How to Build a Record Collection

Since vinyl is in back in style, I’ll relate my own thoughts & experiences, which have been continuous since middle school. For me it’s been a worthwhile road, but there are many pitfalls. I’ll share some so you can (hopefully) avoid them, or at least recognize them quicker. Start by understanding this truth about human nature: music is emotional. That means it’s like food, money & sex– eliciting powerful responses. The universal human reaction is, everyone likes it and wants the best of their preferences for themselves.

Gain control of yourself by realizing that music is a lifetime choice. That means whatever you are liking as a kid, is what you are going to like as an adult. You don’t (& can’t) “outgrow” it. Whatever format you prefer, music is a lifetime commitment, and the medium is part of the message.

I got ripped off (price-wise) on my first few record purchases, which were at department store racks, and then Musicland in the Park Plaza Mall. Those institutions don’t even exist anymore. Back then, I was quickly informed by a Winneconne classmate that the Exclusive Company was the best place to buy records in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Their prices were always unbeatable on new vinyl, and probably still are. You need a good record store in order to build a decent collection.

The market has inflated since the 1980’s, when Exclusive Co new-vinyl releases listed mostly at $5.99, with superstars such as Madonna, Springsteen, Prince, etc listing at $6.99. Note, Indie releases were also often listed at $6.99, indicating there was a serious demand for them even back then. Classic vinyl was mostly $4.99, with bargain bins of 3-for-$10 on many classic re-releases.

Selection is always THE issue for the serious enthusiast, so eventually someone behind the Exclusive Co desk showed me their encyclopedia. It had every album still-in-print. For a $1 deposit you could order any record, and it would arrive in a week. It was the only way to acquire punk rock (or anything else outside the mainstream) in the Fox Valley area in the mid-1980’s. Cut-out bins were a method to acquire artists like Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, and others who were (still are) disrespected by so many industry wheels. The public libraries had very little of this, while AM/FM radio & MTV never played it. That was how things were censored back then.

Used records should be the staple of any respectable collection, as it’s just too costly for most (with new vinyl now $20+) to build what you need from entirely fresh vinyl. Many essential records can be purchased for a few bucks apiece, in used record bins across America & beyond. Besides, who wants to be the schmuck who pays $20 apiece for albums that have been sitting in $1-2 bins everywhere since forever? Too much of this makes you an idiot over-spender, and those who know can always tell.

Bookstores often have record bins. How much disorganization, and “is it worth it?” are always considerations when approaching used records. A good rule is, the more disorganized, the less it’s worth it. You may find a pearl (or two), but usually it’s futile with a lot of back-breaking reaching & lifting. In the heat, it better be good– or else forget it. If the vendor hasn’t bothered to organize their bins into (at least) genres, then it is usually because it’s all junk.

As a point in training, first look over everything available and scan the few titles you see for quality of release & condition. Approach the best-looking areas and peel through a bin or two. How fast? Depends on the quality of what you are seeing. More good stuff means SLOW DOWN. Remember, this gets emotional, so look closely at the prices and consider your budget. If it’s all crap, then leave.

If a bin is filled tightly, you can’t really see the jackets, so grab a handful (or two) of records and pull them out. Look through them (on top of the rest), then gently place them somewhere close but out-of-the-way. There may be other people looking through, so stay out of their way too, as a courtesy.  Then go through the rest of the bin, seeing every cover clearly & easily. When finished with the bin, put the removed records back in, and move on. Believe it or not, there is a serious code to all this, and I’m condensing it for you.

When you see a title you like, check the record itself. Look at the label to make sure its title matches the jacket. It sucks when you get burned on that. Then look for scratches & warping. Pass on any significant warping, as it just won’t play. How much scratching you are will to put up with, depends on how much you want the album & the price. Many times, it’s dirt & grime, which can be cleaned off. All used records should be cleaned before playing. I use alcohol & gauze, because it’s cheap & effective. Use a circular wiping motion, and avoid too much excess as it leaves a residue. This will also protect you turntable’s needle, helping it last longer. Scotch tape any rips in the sleeve.

I acquired roughly half my collection from Renningers Flea Market in Mount Dora, particularly from a vendor named Wally Rossell– who is no longer there. He had a whole lot of selection, in difficult-to-find genres including classic rock, punk, reggae, jazz & country. He even had a significant selection of world music. It took me a long time to go through everything he had, and he kept acquiring more. I’m talking years. I eventually left him my phone #, and he would leave me a message when he had something new, which he knew I would like.  He knew what I liked, because we had discussions every time I purchased.

Record people love to talk about this stuff. Many vendors have bigger inventories at home and/or in a warehouse. Wally had been in the business for 40+ years, and will probably only leave it in death. I was always grateful for his efforts in finding amazing stuff, and NEVER argued with any of his pricing. Keep in mind, this is at a flea market in central Florida– where everyone haggles.

Records could only be sold at well-below their actual value from 1990 to ~ 2005, because the vinyl market was destroyed. In that time period, if you could hang on to your collection and had the means to expand it, you could acquire every essential classic record in every major genre for <$5 apiece. That’s what the music industry’s push to compact disc did to vinyl.

For me, it filled out my collection while keeping a budget. Speaking of controlling your spending, bootlegs are budget-busters and they will always cost you extra– no matter who is selling. Wally had more bootlegs than any other vendor I’ve ever come across, and I bought a few from him. Here’s my advice on boots: limit yourself to those artists you truly adore and can’t get enough of. Many bootlegs are live recordings, so have a good understanding of that artist. Are they a good live performer by reputation or personal experience? Also, you are gambling on the sound quality- if you don’t know for sure. A little bit of knowledge can be very dangerous, and stick you with costly lemons. Focus on the artists you love most, who really kill it live, and you’ll avoid expensive disappointments.

As far as what to buy? That’s up you you. Here are some rough guidelines:

1) Whatever you favorite genre is (pop, rock, rap, country,,,) start with the major artists. There’s always a reason they are loved (now) globally, and have lasted. You’ll probably relate to them as well.

2) Trace the roots of your favorite genre(s). A lot of the stuff kids are hearing today came from Charlie Parker, James Brown, the Beatles, Velvet Underground… There’s lots of cool stuff you’ve never heard, waiting to be rediscovered.

3) Expand into different world music genres. If you like rock music, or rap music; understand this music is being created in new forms– globally. The Internet puts it at your fingertips, but you have to know how to find it. First, you have to care.

4) Have fun! This is the most important rule, so I’m putting it last. Don’t be a “collector,” who buys & catalogs their records as museum pieces, but never plays them. Buy records that excite you, and make you want to play them again & again! It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, as long as they work for you. When done this way, the pay-off is priceless joy.

Strange as this may sound, I now consider my record collection to be an organic entity, connected to my being. On a daily basis I can go to it, and make a selection that immediately transports me back in time. The dominant medium before 1990 was vinyl, meaning CD and mp3 aren’t the same experience. If you grew up in that time, it’s much easier to understand and relate to what I’m saying.

Regardless, the message we receive from music (however it’s delivered) instantly impacts us, and changes our mood. If I’m feeling down, and I put on a Muddy Waters record, I’m hearing someone relating to me before I was born. That’s a timeless artist influencing others, and that’s the magic in the grooves. Way cheaper (and more helpful) than therapy!

Final thoughts:  My collection is defined as straight rock, lean & mean; < 2000 LPs & < 300 45’s. It’s all pre-1990. After that, I listen on CD or mp3/streaming as (once again) that’s the format of the time. All mentionable rock record collections start alphabetically with AC/DC. Note that if you’re gay or a woman, then ABBA is a more likely starting point. As an illustration, here’s what I have for AC/DC, and how it rates using the hated Rolling Stone magazine 1-5 star system.

High Voltage (1975) Five stars: One of the best-ever rock album debuts. These bad boys from Australia always had issues getting US distribution. Classic rock buffs initially hated AC/DC because they rocked so hard, making them look bad. AC/DC never cared about that shit, which is what won them so many young male fans.

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976) Five stars: Banned in the US (due to salacious content) for a long while, until Bon Scott’s death in 1980. This record has strong punk influence.

Let There Be Rock (1977) Four stars: The weakest Bon Scott album. Only eight tracks, and one of them is a repeat from Dirty Deeds (“Problem Child”), but most deliver a groove; and a two are deservedly rock-radio classics– “Whole Lot of Rosie” & the title track. This record often gets slagged by AC/DC haters who have too much time on their hands. Even Young, Young & Scott’s worst songs shredded Bob Dylan & the Rolling Stones at that time. That wasn’t allowed to go unpunished by the music industry.

Powerage (1978) Five stars: Their best album, and the last AC/DC collaboration with producers Harry Vanda & George Young. Every song has top-notch songwriting & delivery, with clean & tight production. Cliff Williams on bass is an improvement. There are nine songs on Powerage, and at least eight would have sounded great on radio and become classics if played consistently. It’s a very disrespectful joke that rock radio still only plays “Sin City.”

If You Want Blood You’ve Got It (1978) Four-and-a-half stars: AC/DC could bring it live. The only problem here is there isn’t enough, as this should have been a double album– at least.

Highway to Hell (1979) Four-and-a-half stars: Not quite as good as their 5-star classics, but still essential. You can hear a little more commercial sound in the production, but the band is staying true to their roots. This is the last Bon Scott album, as he died during the recording of Back in Black on February 19, 1980.

Back in Black (1980) Five stars: Brian Johnson took over on vocals, and there was enough remnant songwriting (& inspiration from Scott’s tragic death) to pull off one last masterpiece. This is probably the most classic heavy metal record ever, as every song delivers from beginning to end. It’s also the only good AC/DC album with Johnson singing.

For Those About to Rock We Salute You (1981) Two stars: Only the title cut and a few others groove, the rest is filler. Bon Scott was the genius that propelled AC/DC to the top, and it’s now clear that Brian Johnson has none of his creative wit & intellect. This is where you jump off as a sensible heavy metal fan (oxymoron?), as Van Halen, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard & Night Ranger are all more interesting at this point.

74 Jailbreak (1984) This as a 5-song EP of early Bon Scott material. I don’t bother rating EP’s, they’re either cool or they suck. This one is cool.

Guitar Notes: AC/DC was formed by brothers Malcolm & Angus Young. Anyone playing rock guitar since, has been influenced by these two, or else they suck. I rarely see them covered, and it’s because they’re too good and most aren’t up to their standard. Every AC/DC fan picks their favorite guitarist, and most go with Angus for his incomparable lead style– blending blues & classic rock into modern heavy metal. He was also the showman (especially after Scott’s death), parading around stage in his classic reform school outfit. But as much as I love Angus, I’m really a Malcolm protoge. For me, the heart of AC/DC’s sound, is the HEAVY riffing– which is Malcolm Young. One of the best bands ever.