Last year, a survey revealed that record collectors are lonely, introverted, and mostly middle-aged men. But if digging through cluttered music stores is an act of loneliness, the process of purchasing vinyl online is somehow lonelier still. From a sociological standpoint, the mere entrance into a record shop facilitates some form of human exchange, at the very least words will be uttered as to the method of payment. Along with music venues and jam spaces, record stores are gathering places for music lovers, modern agoras where we exchange ideas and opinions face to face. The person manning the counter at your local shop is compelled to chat about that Guided by Voices reissue that you’re buying (it’s a limited pressing by the way, in transparent yellow).
Alternatively, record shopping online is a game of pricing. We restlessly research rarities, compare conditions, shipping costs, highest bids, duties; all of it is a fairly silent and solitary affair. Some clicking, scrolling, unsheathing the old credit card, the process is quite antithetical to the act of digging. We certainly do not engage online retailers like record store staff; it would be ridiculous to email a seller and ask: “Is this album better than Bee Thousand?” In fact, any communication between the buyer and seller is generally reserved for unsatisfactory circumstances, sometimes we can’t even be bothered to rate the entire experience. In this way, technology has narrowed the dialogue of the record collecting community, the convenience of the internet suspending human interaction yet again. A week later the album arrives in the mail, its unmistakable shape packaged in nondescript cardboard. Really, the most rewarding part of buying records online is that brief moment of unpacking, tearing into the boxed 12 inch, the timeless, singular thrill of mail-order.
While it’s not an entirely new phenomenon, vinyl browsing has become increasingly comfortable and accommodating in recent years. But all of its joys are subdued, we rarely experience the excitement of uncovering a dusty gem, after thumbing through endless rows. Still, there are ways to mimic the process of digging. I just spent half an hour scrolling through Amazon pages, in search of an album under $19.99 so my order would qualify for free shipping. Sorting through the indie/dance fluff I came across Burial’s excellent Kindred EP. I promptly added it to my virtual cart and with unspoken glee proceeded to check-out. But the struggle is not real, my fingers are still clean and the achievement was realized while wearing sweatpants. A few minutes later, I receive an email confirming my order. Amazon kindly asks that I not reply.
Record collecting in 2016 sometimes requires a combination of technological and physical efforts. I learn on Twitter that my favorite Autechre album is being reissued, so I shoot an email to my favorite record shop. I will be notified when my copy of Tri Repetae arrives, and head out to the store to collect the record in person. In the case of limited pressings, social media platforms allow us to act quickly, pouncing on LPs as if they were waxed prey. Boomkat recently announced a scarcely pressed reissue of The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond this World. The news appeared in my Twitter feed, on my lunch break. Within minutes I was entering the digits of my credit card, scoring a purple slab of maligned melodies (limited to 250 copies). Hours later, both the purple and black vinyl versions were sold out and slated for repress. Still, I feel I have overplayed the thrill of this purchase. I had a lot more fun a few weeks ago, searching through a store that was—quite literally—overflowing with vinyl. In the disorganized mess of discs, I uncovered an Italian pressing of Joy Division’s Still, the cover somewhat fragile and battered, I silently muttered “No way,” peering down at the well-preserved grooves. The world wide web of wax is completely lacking this excitable element of luck, that moment when we’ve thumbed upon something truly great, and rare, and tangibly immediate. The thrill of the hunt.
Of course, there are some altogether strange trends in vinyl consumerism nowadays, one in particular throws curatorial caution to the wind. The newly minted service, Vinyl Me, Please provides members with one-of-a-kind pressings on a monthly basis. This is the ultimate, hassle-free approach to building a record collection, though some of us might find it a bit adventurous or invasive. Along with mail-order subscriptions, it seems we like to have vinyl at the ready, close to our grocery cart. In the UK you can grab a copy of The Stone Roses LP along with some chorizo and lettuce, at the local Sainsbury’s. You never knew you needed this album, but somehow it complements your dinner plans.
With the sudden availability of vinyl, should we worry about losing the real-world experience of record shopping? We can take some comfort knowing that annual events like Record Store Day and the recent Mega Record Fair in the Netherlands help to keep the tradition alive. But as collectors of the 21st century, perhaps we should be making a greater effort to trudge out to our independent shops for a regular check-up. In the last few years, big-box retailers like Urban Outfitters and Walmart have entered the long-play fray. It can be tempting to stay home in our pajamas and wait for our spoils to arrive in the mail, and we certainly can’t ignore the obvious benefits of internet shopping. But if these trends continue, before long your favorite independent shop will be closing its doors, a fate that can befall even the established ones, like NYC’s Other Music. I worry about living in a world without record stores, a world where collectors keep to themselves and conversations about the medium are considered absurd. Let’s try to preserve this community, let’s get out there and get our hands dirty.