January 19th, 2008


The aesthetics of record collecting

I scrolled through an I Love Music thread recently entitled Take a picture of your record collection and post it on ilm -- a sort of cut-price, homebrew, Anglo-styled version of an older, prettier ILM thread about German DJs and their living rooms. It got me thinking about the aesthetics of record collection. Mostly, to be honest, about how ugly record collections now look. It wasn't always this way; take a look at this clip from the 1998 film Tokyo Eyes:

Ten years ago this scene -- in which choosing the right record assumes almost mystical importance, and dancing to minimal techno stands in for sex -- seemed as cool as anything in early Godard or early Carax. Now it just looks naff. Something has changed; 90s Retro Vital has turned into 00s Retro Necro. Rather than minting it by re-releasing everything ever recorded, record labels are now laying off staff, record retailers closing down branches. Nobody wants these bits of plastic any more.

The difference between the two I Love Music threads is striking -- there's still some glamour in the German DJs' magisterial collections, whereas the homebrew Anglo collections are unremittingly ugly; I couldn't helping thinking of them as repositories for something dead. The difference is something to do with the way Berlin acts as an ice box for the cool subcultures of the past, and the peculiar job these DJs have; while the rest of the recorded music industry may be collapsing around them, their job is to enact the playing of records in public places. They are, in other words, part of (and earning their evident cash from) a form -- a weird hieratic, shamanic profession -- which has survived the cull of the rest of the music industry, a performative artform of social encounter.

Musicians have weathered the same storm by switching their focus to live shows and giving their music away free online. It's very telling, I think, that the new Apple Air Mac has no CD drive. That's not just to save space, and not just because Apple wants everyone to buy everything through iTunes (though naturally that helps). It's a gesture very much like the one Jobs made in 1998 when he introduced the iMac without a floppy disk drive. Music on plastic, now, is as dead as data on plastic was then. It's all up in the air.

Which leaves us with these unsightly shelves stacked with plastic. Those of us who aren't André Galluzzi can't look at our record collections in the age of mp3 without seeing a drain on our resources and our time -- a storage curse. What might, in the days when John Peel still had black hair and could squeeze into tight shorts, have looked like a dizzyingly diverse and contemporary world of future listening possibilities now looks like some kind of enormous obligation imposed on us by the past, an obligation we will never begin to fulfill (by acts of listening which would devour the rest of our lives) and don't have any intention of even trying to.

I have a recurring nightmare these days. I'm staying in some exotic place, living out of a suitcase. The time comes to go home, but -- with mere hours before my flight -- I discover a whole shelf, a whole cupboard, a whole room of stuff I've forgotten to pack. There's no way it'll all fit into my case, but there's no way I want to leave it behind either. My anxiety mounts, and I wake up with a start. Thank God, it was just a dream! Or was it?

I can still get a thrill looking at the reggae sleeves at Hard Wax in Kreuzberg. I like living in Berlin, a city which preserves with immaculate style the memory of a time when an enormous and eclectic record collection really was something to base all your subcultural capital on. But let's not kid ourselves -- most of this plastic was incredibly ugly. Even if it didn't look that way then, it does now. Space is tight, and life is short. Let's ditch the junk -- as ecologically as possible, naturally. And yes, that includes the Momus CDs.