Although the visual above was created as a humorous meme, I must confess that I have often done this throughout my life.
Some people collect stamps, or coins, or model cars, or comic books, or baseball cards, or friggin’ Beanie Babies. Me? I’ve been a music collector since I was ten years old: 45s in the 1960s, vinyl albums in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s (and then again in the 2020s!), and CDs in the ’80s, 90s and beyond. Sure, I listened to the radio a lot (AM in the ’60s, FM in the ’70s and ’80s), and it was always a kick when a deejay played a favorite tune or artist, but there was nothing like owning the music I loved so I could play it whenever I wanted.
Of course, not everyone shared my passion for collecting rock music, but I had plenty of company. I’d find them at the local record store perusing the bins, shopping for something specific or maybe something brand new with an attention-getting album cover. I also had a few close friends who collected albums — Chris, Mark, Barney and others — and I recently solicited their thoughts and remembrances about when and why the album-collecting bug bit them.
In my pre-teen years, I collected several dozen 45s (maybe as many as 100), which was the primary format of marketing music to teens in the ’50s and well into the ’60s. Most of them were played on a very cheap record player, usually in stacks that ultimately damaged the vinyl surfaces, so only a few have survived all these years later.
Concurrently, I remember my father had a pretty good-sized collection of LPs, and even some old 78s from the ’40s. He favored the “easy-listening” crooners like Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney and Perry Como, plus movie musical soundtrack albums and some Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey big-band stuff as well, and hearing them whetted my appetite for starting my own collection a couple of years later.
Barney remembers getting his first quasi-decent record player in middle school. “It was an old hi-fi that was a piece of furniture with a turntable and one speaker. Generally, I didn’t buy LPs without hearing at least one track, either at a friend’s house or on radio,” he said. “Only rarely did I buy a record based solely on a recommendation without hearing a single track. Basically, everything I bought was based on wanting a song that I had heard.”
When I’d visit friends’ houses in my middle school years, I’d see their older siblings’ collections of rock/pop music albums and think, “Wow, that’s what I want.” So I started collecting albums in late 1968, which was, coincidentally, right around the time the record-buying public began buying more LPs than 45s. I received The Beatles “White Album” for Christmas, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends,” and treated them as my most prized possessions. I saved up and bought a used turntable, amplifier and speakers from a friend’s father who was upgrading, and that meant I was getting significantly better (and louder!) audio quality. That accelerated my weekly treks to the record store, hoping to find something to add to my collection.
Chris recalled, “When FM rock radio arrived, a whole new category of music was introduced to me. They would play long songs or whole albums, and I knew I had to have that! I’d often go to the store just to look at the album covers! Even if I didn’t know the artist, if the cover looked cool, with funky art or a beautiful woman, I’d consider purchasing it.”
Even better was if you had the chance to become chummy with one of the record store clerks who might play a track from an album you were considering buying. There was a store called Record Revolution near where I lived that had the most incredible Altec Lansing “Voice of the Theater” speakers, and they would always be playing new releases. I bought many new albums over the years after being blown away by hearing a few tracks there.
Mark concurs. “I was browsing in Record Revolution one day and remember hearing the opening salvo of ‘Yours is No Disgrace’ from ‘The Yes Album’ through those massive speakers. I’d never heard of Yes before, but Wow! They ended up playing the whole album, and I bought it the same day.”
By early 1970, my collection had blossomed to about 70-80 albums — Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”, Judy Collins’s “Wildflowers,” Cream’s “Wheels of Fire,” Creedence’s “Bayou Country,” The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” and “Magical Mystery Tour,” Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” — that reflected my burgeoning musical tastes. I loved the melodies and harmonies that Simon and Garfunkel were offering, but I was also intrigued and energized by the harder rock of Steppenwolf, Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin.
At my high school, there was equipment in the library for us to play an album while six of us could listen in with headphones. Upperclassmen would commandeer the turntable, so we’d hear whatever they wanted to play, which were sometimes eye-opening selections (Moody Blues, Canned Heat, Leonard Cohen, Genesis) that I would sometimes buy later.
Record collectors often found each other and exchanged albums to turn each other on to their favorites. Says Mark, “An important resource was friends (like you) who introduced me to new material, and vice versa. We would loan albums to each other, and the ones I enjoyed I eventually purchased.”
I was always on the lookout for new music that piqued my interest. In addition to listening to FM radio, visiting record stores and swapping albums with friends, we couldn’t help but notice the way the music business marketed their wares to us collectors out there through the media. Some record labels — like Atlantic Records (see below) — would use an album’s inner sleeve to advertise as many as 100 albums by other artists in the Atlantic stable. I would make note of many of these selections and examine them more thoroughly at the record store.
Readers who came of age in the 1970s will no doubt remember ads like the one shown below for Columbia House Record Club. They would hook us with “11 albums for $1.00” offers, which sounded too good to be true (which it was). We’d send in our dollar with a list of 11 albums (or tapes) we wanted from the list of titles, and we’d be overjoyed when they showed up in the mail a week or two later. But then they’d be after us to order more albums over the next several months, for which we’d be charged the retail amount. Some people tried to game the system; a guy in the 1990s was prosecuted for having received nearly 27,000 CDs, using over 2,000 fake accounts and 16 P.O. boxes!
“I very much used the record clubs, Columbia and BMG, for a large number of albums,” says Chris. “I just loved, loved, loved getting the big box of new albums in the mail!”
When I headed off to college in 1973, my collection was up to 250 and growing. I became leery of loaning them out to people who didn’t treat them with the loving care I did, but I became known as the “go-to” guy as a source for great music. As the era of making “party tapes” on Dolby cassettes blossomed, I would borrow albums and record the individual tracks I wanted (or sometimes the whole album), but that didn’t stop me from adding to my collection with new vinyl when warranted.
Many avid record collectors also attended their share of rock concerts, where they would sometimes be treated to a great warm-up band they’d never heard before, which would often precipitate buying their latest LP. In Chris’s case, he not only worked at a record store and as a deejay for a spell, he also spent many years working at a popular Cleveland-area concert venue for many years, and was exposed to a lot of music he otherwise wouldn’t have learned about, and those albums often became a part of his collection.
By the late ’70s, stores that specialized in buying and selling used albums started sprouting up, which allowed vinyl fans the opportunity to greatly expand their collections. “There was a store called The Record Exchange that I patronized multiple times per month,” notes Mark. “I’d bring a very long list of songs I was looking for, and with cheap used albums, there wasn’t as much risk trying something new or unheard, or something old, to fill in my collection. And I could exchange the albums I didn’t like, which I regularly did.”
Those of us who collected vinyl, and perhaps still do, believe they get more enjoyment out of their collections than do those who collect, say, baseball cards or stamps. Those things are fun to look at, and memorize, and maybe trade with fellow collectors, and they may hope to make money in the future when they sell them if they hang on to them long enough. But albums can be played over and over, giving many other people the enjoyment of sharing great music with those who might not otherwise hear the album, or that artist.
I guess the main point I’ve been driving at in this essay is this: I think you can learn a great deal about people by perusing their record collections. Does your friend own a lot of albums, or only a few? Or maybe none at all? One newer friend recently explained to me, “I like music, but I usually don’t know the name of the song or even who’s singing. It’s just something that’s on in the background. I certainly never felt the need to buy records.” Another said this: “I had a stereo and bought a handful of albums, but my best friend had a gazillion albums, and he let me borrow his now and then, which was good enough for me.”
A more important gauge of someone’s personality was the albums you found when riffing through their collection. This is all very much a subjective thing, but if you came across a Miles Davis album, you knew you were dealing with a discerning listener. What genres were represented or ignored? Was there a ton of Waylon Jennings but no Chuck Berry? Which artists were over- or under-represented? Did you find just “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Abbey Road,” or was the complete Beatles catalog there?
If you had any Captain and Tennille or Barry Manilow, I probably didn’t hang out with you much. If your stash was limited to Kiss, Thin Lizzy and Judas Priest, I questioned your ability to tell great rock music from garden-variety dreck. If you had the complete works of Pink Floyd and a couple Cheech & Chong albums, then maybe we shared a few joints at some point.
I suppose many record collectors, consequently, could be accurately described as snobs. We knew what we liked and didn’t like, and we spent our money accordingly. We spent nearly all our disposable income on music, and we loved every minute of it. Stamps? Rare coins? Antique furniture? Clothes? Please. Music, we firmly held, was how we spent our hard-earned dollars, and we felt sorry for you if you didn’t know about all this great music that we knew so well, and owned.
Over the past couple of decades, younger generations still listen to music, but their collections have been virtual, to be found on computer files. True, vinyl has made a comeback, and kudos to those in their 20s and 30s who have discovered the pleasure of holding a new album purchase in their hands. There’s nothing quite like it.