The Crate Digging Fallacy

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Last November a friend of mine attended the “Hi-Fi Show” at the Beaumont Estate in Old Windsor, Berkshire. He spent a couple of hours wandering between stacks of high-end speakers, shiny amplifiers and turntables revolving at exactly 33 rpm. At one point he was ushered into a luxurious sound-proof room hosted by an obscure speaker manufacturer. Whilst he lowered himself onto a plush leather sofa, a gentleman, in what could only be a Paul Smith suit, reverently dropped the needle onto 200 gram copy of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”. My friend told me later that the clarity of sound was astonishing. “Man,” he said, “it was like being in the room with Miles, Cannonball, Trane, Kelley, Evans, PC and Cobb.” Later, as the last strains of “Blue in Green” faded, the smart man lifted the stylus. “What do you think?” he asked. My friend still in a state of Miles induced bliss, said, “I want them.” Smiling the man said, “You are in luck, these are our entry level speakers and for today only they are discounted at only £10,000.” My friend made his excuses and left.

Now let’s face it the only people paying £10K for speakers are Russian oligarchs and premiership footballers. I can tell you this for free when Angel Di Maria listens to his dad’s old Astor Piazzolla albums, they don’t sound £9,500 better than the would on my 40 year old Goodmans. Not that I could really tell anyway, as I destroyed my ears listening to the On-U Soundsystem one night at the Warehouse in Leeds. Damn you Gary Clail! Oh! and the burst eardrum sustained by foolishly walking into an irate female hand, doesn’t help.

Marshall McLuhan famously said: “The medium is the message”. I was rather hoping it wasn’t Does it really matter whether you listen to your music on vinyl, CD, FLAC, WAV, or MP3? Apparently it does to some. But, surely it’s the music that counts? Do you really need to crawl through dusty boxes of Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk, looking for that illusive Michael Garrick album, when you can buy it on Amazon? As you pull the scratched vinyl from it’s torn sleeve and drop it onto your $40,000 Proscenium Black Diamond turntable is the experience any better than listening to an iTunes download? Probably yes, but that’s not the point. It’s the message not the medium.

Record collectors are a breed apart. I occasionally wonder whether they actually like the music, or is it the quest for that rare Blue Note that motivates them? I follow London Record Collector here on WordPress and to be honest I am intrigued by his anally retentive pursuit of jazz records and high fidelity sound. Unfortunately, a side-effect of his blog is the increase in price of the albums he mentions. OK, I own up I do go to the occasional record fair and dig through what is usually a pile of dusty crap. My naïve hope is that the dealer will be unaware of the value of an old Prestige LP. Some hope, it’s never happened. People are paying funny money for anything worth listening to. Even Oxfam have got in on the act charging £40 for a Music for Pleasure re-issue of a bland Stan Getz album. Seriously. I saw it the other day.

I do buy the occasion vinyl on line, but rarely for more that £20. My pockets aren’t all that deep. To be brutally honest there is no point crate digging in the UK, all the good stuff has gone. The other day I downloaded 16 Lee Morgan albums for £3.49. If I had bought the original vinyl, which is more or less impossible, it would have cost me upward of £10,000. Would I have liked the originals, if some kind banker (Oxymoron alert!) had purchased them for me as a tax dodge, I would have happily accepted. But for the time being I’ll listen to my AAC versions, which are, in some cases, recorded from vinyl giving that authentic scratchy sound.

A certain collector I know on Twitter (you know who you are!) claims to own 35,000 LPs. Apparently, 100 albums take up about 16” of shelf space. If my maths is correct (that’s not a given) that’s about 466 feet of shelving. That’s not even taking into consideration gatefold sleeves. Does he live in a bloody castle? I picture these records in a damp dungeon, one or more, brought to the surface by means of a dumb waiter to be shown to a coterie of excited sycophants. Waiting in line like excited pilgrims ready to touch the weather beaten bones of the mother Mary.

Ultimately, in my experience, record collectors are people who pay such attention to detail that their obsession becomes an annoyance to others, particularly me. They seem to believe that the fact they discovered a rare piece of plastic in a dime store in Albuquerque invests the artefact with a magical quality. Sorry that’s not faery dust, it’s 40 years of desert sand that has probably worn the grooves flat.

The ultimate record-collector joke is “vinyl only” radio shows and mixes. Let’s face it all you are doing is converting an analogue format to a digital one. You might as well play an MP3 to start with. You could always use a crackly record sound-effect over the top. By the time it gets to me over the airwaves it is compressed to hell anyway. I really wouldn’t know the difference. And I don’t care . I am actually interested in the music, not the medium. But one thing I do agree on with collectors. vinyl album sleeves are much easier to read. Now where is my original 1959 Columbia CS-8163 copy of “Kind of Blue”? I’m sure it’s here somewhere.

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3 thoughts on “The Crate Digging Fallacy

  1. Great blog. I agree it’s more about the message than the medium – and what if the medium amplifies the message – how often have you really immersed yourself into an album that cost you £2 off I tunes and absorbed the notes in the digital Booklet? Btw I do a vinyl only radio show every Sunday night on http://www.transmissionx.co.uk , plastic fantastic – I’m all about the content of the music not the snap crackle and pop – that just a way of enjoying it more!

  2. Good blog weird jazz, since the welcome arrival of the Internet, record collecting and DJing saw a massive change. I distinctly remember the first time t’internet encroached my world, I was DJing when someone came up and asked what the tune was. Usually the discourse went something like this ‘what’s this tune it’s amazing?’ ‘Oh, it’s Jack Van Pol’s modal arrangement of Norwegian Wood’ ‘where can I get it’. With ever so smug expression – it’s hard to find it in UK, check the European dealers and make sure you got 150 quid spare, someone might have a copy. Then one day someone asked the title of a tune and the following week he came back and told me he’d got a copy ‘on t’internet’. This is when ears, dusty fingers and countless hours spent trawling worldwide and fed exing records at great cost from record shops in Japan didn’t matter anymore. Now if you know the track you can have it if it’s for sale anywhere on the planet. The Internet, how did we ever manage without it?
    Radio DJ’s, record collectors, club DJ’s – all different animals – how blimmin’ painful is it when some record collector becomes DJ and bores the crowd silly playing rare 45’s of dubious groove and flat production. I once warmed up for the mythical Whispering Bob of the Old grey whistle test (private party), by the 4th track I was fending off people asking for some music they could dance to and I had to ask him to get off the decks, he was very cool about it too btw.
    I also agree that it’s more the message than the medium but you gotta admit that records are just the greatest innit !

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