American Record Guide

independent critics reviewing classical recordings and music in concert

COLLECTORS

 

Collectors always have an obsessive-compulsive streak, and I admit that I am a very organized person who wants just about everything in his life to be well organized, too. I decided quite early on that there's no sense collecting records if you don't know what you've got or can't find it when you want to hear it. So I started a loose-leaf notebook where most composers had a page or two (or more) and there were pages of the ones left over, alphabetically arranged—more or less. I use the same pages until they become a total mess; then I redo them. Everything is done by hand, and I've never needed anything more.

 

When it comes to finding a piece of music, I use much the same system and it's the system used in ARG. My records are all filed alphabetically by composer. Discs with two composers or even three are filed under the composer or piece I care most about (would be most likely to be looking for). Collections are filed separately, as in ARG by type: orchestral, chamber, instrumental alphabetically by instrument, early, choral, and vocal alphabetically by singer. Thus I do not have to consult a catalog to find a recording. My notebook can help when a piece is filed under another composer or among collections, but as a rule I don't need to consult anything to find a recording of anything.

 

I have always much preferred dealing with real things to dealing with catalogs and numbers—though I have an almost photographic memory for numbers and could at one time have told you the number of almost anything in the Columbia catalog. I like the feeling of "hands on"; I like to see and touch my records. I hate the abstraction of catalogs and numbers.

 

I was the record librarian of a radio station in the LP days. It was easy then to simply shelve everything by label and number. We needed no catalog; the Schwann was our catalog, and we kept old ones so we could find deleted records. Why spend the time and money to catalog a record library? I could never understand why some radio stations did that. I visited other radio stations and saw how idiotic their systems were. Many of them used the "acquisition number" system, as the Cincinnati Public Library does. Everything acquired simply gets an arbitrary number that tells you essentially nothing—not even the year it was acquired. A card was made out for it—maybe a card for each piece on it—and then it was labelled with the number and shelved in order of acquisition number, which is no order at all. To find anything you had to look it up in a card file to get that totally unnatural, unintuitive number.

 

Instead of sitting in front of 50 or 60 Bruckner records, the programmer had to file thru cards—totally abstract programming—couldn't even be sure it was on the shelf and undamaged. Now all of that has been transferred to a computer, but it's the same stupid system, with a computer substituted for a card catalog. I preferred to program from the records themselves, and I found the acquisition numbers utterly useless and distracting. After all, if you want numbers, you can use the manufacturer's number: it's already on the package, and you don't need file cards at all (or a computer). And it's the same everywhere—all libraries and record stores and private collections. Why introduce a new, arbitrary number that applies to nothing but one collection? There was another advantage to that when CD came along. CD boxes are much heavier than the discs, so we would often return a box to the shelves without a disc in it. Later, when the disc turned up, we had to‘do that—a real pain in the neck.

 

To this day ARG doesn't have subscriber numbers. You are filed by zip code and alphabetically by name. In the computer we have no idea what your record number is, because we never assign any and never use any. We look you up by name and zip code. Arbitrary numbers are unnecessary. Our society is afloat in those unnecessary numbers. How many numbers do you use in a week? How many of them are necessary? How many of them could be combined or reduced to one—say, your social security number? I consider it a sickness that the first thing bureaucrats and businesses do is assign a person a number. I know it is seldom necessary. And it often causes mixups. The Cincinnati Income Tax Bureau regularly accuses one of us of never having paid any taxes, because somewhere along the line he was given two numbers! Too many numbers!

 

Now, in the age of computers, the kind of person who over-organizes everything can do it in much less time. In fact, as we have pointed out in ARG, there are record cataloguing programs out there that you can buy and use. My experience with ALL computer programs is negative. The people who designed them don't think the way I do, and I am too stubborn to allow my thinking to be boxed in by their programs. I want to be left alone to think my own way—with my own categories—so computer programs are not for me. We designed our own database back in 1987 for records and subscribers and finances, and we are still using it; there is nothing on the market that I would be able to use. So when it comes to my own record collection, you'll never see me cataloguing it using someone else's program. The truth is, I have no intention of ever cataloging my record collection in the computer at all. I don't need to.

 

I've never seen any advantage in having a catalog or database of my collection. If asked my advice about cataloguing your collection I would have to answer, "Don't." Simply shelve things so that they are sensibly arranged and easy to see. If record producers often put Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and Strauss's Metamorphosen on the same program, then file the disc under the work or performance you like best and remember to check the other place as well if you don't immediately come up with the recording you are looking for. Or keep a notebook of your shelving habits, as I do. You won't have to turn on your computer to find a record. You won't have to remember a totally arbitrary number to find something on your shelf. When the computer is "down" you can still find all your recordings. When the power fails, you can find a record anyway and look at it while you wait for the power to come back on. In a discussion with a friend you won't have to take a few minutes out to look up in your computer the record you want to play for him; you just grab it. Hands on!

 

When it comes to files, I'm a minimalist. Most files are unnecessary.Catalogs are unnecessary: card catalogs and computer catalogs—what's the difference? Shelve things sensibly and life becomes a lot simpler.Simplicity is one of my strongest values. Of course, as one who values simplicity and practicality I don't allow my collection to get too big. I have friends (you know the type) who keep everything, just in case they ever want to hear it again. I figure there are libraries for that purpose. I keep only what I know I will want to hear again—in some cases for comparisons for reviews, but mostly just because I like the music. I regularly weed out my collection so it doesn't get too unwieldy. As a sheer matter of practicality, how many records can I listen to in a year? Five years? Ten? If I have tens of thousands, I know I'll never listen to most of them again. (I won't live long enough.) When the LP era ended, many of my friends discovered dozens of records they had never even unwrapped. They got them for a good price at a sale, and they decided "why not?". But I always asked myself, "Why?" or "Can I live without this?" I think I have found two or three LPs never unwrapped over the years, and I berate myself for sinking money and space into something I never really needed to own.

 

After all, the collecting instinct can get out of hand, reducing us to mere accumulators. Like all compulsions, it is probably a response to a deep-seated insecurity; and, like all compulsions, I think we should fight it. Reasoning beings try not to give in to irrational impulses. Compulsive people think they are so rational, but they are driven by something sub-rational and even irrational. Some people definitely feel more secure when they accumulate possessions—but that's a mere illusion. And hanging on to what we've got for dear life is not rational—after all, we can't take it with us. Yes, like most of our readers I want to be able to make my own music choices and not depend on someone else's judgement, as in listening to the radio. The radio stations are mostly promoting what the record companies give them, and they almost never play the recordings I prefer. And, yes, there is a chance that someday I will want to listen to a recording I just gave away. But how many CDs am I going to accumulate on the basis of a remote chance? It doesn't make sense. I know what I come back to—and some of it is hard to get. I won't give those up.

 

It has always amazed me that people ask me if I'm rich. They seem to think that if a person has a big record collection and travels a lot he must be rich. But money has nothing to do with it. People in America canal most always afford what they really care about. I can't afford clothes. I don't buy clothes. I wear the same old things for 10 or 20years. I'm still wearing the three pairs of pants I bought dirt cheap in Thailand in 1995. I don't go out to eat more than once a week and never to drink. I never go to or give parties. I don't go to movies or theatre. I don't buy any of the things people decide they must have because of advertising or because everyone else has one. I have never owned a mobile phone or a pair of running shoes. My mortgage costs me$171 a month—this is Cincinnati. The house I live in is 100 years old. Yes, I'd rather live in New York, but I could never afford it. I spend money on records, books, and travel—but mostly on travel, because ARG gets me records and a few books, and the public library supplies the rest.

 

At the poorest times of my life I was still buying records. Any real collector will tell you the same thing. It's not a matter of money. We must have what matters most to us, even if it means going without meat at dinner. When I lived in New York I had no car: that saves you $3500 a year at least. Many a collector would gladly give up his car to have$3500 to spend each year on records. You can always afford to buy records, even if you have to give up other things to do it. There was a period in my life when it was a lot cheaper to live in Europe than here. Ispent 1/8th of my life in Europe those years and actually saved money by traveling! I can't imagine dying without having seen most of the world. It would be a cruel disappointment.

 

Life is much more rewarding if you refuse to become a consumer in the all-American mold—buying piles of junk that you really don't need but are talked into by advertising. Ignore consumerism. Concentrate your life on the things that really matter to you. Put your money and your time where your heart is. If your heart is in great music, the rewards will be far greater than almost anything else you can buy. Tell your wife that settles it: this is what really matters to you, and you'd rather do without many other things than not be able to buy records. I hope you don't end up having to do without her! But women simply have to recognize that the collector's instinct is very deep-seated in some men. It cannot be denied, except at great peril. If a woman cares about a man, she respects his need to collect records, just as he respects her needs (we hope). Collectors must have compatible wives and families! Their budgets are often not big enough to cover everything everyone decides he wants. But don't ask a man to give up buying records. That is too cruel. Besides, it is the best investment he can make in his own happiness—and that makes him much easier to live with.

 

As I was writing this we had another example of the shortsightedness of "computer age" people. Yet another record label had sent us releases for review but given no address. We had no place to send tear sheets of the reviews, so the company never saw them. They apparently have a website and an E-mail address, which one of our reviewers found with a bit of effort. All they tell anybody is to go to the website to buy their records.

 

Now that's just asinine. They are assuming that everyone has a computer. That is far from true. And why should everyone have a computer? There will always be sensible people who see no need for one and refuse to yield to the pressure to be a consumer. They are also assuming that people like to buy things on the computer; that, too, is not so for many. As I've often said on these pages, I work on a computer all day: that's enough! I do not find computers entertaining! I will not waste my time trying to buy things on it. Give me a catalog and a telephone number with a real human being at the other end and I'll buy your records. Call me a humanist; I value human contact and attention. If you want to sell me a record, you have to show some interest in me as a customer. I will not do all the work. I will not spend hours searching for a hard-to-find recording. My time is valuable. You have to find me, not I you.

 

If that makes me sound crotchety, I can only say first of all that it was a perfectly normal attitude until quite recently. And I believe more people should make such demands, before our common life evaporates altogether. It frightens me how impersonal life is becoming. And I might add that I am in touch with many of our readers. Very often if I call a reader with information about finding a recording, he or she will respond to web sites with, "Well, I don't need the recording that badly; I'm not going to waste time on a computer." Intelligent people know that computers, like televisions, are great time-wasters. Why would people intelligent enough to appreciate classical music want to waste their time dealing with mass media like TV and the Internet? I'm telling you, you are throwing away half your potential audience if you decide to sell your records only by Internet. At least half the people who would buy your product will never see it.

 

I also hereby promise our readers that ARG will not review anything that we know is only available on the Internet. Record issuers: if you don't tell us where people can find your releases—give us an address or phone number or distributor—why should we publish a review? That just invites trouble, because readers will pester us when they can't find them. You know, it is not our job to make records available or even to find out where they can be got. We spend far too much time on such things. We are not distributors; we are not a directory. But we know our readers will pester us, and often they will even say to us, "Well, why did you review it if it is only available on the Internet?" They are right, and we won't.

 

VROON 2003

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