FREE EBOOK: so you want to start a record collection

Today this “Beginner’s Guide to Vinyl” thing crossed my path and irritated the crap out of me. I am a musician, and I also write about music for a living, and I have also put out records before (long, long ago), and I have worked at record stores at varying points over my lifetime. I did college radio. I am a sad, sad music industry lifer, the child of two musicians (one of whom is also a sound engineer, and one of whom is a Girls Rock Camp volunteer as a retiree. My parents are cool). This is my world. I know it can seem myopic at times.

It didn’t make me angry because I look down on people looking to get into collecting records. I didn’t make a bunch of flip posts about it because I want to guard the gate to my clubhouse. On the contrary: I want people to get into records. Records are a great joy in my life, and I want nothing more than to share them with others, in many different ways. Sharing music that made an emotional connection with you with people you care about and watching it maybe make an emotional connection with them is one of the purest and loveliest things in a world on fire.

It made me angry because it’s completely unnecessary: a waste of money and time. Whether you are a casual music listener looking to buy a few records that you listen to now and again or a budding head chasing the dragon of a never-ending collection of records that resonate deeply with you, you do not need this book. You don’t need any book on record collecting, not in an age of easily accessible Internet expertise. Starting a record collection is very easy, and you should never let some petty tyrant tell you you don’t belong there because you don’t listen to the right records or know the right passwords. Listen to what you love, on your terms.

Here is a completely free guide to starting a record collection in 2016, post-many trend pieces about vinyl being Back (it never left, it just wasn’t terribly popular for a while). (PS: nobody paid me anything or asked me to mention any of the products I mention. They are purely my preferences. You could make an argument that I get money from Bandcamp because it’s my job to write for them, but this was done purely because I care and I want people to get into records, and nobody at the company told me to do it. I really do believe in the platform.)

  1. Buy a turntable. DO NOT BUY A CROSLEY. I know that they are pretty to look at and come in lots of different designs and are cheap. But DO NOT BUY A CROSLEY. Here’s why—the combination of the plastic, poorly weighted tone arm and heavy ceramic stylus cartridge can irreparably damage your records. When I was last working at a shop in 2014, it was a regular occurrence to have fresh-out-of-the-package never-played records returned after one play on a Crosley, because this combination of stylus and tone arm caused the brand new record to skip. (I have also observed a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that the belt drives die faster on Crosleys than they do on other comparable record players.) The Crosley Cruiser retails for around $70; just slightly more expensive is the Audio-Technica AT-60 line, which retails for $100–130 (I see them regularly discounted at bigger retailers). The AT-60s are quality entry-level USB turntables that won’t wreck your records, break far less often than Crosleys, and are very much worth the extra $30–60. Bluetooth turntables are starting to rise in popularity, and they are a bad idea; in order to transmit over Bluetooth, the audio has to be converted to a highly compressed digital stream, making it no different than listening to a low-quality MP3 ripped from vinyl to iTunes or YouTube. Which is fine—we all do it—but you don’t need the physical object or the turntable in that case.
  2. If you aren’t going to listen through your computer speakers, you’ll also need some independent speakers. This kind soul at MuseHelix, a site with common-sense and non-jargon-filled audio equipment reviews for analog listeners (whether beginner, casual, average or Deep Nerd) has some powered speaker reviews that will be of help. These reviews take into account many factors, including budget, durability and range, and are all compatible with the AT-60 and AT-120 lines. The cheapest ones are $34 and look like they’re a great option.
  3. If you choose a non-plug-and-play turntable, or you have more stereo components you’d like to add (like a cassette deck, CD player, or HDTV system), you’ll need a receiver as well as speakers. The Sony STR-DH550 is the cheapest option that regularly receives good user and magazine reviews, at about $250, though if you’re not using a plug-and-play turntable with a built-in pre-amp you’ll need one of those too. (This Pyle Phono Turntable pre-amp is $42 and is totally serviceable; I’ve seen it for cheaper at bigger retailers.) The Yamaha RX-V479, at about $350, is another popular and critical favorite. It does have a pre-amp built in.
  4. You can also scour your local thrift store for stereo components. This option is more budget-friendly, but also a little bit less user-friendly. The manuals are often missing (though many are thankfully available online, even for ancient models), the technology isn’t as up-to-date, and the components aren’t designed to fit together as well. That doesn’t mean you can’t end up with a great system for very cheap if you’re willing to put in a little work. The stylus on your thrifted turntable will have to be replaced before you use it; regardless of whether you buy from them or not, The Needle Doctor and TurntableNeedles.com will help you figure out what styluses you can use with the model you’ve got (plus they’ve got a bunch of other replacement components if you need them). Don’t worry about going for a relatively inexpensive stylus—there are tons regularly for lots of different turntable models in the $20–30 range that are totally good for the casual-to-average user. Beware of those ceramic cartridges.
  5. Oh! You may need to clean your records now and again. Ambient dust and grime happen. A microfiber cloth of any kind (you can get them pretty much anywhere—your local supermarket or drug store will probably have them) will do the trick; you can use distilled water or spray record cleaner with this cloth. Carbon fiber brushes are also great, but if you don’t want to spend $15 on a record brush, a microfiber cloth is fine. Use the cloth or brush gently, in a circular motion, following the grooves. Never ever use rubbing alcohol. It will wreck your shit. While I was looking for microfiber cloths to link just now I came across a Free People blog post that recommended mixing distilled water with alcohol. Fuckin’ Urban Outfitters! I swear. DO NOT DO THAT. Just distilled water by itself is fine. Always distilled (so that it doesn’t track minerals all over your record).
  6. Don’t ever let an audiophile trick you into thinking you need the most expensive thing. While you’ll want durable equipment that won’t mess up your records, you also don’t need to spend a gazillion dollars. Monster Cables are a gigantic scam. If anyone says you absolutely 100% need a Monster Cable, head in the other direction immediately. You may need a standard 3.5mm audio cable. You can totally go with the cheapest one. It absolutely does not matter unless you’re doing pro audio.
  7. Now it’s time to buy some records! You do not need to go to the aforementioned Urban Outfitters. Urban Outfitters marks up the prices on standard, easily available, in-print records. (They are also a garbage company whose owner regularly contributes to Republican candidates and who have a long history of copyright infringement, regularly ripping off independent artists with few resources, and a sketchy history with labor law; if, like me, these are things you care about, your money is really best directed elsewhere.) Besides, why buy from a national chain when you have so many different options to support small businesses and independent artists these days, even if you don’t live near a record shop? You can buy from a shop either in person or online; most shops have their catalogs online and available for mailorder. You can buy from the artist directly, either at a show or from their personal website; organizations like CASH Music have made setting up stores on artist websites easy. You can buy from the label website. You can buy from the artist’s Bandcamp (hey, that’s where I work), or from their Big Cartel, if they’ve got either of those options. Any of those options directs your money in varying portions to artists, labels and small businesses, rather than giant corporations like Urban Outfitters and Amazon.
  8. As you visit different shops and look at different catalogs, you’ll start noticing when a shop inflates their prices unfairly by looking at what they’re charging for certain common records. A friend of mine uses Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” as a baseline, as it’s everywhere all the time. Shops and other used record vendors give different grades to used records, usually based on the Goldmine ratings guide, from M (mint, fresh out of the package) to P (poor, essentially so damaged as to be unplayable). A Very Good (VG) rating is commonly understood to be the average baseline for a used record that’s in playable condition but not great; it might have a little surface noise/groove wear but nothing so rough that you won’t get many good listens out of it. Start looking at what shops are charging for one common record in VG condition, like “Rumours.” If it looks way higher than at other shops you’ve been to, you might be looking at a place that inflates its prices unfairly. My pal calls this “Fleetwood Mactrics” which I love!
  9. If you’re looking for an out-of-print record, you can probably find it in the incredible Discogs marketplace, which allows you to build a want list, keep track of your collection (there’s an app now that will scan your records directly into your Discogs collection), and buy/sell/trade with other users. Discogs is an amazing tool and also very easy to get sucked into. Welcome to the Collector Zone.
  10. The Ikea Expedit (now Kallax) is everyone’s favorite record shelf, but you can also store them in milk crates, or these surprisingly durable Bags Unlimited storage boxes. Bags Unlimited or your local record shop also have plastic sleeves in bulk should you need them; a plastic sleeve is a relatively inexpensive way to preserve a record, though it is not 100% necessary for every record you own. It’s just a good extra safeguard. Store your records upright rather than in a stack on their sides, because the combined weight and pressure can cause cracking and wearing on the unfortunate records that end up at the bottom of the pile.
  11. It can be tough keeping up with the sheer surplus of music in the world, especially now that technology has made making and distributing music much easier (and in some cases more budget-friendly). That’s why I do what I do! There are plenty of music magazines to keep up with, from the genre-specific (like Maximumrocknroll, the longest-running punk ‘zine in the US) to the big ones you probably already know about: Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and so on. Your local paper has an arts desk (and your city/region might have an alt-weekly, too, like the Chicago Reader or the Washington City Paper; alt-weeklies have traditionally been big on national and local arts coverage). Bigger news organizations like The Guardian often have good arts coverage. There are tons of mid-size publications, like FACT Mag, who are doing good music coverage these days. Remezcla covers Latinidad music and culture with passion and depth. We keep up with some of the notable work on Bandcamp over at the Bandcamp Daily. I will always recommend reading music journalism over algorithmic recommendations, and not just because it’s my job to—I really believe that reading what real people (artists and the writers who cover them) have to say about music is more helpful in the long run to even casual listeners than algorithms that track your listening habits and offer something in the same generic range. As Ben Ratliff writes in Every Song Ever, there are so many ways in which humans interpret music for one another that can’t be tracked by algorithms. Plus, the human connection is one of the best things about loving music—sharing it with your loved ones, as mentioned above, or feeling an intense emotional connection with an artist’s work listening to a record in your bedroom alone, or talking about an artist interview or a record review on the Internet (whether you agree with the author/artist or think they’re totally off base).
  12. If you have a local record store, take advantage of that resource. While the clerks definitely have lots to do all the time, don’t buy into the pop-culture idea that record store clerks are judging what you’re buying. When I was behind the counter, it always made me happy to be asked for help, whether in finding a particular record on the floor or making recommendations. And I never cared what anyone was buying. This rings true for pretty much everyone I’ve ever known who’s worked in a record store; there are a few sour, insecure individuals who need to lord their taste over others, but they’re a rarity, and aren’t those dickheads kind of everywhere? Most record store clerks are just like me and my friends, nerds who love music very much and get stoked to talk to other people about it. When I was a kid, I used to skip a lot of my classes in favor of hanging out at the record store up the street, where the owners would let me sit in the back, sticker records with them, and indulge my curiosity by putting on whatever I wanted to while we did that. I learned an immense amount about music from that experience, more than I think I could have ever possibly learned in any kind of formal setting. Record stores are great.
  13. 180-gram vinyl is more durable, but there is no appreciable difference in sound on average from a standard pressing. Colored vinyl looks pretty but is harder to press, so it can sometimes sound subpar compared to standard black. Most of the time, the differences in pressings are nitpicky — go with yr personal preference. Used records, even with minor dings, are great and will get the job done for less. Sometimes there’s cool shit in the dollar bin; you never know. You can afford to pull weird things based on intriguing album art there and give it a try; if it’s terrible, you didn’t waste a ton of money, and you could find a new favorite. Record Store Day releases, unless they are something special that hasn’t been in print for a long while and is hard to find, are often ridiculously inflated collector kitsch garbage. RSD is often a boon for record stores still, so I won’t discount it entirely, but that doesn’t mean you have to buy into all the major-label crap that clogs up record pressing plants and causes headaches for those plants and the independent labels that are just trying to use them to get regular releases out. The year I was at the shop recently was the year with the marshmallow-scented Ghostbusters single release. We sold out nearly immediately. Throughout the day, I would point people looking for it to our several used copies of the full Ghostbusters soundtrack, all in very playable condition, for far cheaper than the RSD single. None of them wanted it, because they wanted the object, and not the music. An object will go on a shelf and be forgotten. Music will stay with you and color your life in so many ways.
  14. If your record collection gets to a certain critical mass, it’s going to be really annoying to move. Sorry. It’s the price you pay for love. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t really consider what records you buy in physical format; because they’re such a pain in the ass to lug around and they take up so much space, you’ll want your collection to reflect records you really love, or at least listen to enough in that format to justify having them around. A cull through your collection every six months, taking the records you don’t like as much as you thought you would to a record store or putting them on Discogs to sell or trade, is recommended.
  15. That’s really all you need to get started. A little money, some online and in-person resources, and there you go: you’re on your way. Records are for listening to and connecting to in my world, not displaying and commodifying (though some people surely relate to them that way). I’m assuming you want to start out buying them because you feel the same way. Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve got a specific question that I can maybe answer, and I will try my best!
  16. Enjoy that shit. Seriously. Enjoy it.
  17. People trying to make a quick buck off of other people trying to learn about something that requires very little knowledge to get started and for which resources are completely free can fuck off outta here.