The Rules and Restraints I Need to Keep Me Sane and Solvent as I Build my Record Collection: A List

I have a problem. It’s stuff. Lots of stuff.

More accurately, I have a problem with buying things: movies, books, music, video games. Clothes, shoes — junk. Because I grew up in America, I love me some conspicuous consumption. It’s my jam. I adore the phrase “It was on sale.” It’s a mantra, an excuse, and more often than not a justification for picking something up that I probably would have ignored otherwise.

But sometime in the past few weeks, there’s been a sea change. Call it turning 30. Call it an epiphany; call it whatever you want. I suddenly not only have this strange urge to divest myself of things I no longer derive enjoyment from, but dare I say I want to be a little more discerning in the stuff I do buy?

I’m getting rid of movies. Stuff I bought on a whim because it was in the $5 movie bin at Walmart or purchased years ago because “I’d never seen it and this was cheaper than renting.” Hundreds of DVDs and video games and even a few books have gone out of this house in a flurry of eBay selling. Clothes that I haven’t worn because of fashion changes or (more accurately) changes in my weight? They’ve gone, too. All in an attempt to bring down the absurd amount of debt I’ve incurred collecting them as well as an attempt to declutter my life.

“Who the hell have I become?” I asked a friend of mine a few weeks ago. “What is wrong with me?”

This is not who thought I would be several years ago.

I can’t shake the collector bug entirely, though. Not. At. All.

A few months ago my in-laws gifted me their old turntable. They knew I wanted a record player–even though I pay $16 a month for Spotify for two people–and they weren’t using it. I spent a decent chunk of change getting it running and then building a small record collection. It’s been a fun little hobby, but constantly reading about turntables and cartridges, vinyl, receivers, stereos — all that stuff occupied a majority of the time I’d usually devote to writing. The deadlines I set for myself about getting back on track after we lost Charlie passed. It, along with all the money I was spending, kind of took a toll and started stressing me out. Eventually, I sat down with Erin and we decided that I needed to stop for a while. At least until we take care of some other major issues around the house. So that’s where we are.

Not pictured: Coldplay’s “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” playing while writing this essay.

And that’s why I’ve decided to set up a series of rules for myself about new record purchases. Well, all purchases, really. But we’ll focus on the record collection for now.

1. If I’m going to buy a record, it needs to be a meaningful purchase.

It’s a rabbit hole that has no end. Digging for used (or new) vinyl at the store can be a lot of fun, but I’ll be damned if it hasn’t cost me quite a bit of money. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my friend Bruce Ripple of Revival Games: there are records you listen to, and then there are records you own. I bought a lot of music as a teenager and even well into my twenties, but I also pirated a bunch. And part of being a creator is balancing the desire to enjoy things with the knowledge of work that went into them. At the same time, records, whether used or new, are not cheap. At an average of $15 to $25, that’s a hell of a lot more of an expense.

So if I’m going to make the investment — for lack of a better word — in an album right now or in the near future, it can’t just be a whim purchase because the cover looks cool or I saw it on a list of MUST-OWN VINYL. It needs to mean something to me. Frankly, that means a lot of hours logged on Spotify or some sort of personal significance. I can tell you a lot about the first New Pornographers album I purchased (Electric Version) or the first time I heard anything from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If a record doesn’t define a moment or a feeling for me, or if it’s something I don’t plan on revisiting that often, then it has no business being on my shelf.

2. No bulk purchases. When I’m able to start picking things up again, it’ll be one thing at a time.

Easy enough, right? Since I’ve already made a commitment to focus and carefully cultivate a personally meaningful library, there’s no reason to splurge and buy multiple albums at once. So when I eventually go to Amazon and put Scissor Sisters by Scissor Sisters in my cart, I won’t grab Ta-Dah at the same time because of a group discount. Even though I really want it. Even if “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” is one of the best songs of the mid-2000’s.

3. There’s no need to upgrade my setup. The speakers and the receiver and the turntable are perfectly fine.

My turntable is from the 1980’s and it works. I picked up my receiver and speakers on Craigslist as a package deal for $50, and they sound really good for my small office. But of course there’s always something better and bigger and maybe a little more attractive. I mean, hell, I really want to replace my speakers with a pair of Andrew Jones-designed Pioneer BS-22’s. But there’s a reason people swear by vintage gear; it’s relatively affordable and you can find some great deals if you know where to look.

But I’ve already found my great deal. And unless my stylus needs replacing (which, you know, it will), there’s no reason to buy anything new right now. Unless the power supply burns out on my Technics SA-290 or something weird happens to the Realistic Minimus 7s on my desk, I don’t need to even think about new speakers or an amp. Even if I come across an awesome set of “harfeda” speakers at Goodwill.

4. Don’t let any of this stuff interfere with what I really want.

It’s great to have a hobby, and learning about vinyl and equipment and speakers and stuff has been fun and interesting. But my primary focuses right now are being a good husband, continuing to build my writing career (whether it’s fiction or my day job in marketing), and trying to climb out of the overwhelming mountain of debt I’m buried beneath. And all three of those things are an ongoing thing. I made a lot of decisions over the past five years that really didn’t help with, well, any of those goals. And now that I’m trying to make them happen, the last thing I need is more distractions.

So those are the rules.

Those are the guidelines for trying to balance the joy of a new hobby with the responsibilities of being an adult. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll look at the vinyl on my shelf and think about selling everything to a teenager who’s never heard “Stacked Crooked” or “Alison” on wax. Or maybe I’ll sit in my office with my kid on my lap and share the music that meant so much to me in a fun, quirky way.

In the moment, though? I’ll enjoy the music the way it was meant to be: one record at a time, one side at a time.

This essay also appeared at http://www.douglasjfresh.com

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