A cultural historic guide to my (now your) record collection, to my daughter after the apocalypse
Note: I wrote this in one go a year ago — March 16, 2019. I petered out towards the end and had a bunch of notes at the end. It was going to eventually be a sort of parody of the nobility someone like me feels about keeping a record collection. Like you’re doing it for the future. And hilarious asides about the importance of saving this obscure 7" or that one (“the world NEEDS this Buddha on the Moon single!”) I didn’t get to the parody part or the self-knowing part, alas. And for obvious reasons now, I’ll never finish it. That bums me out. So I guess I’ll put it here.
In hindsight, it should have been obvious. But at the time, it was as much product of my own neurosis as it was a circumstance of the socio-economic forces that were leading to the Lost Bet anyhow. The neurosis was my need to keep things in physical form. To touch the music. A audio-tactile synesthesia that, now that I think about it, was probably borne of the same consumerism that lead to the Implosion. At the time I told myself it was about the craft. About the art. About the experience. But it was, I see now, neurotic consumerism. We all see it now.
Most people let it go completely when streaming came along. There was this CD period between vinyl and streaming, and that kind of fucked everything up. People flocked to CDs, and left vinyl behind. Your dear old grandfather fell for it for several years, but his neurotic completism lead him to continue buying vinyl even through the CD years: 7-inches had B-sides not on CD. A lot of old stuff never got issued on CD (though, weirdly, 20 years later we had the exact opposite problem). It was cheap in the used bins (even now, I still miss those days, as wrong as it all was. Forgive me, I have sinned).
The CD period really was out of hand. Just a violent explosion of consumerism. We all had to buy every album we already owned all over again. They were everywhere. You could buy them in truck stops. Coffee shops. Hotels. You could buy them in the air. You could buy them at sea. The fossilburn was horrific, but it was the 90’s. We only thought about that — if we thought about it at all — as a talking point against one of the endless wars. Or with cars. Remind someone that CDs are final fossilburn, and, well, nothing. For ten years — almost exactly coinciding with the 90’s — CDs were a perfect mirror of consumerism as a whole: monstrous engineering costs, environmentally devastating manufacturing, indestructible, yet still disposable.
Then, out of the blue, CDs became uncool. Just like that. Consumerism at work. Lord Jobs ran a popfilm that decreed “Rip Mix Burn” and we all bought new, over-engineered, fossilburning meltgadgets, ripped our CDs and started throwing them away. This was the forbearer to streaming — MP3, FLAC, AIFF, WAV, the mysterious OGG. They were digital, like CDs. Digital, but also shareable — with your friends in person or on the “web,” as we called it back then. You could take them everywhere. They could be everywhere at once. It worked, more or less, but it wasn’t enough. We enlisted the services of massive fossilburning server farms — just insane behemoths of losing bets. As far as I can recall now, the “value proposition” was that we didn’t have to share our Oggs anymore: they’d always be in the “cloud” (a doublespeak name for one of the greatest fossilburns of all time) so we’d always have them. Because heaven forbid you have to carry or copy something. The whole process was driven by convenience and nothing else — for it was completely possible to rip a CD, put it on a personal server in your closet and stream it everywhere over the “web.” But few did. And those that did were mocked. Yes, mocked.
To this day, I have no idea which was worse: none of us do. Were the giant factories that churned out CDs worse than the great fossilburn in the sky? When you factor in transportation, probably. But we never asked, we never checked. No one did the math. because it didn’t matter. It never did. We never stopped to count our chips before the Lost Bet.
Some — like me — sold their CDs to others as the CD era ended. A half-hearted attempt at avoiding the obvious evil of throwing away thousands of dollars — and immeasurable fossilburn — for no reason. But most simply threw them away or sent em off to Asia or Africa which, you know (but we didn’t, or we chose to ignore it) is the same thing. CDs are gone now.
And this will be a project for the next generation. Your generation is still rebuilding basic electronic and manufacturing capability after the EMPs of the late Lost Bet. That will be a generation’s work — responsible, patient and, most importantly, measured and responsible. But once that’s done, an historian from the generation down the line — my great granddaughter, your granddaughter perhaps — could spend a lifetime combing the wasteland trash heaps of my century, digging out the CDs, cleaning them off, and processing them into the history books. There’s a PhD Thesis in there if she manages to get beyond the fortress walls of the few remaining universities. Because they really were indestructible. And my library — your library — while extensive, is incomplete. Our library is a cultural rosetta stone. It is not a comprehensive document. You’ll know nothing of Destiny’s Child or Biggie or Puffy, for reasons both noble and inexcusable. But we will come to that. Just remember: our library is a sliver. Our library is a sad, sad sliver. It can provide insights, but it is not the whole story.
The remaining vinyl libraries of the world are all we have now for four centuries of mankind’s output in one of its greatest art forms: music. Another aside: tell my great granddaughter to keep an eye out in her surveys of the wasteland trash heaps for sheet music, but I know in my heart she will find none: we threw it away even earlier, and paper was never as indestructible as CDs. Even if your generation finishes the Contained Reboot, it is wise that your leaders have decided to never reconstitute any of the great fossilburn in the sky. It is indeed poison, as you call it, even it had some hot jams squirreled away. I suspect the Contained Reboot as a whole is ill-advised. Selectively recreating a minimal sliver of my generation’s tech, while excising the rest and replacing the worst fossilburns strikes me as just the sort of hubris we, the generations before the Lost Bet, would undertake ourselves. We were almost always ruinously ambitious in these endeavors. But without restoring the Cloud (I am embarrassed to call it that, forgive me, forgive me) — you’ll never access the falsely-termed “complete” libraries of the Spotifies, and any local “hard drives” or “jump drives” would have been lost in the EMPs. Though tell your granddaughter to keep an eye out for balls of tinfoil — one never knows what EMP-protected treasures she might find in those, left behind by the “survivalists” who thought the Lost Bet would be more climactic — aliens or nukes. They never prepared for something so prosaic as economics and apathy.
To continue our story: after the CD period — during the Spotifies decades — vinyl then made a comeback. By this point, we knew that consumerism was a problem, but vinyl was somehow seen as an exception. It seemed noble. Why was this.
First. I still believe that there is something fundamental in humans that when something moves them, they need a physical manifestation of it. From Jesus himself to communion to lockets around the necks of loved ones. Vinyl records are the same. We might love a song so much we just need to touch it — even if touching it is illusory. Indeed, even if touching it kills why we love it — like cutting out a loved one’s heart and putting it in a box. Were I religious man I’d say this primal drive was left over from our expulsion from Eden. Since I’m not, I’ll confine my explanations to the sick joke of our biology: like the allergies and myopia we and so many of my friends left their children. CDs never scratched this itch (though they tried — with something called a Longbox. I’ve left you a few of these in the library). And when Vinyl came back as not an antidote to the Spotifies but rather as a complement to it, well, we humans once again fell for the lie that we could put what we love in a box.
Then we had the big artwork. My generation and your mother’s felt this differently. My generation, having had vinyl before, grew up with big cover art. The art was part of the experience. Life was slower then — much like yours is now. You could sit and listen to a record and stare at its cover and it could become your whole world. For all of my guilt for my part in what we left you and yours, I take some small comfort in knowing I’m able to give you this gift. You’ll be able to sit and listen to a record and stare at its cover. So when it came back, we were naturally thrilled. It was a means to relive our simpler youth.
For your mother’s generation, this was both more and less of a big deal. For they never had cover art. They had the Oggs then the Spotifies and little digital squares of cover art perhaps a few hundred “pixels” wide. Your mother was never this way but I knew others her age — and met many more in the record shops (when we still had them) who found the large art to be a revelation: something completely new. Who’s more fortunate? The one-eyed woman who regains a lost eye, or the one-eyed woman who gains a second eye for the first time?
Then there was “retro” — fashion and nostalgia mixed into one. I speak here not about the triggers vinyl had within us elders. This was within your generation. Popfilms portrayed characters from the past experiencing the simple joy of listening to a record, and the youth, witnessing it, would feel as if they missed out on a less complicated time. Simultaneous to a popfilm’s release, select vinyl and players would appear at the consumer temples of Target, Walmart and Amazon, and the kids would demand their parents buy those talismans of the popfilm’s world building.
Then there was the whole Artist Problem — which of course you know was an important part of the Lost Bet. Artists weren’t getting paid anymore. Oh, I used the Spotifies. I loved them — who didn’t? They were just too convenient. I told myself that buying a copy of the vinyl was my atonement: a means to make sure the artist got paid. Lots of us did that. Of course we studiously ignored the fossilburn in the vinyl, the trees in the sleeves. The resources back then, well… even if you cared about depleting the resources, we all made exceptions for the things we loved. The things we couldn’t do without. So in order to atone our sins of not paying artists, we committed the worse sin of fossilburn.
We were plenty confused about fossilburn back then: because sometimes we viewed it as a good thing. For example, records were “analog.” One of the ways digital snuck up on us is that we convinced ourself it was an antidote to fossilburn. That digital was… cleaner. Of course we didn’t think or know about the great fossilburn in the sky, then. It was starting to be built, but it seemed… benign at first. The giant tech companies built their “server farms” near cheap hydro power in Oregon — sometimes. We didn’t think about the other times. But over time, our doubts grew. We were starting to question digital, just as vinyl began making its comeback. Were the two related? I coincidence? I cannot say, I cannot say even now.
By the time of the decade before the Lost Bet was tallied, many of us — not enough to matter, but many of us — were wearing our heart on our sleeve by going analog as much as we can — tossing our talking doorbells, paying bearded men in Brooklyn to build us ostentatiously plain, solid tables. Vinyl tapped into this.
My generation — always wearing its cynicism on its sleeve — knew all of this was performative: that it wasn’t enough, that it wasn’t real action or change — yet we did it anyway. Handmade kitchen knives, scarves, music, books, porn, whiskey, eggs, cars. Your mother’s generation embraced this as well — and they did it more earnestly, more transformatively and more effectively than we ever did. I still think we were perhaps close, not losing the Lost Bet. If we elders had bought them a few more decades… well. There’s no use thinking about it now.
The problem was that we confused analog with fossil-free, and nothing could be further from the truth. It pains me to say this now, but there were hunters who went out to find the old, abandoned vinyl-making machines of the late 20th century and bring them back online for the new era. We viewed them as heroes. They were like the big game hunters in Kipling. One guy got shot in Mexico City while trying to retrieve one of the last still-functioning 80’s vinyl machines. Can you believe it, daughter? We lionized these men (and they were all men) who brought factories back.
And in any case, like scooping water from a sinking boat, the efforts to embrace the handmade were constantly corrupted by consumerism. Vinyl was no exception. Vinyl was made fashionable. We should have seen the signs when we were busy lionizing the factory hunters (and let that be a warning for your generation). We were so excited that we had brought vinyl back from the dead that we didn’t realize we were building a Jurassic Park. Vinyl’s sales increased (for we measured everything in sales back then), and more and more “production capacity,” as we called it, came “online.” I’m not sure exactly when it became fully corrupted (though as we can see clearly now, it always was, it always was. But I am still too proud to accept that bitter truth). But one day I could no longer pretend. I got a spam email for a new blue vinyl edition of the Cloud Atlas soundtrack (the irony was not apparent at the time), and before checking out from the “e-commerce site” (as we called shops in the great fossilburn in the sky) I noticed that this site had some of the most ridiculous vinyl reissues. Picture discs of the Snow White soundtrack. Green vinyl of the Jumanji soundtrack. Twenty-seven simultaneous Steve Miller reissues including two seven-LP box sets. Everything. At this point it had been a few years since I’d talked to any of my friends “in the biz” about vinyl production capacity, but it was clear to me that the days of “constrained production” were over. We were in a gold rush period. It reminded me of the early CD period: repress anything and everything. Sell as much as you can. Make everything physical. It was my first inkling that maybe this wasn’t a habit that I possessed outside of consumerism. Maybe vinyl was part of it.
So how did you and I get here? Me with one of the last remaining collections of vinyl, you with that question on your lips “Daddy, what was music like when you were young?”
I was a packrat, for one. Of course lots of us were packrats. It was a pre-Lost Bet illness starting in the early 20th century and getting worse in the 21st, spanning four generations. Historians of old believe it had something to do with the Great Depression — a sort of mini-Lost Bet that happened in the 1920’s. My grandmother’s generation had it. My father had it. I had it. And, despite the great fossilburn in the sky, despite the “preference for experiences over possessions” your mother’s generation supposedly had, they had the illness as well. For in the end, your mother’s generation did not have a preference of experience over possessions. They just didn’t have any money yet. Once they got money, they caught the illness just as my father did, just as I did. St. Kondo preached a different gospel but like so many prophets, we listened only to feel guilty, not to change our ways.
For my part, since I had never stopped buying vinyl when it first went out of fashion, needless to say that when it came back into fashion, I kept at it. I picked up the pace, even; a circumstance of an adult continuing a child’s habit with an adult’s income. There should be an obscure German word for it: the delusion of someone habitually buying every rare widget they can find and not realizing that the widget was no longer rare. Thus they are buying more and more widgets, eventually drowning in widgets without ever noticing. The packrat as boiling frog. This, by the way, was exactly the sort of algorithmic quirk our programmer-lords didn’t account for when they let their vaunted algorithms take over the world and bring about the Lost Bet. Algorithm = buy widget when available because widget is rare. Algorithm ≠ check global population of widgets. More widgets start getting made without Algorithm being updated to account for new, previously unenvisioned reality. Indeed, existence of Algorithm influences widget production. Algorithm buys widgets until the world is nothing but widgets. But I digress, I digress. For I, clearly, was no better than an algorithm. Vinyl came back, and I bought more, and more.
Until the day of the twenty-seven Steve Miller reissues plus two seven-LP box sets. But by that point it had been years, and I had thousands of records. Thousands. The twenty-seven Steve Miller reissues plus two seven-LP box sets made the folly of my ways undeniable. Yet I endeavored to deny. I thought back to the old days when CDs suddenly became uncool. At the time I thought I handled it well, selling them off to others who had not yet realized the absurdity of the “hobby” and, in doing so, perhaps forestalling one new CD being manufactured. After all, most people had just thrown them away (or sent them to Asia, to Africa). But I didn’t want to do that again. There were logistical obstacles here, for one thing. eBay (a sort of global bazaar in the great fossilburn in the sky — as both horrific and useful as that probably sounds to you) was a hassle, Discogs (a specialized eBay for music) even more so. But that wasn’t it. My main concern was one of embarrassment. When I had sold the CDs, and switched back to vinyl, I thought I was doing something noble, and redeeming my madness in buying six thousand CDs. To have the undeniable proof that I had made the same mistake again staring in my face was intolerable. So I did not look. I did not throw them away, but I put them out of site. I hid them. I kept them. And I found a way to make it noble.
I was not alone in my quandary. Many men my age were confronted with the absurdity of their vinyl libraries in the early 21st century. Some of it was financial: they would marry someone, have a family, feel the pressures of the late pre-Lost Bet income inequality and find it hard to justify this giant mass of fossilburn sitting in their house when it could be turned into food on eBay or Discogs. Spouses pressured some of us to sell them off, and many of us did. I did not. I did not. I shall not speak of the bargains I struck with your mother to avoid doing so, but there were severe fines leveled upon me.
Why did I not? I told myself that I was leaving the library for you. And I told myself that it was a unique library. A truly great one. Not because of size, but because of diversity. Because of breadth. Because of the obscurities it held. And because of the commentary that I could offer you to accompany it.
Of course, at the time, I envisioned this in the context of you growing up in our “normal” world. You and I would sit on the floor with a record player and “put on” records, one-by-one. You would tell me you liked the throbbing bum-bum-bum drone of Spacemen 3 or the drunken-siren wail of Diamanda Galas but that you weren’t too keen on the babylike voice of the Cranes’ Allison Shaw: because you were a big kid now. You’d pick favorites, we’d bond over them, and I’d have a “cool kid” daughter who’d ask to hear Kendra Smith or the first Lou Barlow solo album on road trips or as a party trick. Never did I foresee that — through an incredibly unlikely set of circumstances — that we’d be doing the same exercise, but through the distance of writing, and through the lens of bringing music back to a Lost Bet-devastated society.
Then we must talk about the “preppers.” For I was a half-assed prepper. I touched upon this before: preppers were those that feared the future and aimed to do something about it not for society, but for themselves. Like being a packrat, being a prepper was a wildly popular pastime in my day. Indeed the two went hand-in-hand in many people my age. And, over time, in those your mother’s age. Preppers were a “subculture,” (for there were too many of us on the planet back then to be just one culture) that socialized around the topic of what was going to go wrong with the world, and how could they prepare for it. I found them compelling, but your mother did not. She’d say that if the world ended, she wanted to go with it. She didn’t want to be around for the misery afterward. As you know, she was around for the misery afterward. The peppers generally envisioned grand, apocalyptic ends to society: alien invasions, nuclear annihilation, zombies. (Ha! I suppose you don’t know what a zombie is do you, dear daughter. I’d tell you to Google it, but you can’t do that either. We will let zombies lay, let them die. Finally). EMPs were within their realm of imagination, which is why your world has laptops and flashlights (the military, especially, was keen on making these items EMP-proof) and batteries but few working power plants, sewage treatment plants, or combine harvesters.
They never envisioned the end that Eliot envisioned: not with a bang, but with a whimper. They mortgaged themselves to the hilt, believing that money would go away far sooner than it did. They sold off everything “extraneous” (vinyl was extraneous to them) and built bunkers. But the bunkers were not paid for, and like everyone else during the Lost Bet, they had to face the banking reckoning and the end of debt. Bunkers were foreclosed upon just like any other home. When the fossil reclamation laws were passed, most people took advantage of them, turning in anything that could be redeemed for cash or food credits. Including their vinyl.
It’s easy for me to feel smug about how we fared in the Lost Bet, but the reality is less flattering to me than I’d like to admit. For the truth is that it was your mother’s doing. She hated debt, so the house was paid for. She disliked the city, so we lived in the woods. She believed in living within her means, so we lived within our means. She didn’t care about excess wealth, so we did not have excess wealth to be confiscated during the leveling. We just… were. The truth is the Lost Bet wasn’t that bad for us (I have a secret suspicion that our society’s supposedly great reckoning was little more than a repositioning of our country for leadership in an era with new forms of global competition, but that is probably the inherent cynicism of my generation). We paid our share, gave our share, gladly traded in what we had extra to help others and take part in the Level Society, and to atone for our undeniable complicity in the farce that was our pre-Lost Bet society.
Yes, we paid. We paid in land (we had extra) and wealth (what extra we had) and our time. It cost us many possessions — from the taxes, of course, but like most Americans more was lost due to the new puritanical fashions of the times. This was another tragedy of the leveling: the rapid turn to hate of every totem of the previous consumer society. We should have recycled, reclaimed. And we tried. But fashion in the new era — just like the fashion of the Lost Bet — dictated rapid abandonment of such a sheer massive amount of items, that invariably much — too much — was simply thrown away.
But it did not cost us the record collection. We never needed to move it — the Piedmont has, as you know, remained relatively unscathed, high and dry — so transportation credits were never an issue. Our overly large house now houses its requisite number of refugees, but it’s still ample, and I found means of storing the collection nonetheless. This new mood of manic minimalism is probably what lead me to keep it — stubbornly, pigheadedly. For, dear daughter, I am old, and I am illogical. I suffer from what the economic false prophets of my day called a “sunk cost fallacy” — it had already cost me so much to amass the record collection I could not fathom losing it for no return. So I simply, did not. Most others did, but my pigheadedness saved a what is now important record collection. And in doing so, I put one more nail in the coffin of those economists of yesteryear. For in the end, I was not suffering from a sunk cost fallacy at all. I was saving a part of our culture. For you.
And so it is that my record collection is the one upon which your research endeavor will be based. And I know, I know, it’s not your endeavor, per se. You simply work at the same institution and are the one who had a connection to such a collection when the call was put out. But let an old man have his fantasies. There were better collections. There were more comprehensive ones. There were more representative ones. There were definitely larger ones. I recall reading in the record collecting newspapers of the time (yes, these existed) of a plutocrat in Brazil endeavoring to collect a copy of every record ever manufactured. His collection ran into the millions. It may even still exist — you may want to send post on the next ship to Brazil and inquire — but I doubt it. Collections of that scale were deemed significant assets in the leveling, and individuals who had the means of amassing one of that scale most certainly fell into the 0.1% — and we know how that went in Brazil. In any case, the photo I have in my head of that behemoth collection is portrays it sitting in a giant warehouse — and that space, like so many other free spaces, has probably been repurposed. Or submerged, of course, for I do not know what city it was in. I suspect like most, more modest, collections, it was liquidated.
So, then. Here it is. A few notes on the collection to your colleagues — guidance and caveats, if you will. First, I’d like to thank them for undertaking this endeavor. I know I shouldn’t say such things, for such sentiments could well endanger a project already on such shaky ground from a funding and social point of view. Daughter, thank your brave colleagues: some of the few who still labor in non-STEM (what we used to call “basic education”) fields. The now-shunned fields of the humanities. You will be remembered as heroes.
All my love,