy something and realize after a few plays it’s probably not for me, I typically sell it. As I’ve said, I live in a 1-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, and I just don’t have a space to keep albums that are less than good.
The exceptions to my rule are the half-dozen or so artists that I collect regardless of quality. If I see an album I don’t have by Nina Simone, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell and it’s in good condition for the right price, I buy it, even if it’s one of their lesser records. As I’m browsing shops, it’s fun to have a list of go-to artists like this, people that have released a lot of albums. So as you start your collection, think about whether you prefer higher quality albums across the board or if you have more of a completist’s instinct, and let that inform how you make your way through a record store.
7. Are Novelties for You?
In the 1990s, when I was returning to vinyl collecting after years of focusing only on CDs, I searched for aural oddities, possibly inspired by the sample-focused DJs of the time. I loved the idea that there might be a funky drum break on an easy listening record or some funny fragment of dialog that could be lifted from an instructional LP. These releases often have the added benefit of being cheap. I’m not saying I regret buying NASA recordings of the moon landing, Deney Terrio’s 3xLP box of disco instruction, a collection of steam engine sounds, and another designed for medical professionals that features recordings of human heartbeats, but within a few years I lost interest in records like these, and I can say definitively that they take up too much space on my shelves. Think about how much space you have for LPs you might pull out once a year just to spin for a friend, and whether the history of LPs like these, which is admittedly fascinating, is something that interests you.
8. Open Yourself to Surprises
You can easily build a collection in 2020 while never setting foot in a record store and depending on where you live, that may be the only option. But if you have a shop nearby, especially one that sells used LPs, for my money that’s where more than half the fun of this hobby can be found. It’s a beautiful thing to walk into a store when you’re not looking for anything in particular and walking out with something to listen to that you’ve never heard of before. Record stores are where you can take chances on music unfamiliar to you. Take some chances on records with interesting covers, records from genres you don’t know well, and records that your intuition tells you to buy.
9. Keep a Wishlist
The flip-side of embracing uncertainty is to keep a list of records you’re looking for. Every good shopping experience should have a mix of both. For years, my list was a printed piece of paper that I updated in Word on my computer and cut out into a neat square that I tucked into my wallet. Whenever I came across a record in a magazine that sounded interesting or received a recommendation from a friend, it would go in the billfold. Now (gratuitous plug), I keep my wishlist using the Discogs app and I consult it at least once every time I walk into a shop
10. Support Record Stores
This is a quick one: your Discogs app allows you to pull up your wishlist (aka your Wantlist) and also see what a record is selling for in the Marketplace. Use it as a reference, but spend money in the shop even when it’s more than you could get the record for via mail order. We need record shops, and without them, physical music will disappear.
11. Remember What Vinyl Records Do Best
Vinyl LPs are not the most convenient format and they’re not the most accurate format sonically, but there are some things vinyl is especially good for. In fact, the lack of convenience turns out to be the format’s greatest strength. If you want to play a song at a time or skip through an album to seek out your favorites, you’re better off with streaming. But if you want to hear an album straight through, experiencing it the way an artist intended, vinyl, by its very limitations, nudges you in that direction. Search for LPs that you’ll want to listen to for at least a side at a time.
Photo by Ocramnaig_o1
And then there’s the packaging of vinyl. I collect jazz records and I’m continually astounded by how much crucial history is found in jazz liner notes, context absent in the streaming era. You can learn things by reading a record. At present, I am collecting volumes from the 1980s reissue series The Definitive Hank Williams, and each is a trove of information. Vinyl LPs can teach you things. And we can’t forget the 12-inch by 12-inch image found on each cover, a visual experience no other format has come close to replicating.
12. Buy to Listen
Some collectors buy records just to have the object but I don’t understand this impulse. All of my albums, even the valuable ones, are on my shelf because I enjoy playing them. Never let your collecting impulse become a substitute for listening. The music, ultimately, is what will always matter the most.
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