Listen to this story
At a party a few years back, I did The Thing. What is The Thing for you? Is it the moment you do something that you realize you shouldn’t have done and should never do again? Yes. It’s that moment of, “Oh, this should be my drunkest mistake ever,” and then you should learn from said mistake and overcorrect.
I did not overcorrect.
I was standing in a party that was not my own and decided it was time for the soundtrack to change. In the middle of everyone else’s good time, I deliberately removed the album Sports by Huey Lewis and the News from the record player and took out an Interpol album. But I didn’t know how records worked, so I threw on a wax disc that played at the wrong speed and made everyone feel weird as I slowly wandered away. The next day, instead of dealing with the underlying issues of why I ruined the party, I went to a record store and got a turntable.
From there, I was confronted by an inescapably modern idea of vinyl collectability that previous generations never had to face. My dad has a vinyl collection that he bequeathed to me, full of records he bought one at a time for a few bucks each and then scrawled his name on with a marker. Back then, vinyl was the delivery system for music. Now, vinyl is the entire point.
These days, many genre-specific albums get repressed on the smallest scale (300 to 1,000 units), and then everybody who wants one of these records either scrambles to buy it then and there or else pays out the ass later to get one from a third party — and all this even though the vinyl ultimately has no value outside of a tiny circle of fellow collectors. This is the hellscape of small-batch vinyl: You can either buy the record when it’s first available by camping out online and waiting for its distribution, or you can pay whatever eBay decides it’s worth later (much more). It is the most obvious version of seller’s regret imaginable.
And that’s what happened to me: After that party, I wasn’t even sure if I gave a shit about vinyl, but I immediately thought of the financial loss I was risking if I didn’t buy new, limited records the moment they were released. Suddenly, I needed to get All The Records.
At first, it was about fulfilling entire discographies for artists. That was quickly overridden by a need to acquire everything an entire label put out. Mondo Records, for example, put out incredibly limited releases that required me to grab discs within 30 minutes of their release or lose them forever. That feeling of panic became very easy to buy into. Literally.
Things only got more horrifying when I began acquiring vinyl versions of film and computer-game soundtracks. There are so many of these soundtracks inexplicably being pressed onto vinyl, and they require awe-inspiring dedication from their supporters to make them into a reality. Getting the backing tracks from a film (especially a low-budget horror film or something from the pre–Pro Tools era) means asking huge favors of everyone in the world of archiving. Original tapes are hard to come by or may have been damaged beyond repair. With games, it can be an issue of trying to use filters and amps to create a warmth where none previously existed. This type of soundtrack reassembly is an uphill battle where small heroes move to the forefront to save a media form for folks who number in the hundreds at most. And the folks willing to sink money into remastering these lost Dead Sea Sound Scrolls? They’re even fewer.
More so than any other kind of vinyl release, these soundtrack records are the ultimate in limited-edition pressings. They typically have a single day of release and no possible follow-up; you must already exist in that world to have a shot at owning the record or else face an insane markup to claim the vinyl later. In short, you have a very, very limited window in which to acquire this physical item.
Are collectors doing it for the sound? Not in this case. Usually, vinyl collectors point to the higher quality of the format — the warmth of the analog release. But many of the records I now collect are based in limited bit-based sound systems — even MIDI, at best—the absolute simplest form of electronic music. To put it simply: They don’t even sound that great on vinyl because they were never recorded on analog technology in the first place. So why burn $30 or more for a vinyl release that features six infinitely repeated tracks from a video game I never finished and never will finish? Why hoard soundtracks from decade-old games that depend on decades-old technology to work at an expensive level that the listener does not even benefit from?
“Why do I collect soundtracks on vinyl? Because I’m mental,” says my friend Charlie Brigden. “Because when I started listening to music, it was soundtracks that pulled me in and vinyl was the era. And because of the benefits and limitations of the format — the analog warmth that it brings, the large-format artwork size that especially befits movie art, and the way it demands to be listened to, not just thrown on. Soundtracks in particular are given extra care because of their nature as long-form music, so in order to fit two or four sides of an LP, the music must be arranged, edited, and, in many cases, rerecorded.” He says it’s not the same as “chucking tracks on a digital playlist in chronological order,” but that putting on a record — even if it’s a record containing a long-lost game soundtrack — is “a more challenging but ultimately more satisfying experience.”
For some collectors, myself included, it’s also about owning something physical. “I miss buying a game and getting a packaged experience of box art and being able to leaf through the manual and all that,” says Alex Eli. “You still can find that experience, of course, but I don’t have the kind of money necessary to buy an intact copy of Earthbound. The soundtrack is a more accessible way to relive some of that.” Additionally, some releases include actual maps from the original games inside the cover, which seems borderline practical for an art form centered around impracticality and impossibility.
For others, collecting vinyl versions of soundtracks is a totally different world than more traditional record collecting. “I used to scoff at record collecting,” says Jason K. “Sure, music is supposed to sound ‘better’ on vinyl as opposed to MP3s or CDs, but the aura of pretentiousness surrounding the scene felt too off-putting to give the hobby much thought. Then Mondo released the soundtrack for the first Castlevania game on vinyl. This was quickly followed by Simon’s Quest and Dracula’s Curse. In retrospect, I never stood a chance. Game soundtrack records combine my three favorite pursuits: video games, collecting stuff I don’t need, and wasting absurd amounts of money.”
Yes, this scene is insane, but the people behind it are capturing these limited releases not as any sort of investment, but as a form of comfort. Their collecting becomes a type of ownership, not of the sound — though perhaps on a six-grand tube-based home audio system, the warmth of a tiny bit-based record becomes a transcendent experience; I wouldn’t know because that’s not my situation — but of the nostalgia. Sure, there’s nothing technically that can improve a chiptune soundtrack, but in my head and my heart, it feels worth it. It feels better. And maybe that’s enough to keep collecting.
About this Collection