Waxing Lyrical – profile of a music obsessive

‘Crate diggers’, ‘vinyl junkies’, ‘collectors’, ‘hoarders’, there are many labels given those who devote their lives, wallets, and most of their living spaces to collecting records.

James is one of those (although he resents the ‘junkie’ term and assures me it’s a habit he has under control). James is a 33 year old with a full-time job who spends most of his free time “either at gigs or tracking records down”. At the last count he numbers his collection at “about 12,000” records, an unfathomable amount to a generation brought up on iTunes and mp3s but still a long way short of famed collectors like John Peel who owned some 100,000 records at the time of his death in 2004. Every collector will have their own take on it, for James “it’s entirely aesthetic – there’s something satisfying, sexy even, about a record. There’s just something about taking a record home, putting this weighty bit of wax on the turntable then sitting down with the sleeve, the artwork, thumbing through the sleeve notes”.

The market for records was a huge industry with sales of over one billion singles and albums worldwide in its peak in 1981. Since then it had appeared the record collector was becoming a dying breed, the CD arrived in the early ‘80s and took the lion’s share of music sales, then at the turn of the millennium file sharing and digital music threatened the very idea of even paying for music. Vinyl sales reached a low of around three million units worldwide in 2006 but things are beginning to turn a corner, Record Store Day launched in 2008 as an annual celebration of the independent record shop and the latest figures suggest the demand for records has risen 270% in the last five years.

James keeps his records in his ‘music room’ (his girlfriend refers to it as the ‘spare room’), there’s an old futon that hints it may occasionally be used for guests but every other inch of wall and floor space is taken up by records and music memorabilia. As a 33 year old with 12,000 records that means James has averaged buying a record a day since the day he was born, “I guess I have, the reality is I went to University at 18 with a handful of CDs, then I think my first student loan payment I bought a turntable and it escalated from there. So I guess it’s at least 2 records a day from that point really then. I might not buy anything for a few weeks and then I’ll get a job lot off eBay or I’ll go to a record fair and pick up 20 or 30 in one go”.

There seems something indiscriminate about buying records in such sheer volume, does he have a plan? “I couldn’t call it a plan but I keep a list. My tastes have broadened as I’ve got older. As a collector getting into something new is great, you get to explore, you find the people you maybe haven’t heard of, the labels you otherwise didn’t know about and it becomes this untapped resource”.

A small pile by the side of the turntable are his latest purchases, the most recent an ambient record by someone called Tycho, if this number 12,001 what was purchase number 1? “It was actually ‘Do The Bartman’ when I was about nine or ten. It was about an eight year gap ‘til my second record though and I think that was Led Zeppelin at a car boot sale”. If that first one didn’t give him the bug there must have been a point where it clicked for him? “There was a point when I could just spend a rainy afternoon thumbing through my records, picking something to listen to and you don’t need anyone else, anything else going on, it became something to do in its own right”.

He raises a giggle about the “anyone else” comment; it just so happens his girlfriend has left the room after offering to put the kettle on. Has “anyone else” got in the way of record collecting? “I’ve never had a it’s me or the records conversation. I did have a conversation about what we’d do if we ever had children with my girlfriend and my answer was if we can’t afford enough space for them and the records then we probably can’t afford to have kids”.

The more you talk to James the more you get a feel for something that’s more than a hobby, there’s something compulsive about it, he reads a quote from an author of a book on record collectors that described them as having Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder (OCD), “I’d like to think I’m not OCD about anything else but I definitely get weird about my records. If someone wanted to borrow anything else – money, clothes, whatever, I’d be cool with it but if someone asks to borrow a record that’s a no no. Most of the time I just offer to make them a copy”.

He describes fellow collectors as “solitary”, mostly middle aged men who’re “definitely a bit OCD”. Although a male dominated pastime there was a recent press release by Urban Outfitters (a popular youth fashion shop) claiming to be the world’s biggest vinyl seller. Is the profile of the record collector changing? “I think young girls and boys are getting sold on the romanticism of vinyl and that’s no bad thing”.

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