Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasures: Record Collecting as a Social Practice

June 24, 2010

In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East became a Mecca for record collectors as East Berliners binned their vinyl collections in the throes of a love affair with that tangible emblem of a new future, the CD.

But these discarded collections weren't being snapped up by the traditional stereotype of the anorak collector on a never-ending hunt for rarities by famous names or works by obscure, critically acclaimed artists. The vinyl albums being dumped were by unknown artists from East Berlin doing covers of Western pop and jazz standards and, as such, had very little apparent resale value - or appeal.

So what made this unwanted product so collectable to a particular breed of Western European vinyl junkies? The recordings had all been made in East Berlin using local technology, which just happened to use the finest microphones in the world. For the DJ and producer exploring the possibilities of sampling and cut-and-mix DJ-ing, such high-quality recordings were invaluable and, in the wake of their sudden availability, a new breed of vinyl pilgrim emerged - one who would travel the world for sound recordings rather than artist or genre recordings.

The emergence of new social practices from the detritus of advancing cultures is no new thing, of course. One need only look to the bargain bins of US record stores at a time when they were filled with the unwanted soul records of a thousand wannabe Motowns. British DJs snapped them up, imported them to the UK and, Wigan Casino, Northern Soul was born. Indeed, Northern Soul is a site of vinyl collecting that represents some of the most extreme obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Very rare seven-inch vinyl changes hands for vast sums, and some pressings take on near-mythical status.

Record collecting thus takes on many forms. It can impact on youth cultures, genre formations and create new subcultural expression. It can be a creative practice so far removed from the trainspotter stereotype as to provide the act of collecting with new depth and meaning.

Yet it is the stereotyped image presented in Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity that endures. We imagine obsessive young men (for this is a largely male occupation) thumbing through the dusty racks of travelling record-collectors' fairs in search of one holy grail or another. Their obsession extends to an unsettlingly thorough knowledge of catalogue numbers and messages scratched into run-out grooves, and an in-depth understanding of the significance of pressing plants in confirming a particular copy's rarity. So focused is these collectors' attention to detail that it is hardly surprising that many of them are academics.

It is the High Fidelity cliche that largely draws Roy Shuker's attention in this long-overdue study. After the emergence of file-sharing technology, such behaviour may seem redundant. But, just as repackaged CDs with "unreleased" tracks (a large part of traditional fan collecting) saw resistance from the collector, so too has this new era in music consumption found our beloved trainspotters building personal archives that any forward-thinking university library would be proud to host.

Shuker's study of the record collector is based on 70 extensive interviews, through which he discovers social practices that "present an interwoven narrative of desire and identification, alongside notions of cultural and economic value". He expertly develops a historical overview that explores changes in format and shifts in canon, and the impact these have on issues of taste, economic and cultural capital, and collecting practices.

Throughout the text, Shuker points to a complexity that extends beyond the stereotype, and one that has changed meaning over time. He concludes that the act of collecting is, for the collector, far less a hobby than a career. But as the activities of DJs, producers working with samples and cut-ups and the Northern Soul phenomenon suggest, it is a career that is far more varied in its expression than Shuker acknowledges here.

Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasures: Record Collecting as a Social Practice

By Roy Shuker
Ashgate 234pp, £55.00 and £55.00 (e-book)
ISBN 97807546678 and 99163 (e-book)
Published 1 February 2010

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