Article by Michael Venutolo-Mantovani
There are two things record collectors have an abundance of during a global pandemic: vinyl and time.
For collectors stuck at home, there are new hours in the day, hours that feel like they may not have existed in the throes of a busy professional life, hours that might be spent listening to long-ignored titles, discovering new music, or revisiting old sonic memories. Records that have been filed away for years are again being called into action. Titles that collectors may have forgotten they’d owned are being reexamined.
Suddenly, and thanks to the time at home afforded by COVID-19, record collections that number in the thousands and beyond seem surmountable and those dreams of one day listening to an entire collection have, at least for a few intrepid record collectors, become a reality.
“As soon as we started doing it, I realized that all of Rob’s Aerosmith records were coming up right out of the gate,” Puloma Basu says. “I thought, ‘If I get through this, then we’re going to make it.’”
Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller are filmmakers based in Los Angeles. Together, the couple has made music videos for artists like Ted Leo, Sharon Jones, and The New Pornographers; a film exploring the life of soul singer Syl Johnson; and, most importantly for our purposes, a recently released documentary on Other Music, the tiny record shop in Lower Manhattan that had a global impact. The nexus of their A-to-Z listening project was the anxiety wrought on Ms. Basu by the global pandemic.
“I was so stressed out by everything,” says Ms. Basu. “I had to do something that kept me from looking at these terrible news reports from everywhere.”
Shortly after they’d started dating in 2010, Ms. Basu and Mr. Hatch-Miller merged their individual record collections. Over their decade together, the collection has swelled to include about 2,000 LPs, EPs, singles, and 10-inches.
“There were a lot of records in here that I’d never heard before,” Ms. Basu says. “Or hadn’t heard in many, many years.”
With a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter at home and two careers to tend to in a time as confusing as a pandemic, sticking to any sort of regimen would prove impossible. Instead, the couple decided to just work their way through their collection, one record at a time, playing music all day, as they always have. Some days prove more fruitful than others but the records are generally spinning from wake up to bedtime.
“It’s just an all-day, everyday thing,” says Mr. Hatch-Miller.
There was little in the collection that surprised the couple, though there were definitely titles that proved more tedious than others.
“As soon as we started doing it, I realized that all of Rob’s Aerosmith records were coming up right out of the gate,” Ms. Basu says. “I thought, ‘If I get through this, then we’re going to make it.’”
Still, with the marriage of two record collections into one, there were some hidden gems in the stack.
“Vacation by The Go-Go’s,” says Mr. Hatch-Miller. “I don’t know if I’d ever heard that one before but it’s such a good record.”
As of this writing, Ms. Basu and Mr. Hatch-Miller are in the thick of the “Ws,” nearing the end of their collection of full-length 12-inches, after which, they’ll work their way through compilations, soundtracks (most of which are early-’80s disco-heavy Bollywood), 12-inch singles, and finally, 7-inch singles.
There will no doubt be more to slog through and more to discover, though nothing will likely be more sentimental than when the couple was in the Ns, listening to the mid-’60s British psychedelic group Nirvana’s The Story of Simon Simopath, which Mr. Hatch-Miller played for Ms. Basu on the night they met.
For many record collectors, the life of a new album goes something like this: a record is played, played again, and played again. Sometimes it stays in rotation for days, sometimes weeks, sometimes, if it’s really good, a few months. But eventually, that once-new record is filed away, sometimes by genre, always alphabetically.
For the overwhelming majority of most record collectors’ records, there it will stay forever, maybe being pulled from the stack a few times in the future for a dinner party or during a particularly nostalgic binge, most likely never reentering the rarified air of heavy rotation. It’s a statistical impossibility for a person with hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of records to give each and every record equal time and attention. And the bigger the collection, the more likely this outcome is for most LPs.
Photo by Nathan Van Egmond
Dave Martin is Head of Physical Sales at Brooklyn-based independent record label Captured Tracks and a noted record collector who estimates around thirty percent of his 5,000 records return to regular rotation from their place on the shelf. For Patrick Amory, president of the legendary indie rock label Matador Records, whose collection numbers around seven thousand, that number is closer to 25%.
For my own collection, which consists of around 2,000 LPs, 7-inches, 10-inches, and box sets, it’s even smaller. Maybe 20%, or 400 of my records, see regular or semi-regular play. But the more I conducted these interviews, the more intriguing the idea of listening to everything I own became to me. After all, I work from a home office, where one corner is home a low-slung record console that spins records during most of my workday anyway.
So why not, I wondered, listen to everything in order?
Karl Hendricks was beloved in a variety of circles. Whether known for fronting his band, The Karl Hendricks Trio, as the longtime face of Pittsburgh independent record shop Jim’s Records, which he eventually bought and rechristened as Sound Cat Records, or in the tight-knit web of record collectors around the United States, Mr. Hendricks was a noted figure in the record community.
In 2017, Mr. Hendricks died after a three-year battle with oral cancer, leaving behind his wife, Megan, whom he met in the early-’90s while working at Jim’s, and two grown daughters. He also left a collection of nearly 10,000 records, which Mr. Hendricks described as “conservative” in its scope before his death. Shortly after Mr. Hendricks died, Megan began listening to her late husband’s collection in alphabetical order, often having friends over to commiserate and celebrate Karl’s life and his most pronounced passion.
“Whatever I chose to listen to, it was like an exploration of what [husband Karl Hendricks] chose to put in his collection,” Megan Hendricks says. “And it really makes me realize how he was selective. Everything has a certain texture, a certain depth.”
“I used to have friends come over,” Mrs. Hendricks says from the couple’s home in Pittsburgh. “And we’d pick the next record and it was this little celebration.”
However, once the lockdown took hold, listening in solitude to the records of a husband whose death she still deeply mourns became tougher for Mrs. Hendricks. What was formerly a celebration of life soon became a grim reminder of her loss. Over the last several months, her journey through her husband’s record collection has all but halted.
“When Karl was alive, there was never a time that there wasn’t music playing,” Mrs. Hendricks says. “So, the silence is my new space, in a way.”
“[Karl] was a very quiet person,” Mrs. Hendricks elaborates. “He would listen to records all the time and he wouldn’t talk to me about them. He would just put them on.”
Often, Mr. Hendricks’s selections were relegated to background music for his wife while she cooked, pecked away at her work from home, or did her part to raise the couple’s daughters. But with the concerted energy of listening intently to the records, Mrs. Hendricks describes much of the experience as “a beautiful surprise.”
“Whatever I chose to listen to, it was like an exploration of what he chose to put in his collection,” she says. “And it really makes me realize how he was selective. Everything has a certain texture, a certain depth.”
Mrs. Hendricks describes herself as an “old punk,” which is why many of the jazz titles in the collection, like Rashied Ali and Frank Lowe’s Duo Exchange or a variety of albums by the saxophonist Charles Brackeen, stood out to her. The endeavor also made Mrs. Hendricks realize how much her late husband enjoyed, what she described as, “an aural challenge.” However, it wasn’t all challenging, as Mr. Hendricks was a noted fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and would outline their virtues to his friends, often much to their dismay.
“If you could get Karl talking, he had a way of making you think you should consider something as obviously beyond hope as the Chili Peppers,” says Mr. Martin, who is a Pittsburgh native and was a longtime friend of Mr. Hendricks. Mrs. Hendricks had made it through the Bs before pausing her project.
“I just remembered one of the reasons I lost steam,” she joked. “I’m on Anne Briggs. Another one of Karl’s surprises.”
Mrs. Hendricks admitted that the process of listening to music without her husband became too much to bear.
“I’m still feeling such loss,” she says. “And it’s such a lonely feeling listening to music without being able to share it with him.”
Mr. Martin was the person who connected me to Mrs. Hendricks in the first place. After she’d received Mr. Martin’s call, wondering if she might speak with me about her project, Mrs. Hendricks thought she might reignite her process, that it could prove some further catharsis in the lifelong process of grieving the death of her husband.
“I think maybe I’ll start again,” she says with a laugh that is laden with pain. “I just have to get through Anne Briggs and then I’m good.”
As I type this, Belle and Sebastian’s debut LP, Tigermilk, plays in my home office.
I’m only 81 records into my collection but have already uncovered a few gems I’d forgotten about (the 2013 reissue of the band Anonymous’s Inside The Shadow album and the 2016 reissue of Eden Ahbez’s completely off the wall Eden’s Island), a few surprises I wished I’d listened to more (Wilmington, North Carolina riff metal outfit ASG’s relentless Win Us Over), and a few records that have had a deep personal impact (Hawaiian singer Alfred Apaka’s Sing Me a Song of the Islands from 1960, a record that my late grandfather loved, and the entire Archers of Loaf catalog, as the Loaf is one of my all-time favorite bands). I’ve trudged through the entirety of The Beatles’ original discography and after only three records of respite, am on the precipice of ingesting every record Belle and Sebastian has ever recorded.
Gina Williams has been working in the record business for two decades, with most of that time spent working alongside independently owned record stores across the U.S. Currently, Ms. Williams is the Director of Independent Sales at Warner Music Group. Shortly after the COVID-induced lockdown reached her Brooklyn Heights apartment, the idea of consumerism began to overtake her thoughts.
“I was buying things, I was putting them in my apartment, and then not fully digesting them before going and buying more,” she says.
Soon recognizing that she might not be going anywhere for a while, Ms. Williams began listening to her record collection from the top, in order. Owing to the size of her apartment, Ms. Williams describes her thousand-LP collection as “small” for someone whose been working in the record business for as long as she.
“But it’s tight,” she says. “I’m finding that it’s my greatest hits.”
Outside of listening in alphabetical order and chronologically from an artist, there is no methodology to Ms. Williams’ listening habit. “Some days it’s one record,” she says. “Other days, it could be 10.”
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez
Thus far, the only thing that’s broken up her A-to-Z project was a mid-March sickness, one she feared might be COVID-19. “It was a really scary time to be sick in New York City,” Ms. Williams says, noting that while she later tested negative for antibodies, she won’t rule out the idea that she might have contracted the coronavirus. Ms. Williams was just starting the Bs when she first got sick, a coincidence that led to her hitting the pause button on her listening.
“I was experiencing more anxiety than I’d ever experienced and here comes Syd Barrett and I was like, ‘Uh-uh,’” she says, noting the Pink Floyd co-founder’s free-form style, along with the legend of him losing his own mind, may have proved too intense for the moment. Once she was on the mend, Ms. Williams regrouped and picked up where she’d left off.
“Then when I went back and listened to (New York City post-punk band) B.A.L.L. and it sounded amazing,” she says. Ms. Williams notes that almost everything in her collection hearkens back to very specific moments, which likens the process to a sonic version of the classic television show This Is Your Life. The memories aren’t only sonic, however, as Ms. Williams has come across plenty of ephemera stashed in the sleeves of her records. Ticket stubs, handwritten messages, and even an old Post It note reminding Ms. Williams that an ex had purchased her a certain Badfinger title at the Brooklyn Flea several years ago.
Like many record collectors, Ms. Williams abides by the “no skipping, no flipping” philosophy. That is, no matter how bad the record is or how not-in-the-mood she may be for it, she has to listen to it, front to back, in full. Sometimes, like when she pulled a Jane Fonda workout LP from her stack, that ethos proves arduous.
“Now I have to listen to this whole thing,” she says. “I had never done that. I just bought that record to giggle at it.
“But I’m gonna do [the workout] this weekend!”
Staring at my wall-length record shelf as it brims with the LPs I’ve gathered over my years collecting, it’s clear that I’ve got the vinyl. And with the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down any time soon, it’s more than likely that I’ll continue to have the time. Other than the standard “no flipping, no skipping,” I have no guidelines or rules for my listening. Sometimes I listen while I work, other times, records play from our dining room system while my wife and I cook or play with our son.
As I pull the records from the shelf, roughly a dozen at a time to take back to my home office, I have to stop my eyes from scanning forward in anticipation of what surprises might be there, waiting for me on the sonic horizon. I know there’s plenty of Cat Power, OG presses of Drive Like Jehu’s landmark albums, tons of Guided By Voices, and an inordinate amount of Pat Benatar. But what else lies in my collection, hiding between the records that have shaped my life? I’ll have to wait to find out.
Because no flipping.
In a time that is filled with as much uncertainty, as much fear for and of the future, this project has kept me present in a way few other things have been able to. And the more I listen, the more I realize how much Puloma Basu might have been onto something in starting this project. Through my first 81 records, I’ve averaged about five records a day, a rate that should find me finishing off my collection with ZZ Top sometime early next winter. Hopefully, COVID-19 will be done with us before then.