Saturday, July 19, 2008

KQED Music: Record Keeping

I love my record collection, and I'm pretty sure it loves me. Sure, we've had our occasional ups and downs over the years, particularly after I've said something thoughtless and stupid like "you've got to slim down a bit." Fortunately, we learned from our mistakes and in the end these hard times only made our bond stronger. But then, in April 2007, things changed.

At first I thought my trip to the United States was going to be temporary and we would only be apart for a few months. Then, when I decided to stay here, the months stretched out to more than a year. I've got to be honest, it put serious strain on both of us. I even began flirting with new CDs and records here in the U.S. while my collection, my REAL collection, languished neglected in my mother's attic in Edinburgh.

But a couple of months ago, after an arduous 10,000-mile journey by sea, my music finally joined me here in San Francisco. And that's when the real work started. Sure, my records hadn't changed much, but I had gotten married and moved in with my new wife. Plus I had left all of my furniture in the UK, so I now had none of the cases or boxes my record collection used to call home.

Rather than pretend nothing had happened, we decided to make a fresh start. Our first step was to visit the wonderful Fenton MacLaren unfinished furniture store in Berkeley, which sells inexpensive pine shelving units designed to fit CDs, DVDs, records, or books. If their standard sizes don't work for you, then you can do what I did and have a unit custom-built to your own measurements for not much extra cost.

Next came the dreaded question: how to organize it all? With a total of around 1,000 CDs, I realized that I couldn't just fill the shelves and hope for the best. They had to be sorted in a way that made sense not just to me but to my new wife as well.

In the past I operated a system loosely based on the "cream rises" principle: if you simply stack CDs back on top of each other after you listen to them, less-popular discs will tend to sink to the bottom of the heap, while your favorites will stay nearer the top where they're easier to get at. I also grouped discs in piles that corresponded loosely to genre, although some of these were admittedly looser than others. My jazz section, for example, would have been obvious to anyone, but the fine line between the subsections devoted to "miserable music" and "CDs to drunkenly fall asleep to" probably wouldn't have made sense to anyone but myself.

The solution to this organizational conundrum was to do something so drastic it still makes me slightly nauseous to even talk about: I alphabeticized my entire collection.

(A quick technical note: I ordered by artist name, with solo acts filed by surname. I haven't been too strict about it though, for example sticking Bill Callahan's solo album next to his recordings as Smog.)

You may be wondering why I don't just get with the 21st century and import all the CDs onto my computer. The truth is I don't have nearly enough space on my hard disk and, even if I did, it would take me far longer to rip them all than it has done to simply organize them a bit. Plus, I like browsing through physical piles of CDs and records. They have details such as price tags on the cases that remind me where I was when I bought them, or stains on the sleeves from that party where I dropped a beer into my record bag. At the risk of sounding like an over-romantic luddite, you don't get that from iTunes.

One added bonus I gained from the process, other than learning that I have a surprising number of recordings by artists whose names start with P, was that finally I was forced to do something about all those CDs that have thin, sleeve-like covers (mainly singles, promos, and CD-Rs) rather than proper plastic jewel cases with a legible spine. Previously, I had kept them all together in one big, impenetrable bunch, and had rarely bothered searching through them. Now, that was going to change.

But how to organize these slim-sided treasures? Mixing them individually with the rest wouldn't be much of an improvement as they'd be pretty much invisible next to their thicker-cased cousins. Instead, I decided to create groups of them corresponding to each letter of the alphabet, then place these on the shelves to serve as sort of markers for the start and end of each letter's section in the larger throng. And, rather than just placing these little piles loose on the shelf, I decided to make little cardboard files for them, like the ones you get for magazines but smaller. That way I can stick little letters on the front too, and ... Oh my god. Is this going too far?

That's the problem with organization: knowing where to stop. My record collection used to be an organic mess, one which reflected my eclectic, ever-evolving tastes; now it looks neat and tidy, like an accountant's sock drawer. Sure I feel organized, but I also feel slightly soiled by the whole process. The next thing you know I'll be one of those people who has a motorized tie holder in their closet. Is this who I want to be?

I only hope my record collection can forgive me, once again.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.