Ignite Seattle 15: Field Guide to Record Collectors

Last month, I spoke in front of a few hundred people, at night, outdoors in a large parking lot in Fremont for Ignite Seattle 15. It was a blast, both speaking and watching others’ presentations. Though I’ll admit to being relieved at not having to go on right after the one-armed chainsaw juggler, or the trapeze artist who gave her presentation entirely in mid-air.

For once the topic was not UX, but something that I’ve actually been involved with for far longer, dating back to high school: record collecting. Yup, those things in the bookcases behind me in my profile photo? Rows and rows of my LPs. In fact, creating my own data model and database for my collection of 7″ singles was my first real taxonomy project, pre-UX career.

If you’re curious about some of the attributes of the Record Collector, you can view my slides and transcript below.


[Slide 1]
Record collectors. In the age of the MP3 who are these people who insist on clinging to such fragile objects? I’ll try to explain, as I went from mere music lover to yes, record collector.

[Slide 2]
I was first infected with a love for vinyl while working in a used record store in high school. I was a 17-year-old suburban girl working with a bunch of cranky, music-obsessed, late twentysomething guys.

[Slide 3]
But the first thing I learned about record collectors was that, like the staff, most are dudes. In fact, I was once interviewed for an article about female record collectors, that’s how rare we are.

[Slide 4]
That said, what defines a collector is not his gender, but that he (or she) is willing—is indeed eager—to spend hours digging through thousands of records, squinting at record labels and run-off grooves.

[Slide 5]
And collectors need to be masters of that minutiae: first pressings, audiophile editions, colored vinyl, and foreign releases. And web sites for bands popular with collectors, like The Smiths, will give you every detail about every release.

[Slide 6]
These sites, and reference books, act as part organizational aid, part shopping list, and part collector porn, stoking a desire to own each and every artifact listed.

[Slide 7]
And magazines like Record Collector have long combined detailed articles about entire artist and label catalogs with pages of sale listings and advertisements for the latest rarities. But sometimes they’re not so easy to get.

[Slide 8]
For example, take the famous Beatles “butcher” cover for Yesterday & Today: an original copy of that album can go for almost $40,000 – if you can find one. In fact, that album has an interesting history, one that collectors love to share.

[Slide 9]
The cover art was so shocking, Capitol Records pulled all copies from U.S. stores after a single day. Most copies were destroyed. Some sleeves were pasted over with different artwork, leading some to try peel them to see what lay beneath.

[Slide 10]
At the record store, I learned stories like these, and developed my eye for detail, so I could see the little things that made one pressing of a record worth a dollar, another far more. But some of what I learned was far more mundane, but absolutely essential.

[Slide 11]
Such as how to cram a room full of records. They start out in the living room, next to the stereo. But like Tribbles, they multiply…and eventually must be contained.

[Slide 12]
Soon enough, a spare bedroom is required. As well as proper record furniture, the kind that is built to stand up to the weight of all that vinyl. Think all-wood, and nothing from IKEA.

[Slide 13]
And with that many records, it becomes essential to organize them properly. And everyone has their own personal system. I was inspired to create my own database, with custom fields and categories, to make it even easier for me to track my collection.

[Slide 14]
We’re also highly competitive. With the arrival of eBay, bidding wars became a professional sport, in place of stalking the New Arrivals bin, or jockeying for position at record fairs in search of that lost 45.

[Slide 15]
Me? I prefer doing things the old-fashioned way, making hitting record stores a part of any travel itinerary. I became master of the Yellow Pages in any new city, writing down the names and addresses of all stores under the “Records, Tapes & CDs” heading.

[Slide 16]
But with all that dusty, thrift store vinyl, collectors need to revive and care for it. We break out our accessories: record cleaning fluid and brushes, fresh new inner sleeves and outer plastic sleeves. Anything to make the music sound its best (and not wreck our turntable needle).

[Slide 17]
Finally, collectors hate moving. But there comes a day when you need to move. God forbid across the country. During my move here from New York, I packed, lifted and shifted over 65 boxes of LPs, and even more CDs and 7″ singles.

[Slide 18]
Though actually, I had some help from friends. And any friend who is gracious enough to help with moving your record collection any distance — even just down the block — will never, ever volunteer for that job again.

[Slide 19]
Those are but some of intriguing, and sometimes baffling markers of we record collectors. While I may have started learning to spot these signs as an observer, I ended up just as obsessed, with the house full of vinyl – and cassettes, 8-tracks, reel-to-reels — to prove it.

[Slide 20]
But no matter how much we may obsess about the physical characteristics of bits of vinyl and paper, it’s what’s below the needle, and coming out of our speakers, that really matters.