There’s something sick and twisted, even self-destructive, about selling records. I don’t mean setting up shop and earning an honest living or posting the occasional list. I’m talking about the time-honored practice of unloading records you once deemed worthy, possibly taking a financial loss, depleting your collection, and maybe getting nothing but a handful of cash in return — which, invariably, gets pissed away on food, drinks, or parking.
I can’t remember exactly when the bug bit me. In high school, I sold CDs all the time, sometimes days after buying them — sometimes to the same shop. But I’m pretty sure that extreme says more about me than it does a larger trend and with some perspective, I can tell you that it was symptomatic of a bunch of other problems that go way beyond collecting music. There’s a store in Boston that, at least a decade ago, was where junkies went to dump off their record collections (or records they’d stolen).
The more serious I got about vinyl, though, and the more I’ve come to own desirable/valuable records, the stronger the itch has become. There’s nothing shameful about it. Instead it feels redemptive, liberating. There’s a buzz to it that smacks of instant gratification. But who finds gratification in loss? What exactly makes me feel good to admit I made a mistake, or get back very little for a pile of music that, at some point, seemed well worth my while?
Part of collecting is knowing when to let go. If you’re not willing to admit that something just doesn’t move you, or that dollar value sometimes takes precedence over the inherent value of good music, you’re a hoarder. Curation is an over-used word, but if you don’t curate your collection, you’re little more than a hoarder.
But there is a slippery slope here. Our experience as listeners changes from day-to-day. We can have our guidelines — there’s a reason why we consistently gravitate toward some genres or artist over others — but they’re hardly dogma. Taste happens one record at a time, one spin at a time. A foul mood (or an exalted one) isn’t going to make something minor into classic material. It can, however, be the difference when it comes to generally giving a fuck about a record. Even the “flip for a modest profit” scenario, or the “such a good deal I couldn’t pass it up” model should leave room for acceptance.
There’s something about vinyl, though, that lends itself to commodification. Maybe it’s the sheer physicality of it, or the sense that we’re often dealing with a finite, irreplaceable object whose mass production is a part of the distant past. It could be as simple as the fact that they’re worth money. In the same way the vinyl inspires obsession in a way CDs or MP3s never could, we’re drawn to the idea of unloading records. Purging is a ritual. The same preciousness we assign to our collection sometimes gets expressed as a need to flex some market muscle.
In the most altruistic sense, we’re giving back to the collecting community. I don’t want this, maybe someone else does. A friend of mine once described the concept of “record karma” to me — when you come up on a decent cache of vinyl, you leave something behind for the next guy to find. Anything else would be totally selfish and deny the fact that collecting is about more than yourself. We all benefit from each other’s labor, and it’s often a labor of love. We also depend on each other to drive up prices but that’s another matter altogether. It’s not like everyone is going to sit down at a table and agree to cap prices. Scarcity is damn seductive. It’s impossible to resist the possibility of attaining something that everyone wants. I guess that’s a dick move but it’s also about that feeling of accomplishment. And of course, there’s the reward of getting to listen whenever you want. You control the music.
Selling stuff, then, becomes a way to make sure things find a better home than you can provide. It’s bittersweet, hasty, and often ill-advised; I can’t be the only person who has called a shop the next day to try and buy back a record. But if I felt like I was really just treating records as liquid assets or getting back other (and fewer) albums that might one day betray me (or would I betray them?), then this whole exercise would be debilitating. Not that I’m someone who learns from his mistakes. If there weren’t some reward, though, it wouldn’t be an impulse that returns over and over again.
I’m writing this because I’m in the middle of a truly strange phase where I listen more than ever but am also in the grips of a serious selling problem. It’s been building gradually since we moved to Portland three years ago. Dislocation tends to have that effect — it’s the opposite of nesting, and you never quite recover from it or feel the need to overcompensate after the fact. It’s like once part of us falls away, we’re either going out of our way to make it seem like it was our idea all along. I have no idea if that’s a net loss or a long-terms gain. But at the end of the day, what you let go of is gone and what you’re left with is all you’ve got.
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