Sunday, January 6, 2008

Vinyl Record Obsession Still Strong in 2008

Hey, Mr. D.J., Spin Me That Vinyl Obsession

As someone who has lugged a couple of hundred beat-up vinyl records to and from more apartments than I care to count over the years, throwing out my back out once in the process, I was excited and a little apprehensive about interviewing James Dier for The City section this week.

Mr. Dier, a disc jockey who works under the name $mall ¢hange, has between 50,000 and 60,000 records. If it’s hard to get your mind around that many, apparently it is for him, too –- he’s hoping to sell off about half of them. I hope, for his sake, that he won’t be lifting too many at a time.

In a way, my nervousness was misplaced. He turned out to be a really nice, patient guy. But he also knows a ton more about music than most people, and has a scholar’s passion for its innumerable genres and sub-genres. He reminded me of some other people I had written about, including a collector of mid-century modernist furniture who had decorated a huge loft and a vacation home with his flea market purchases, for example, and also of the devotees of a discontinued English shaving cream who searched high and low for it, and paid steep prices when they found it.

Some might call this kind of zeal, wherever it is directed, unhealthy –- “I have a functional disorder,” Mr. Dier said. That said, it has allowed him to make a living as a D.J. full-time. A certain obsessiveness is not uncommon in the profession. “I’ve known some real O.C.D. people in my life,” he said, “and in fact, I’m good friends with ocdj.”

People with this level of devotion to records buy their discs at stores -– Mr. Dier mentioned Academy Records, the Sound Library, and A-1 Records as a few favorites –- but they also pick through crates at record fairs and flea markets.

Mr. Dier has a weekly radio show on WFMU-FM, which is broadcast out of both Jersey City (91.1) and the Hudson Valley (90.1). The station puts on an annual fair where collectors gather, as they also do at the weekly Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market. Mr. Dier, for his part, is going to be selling part of his collection at a new flea market, Brooklyn Flea, in Fort Greene.

The scene at the markets gets competitive, and a little surreal. He described packs of record devotees gathered outside in the cold, pre-dawn, waiting for a dealer to show up with a collection to resell. It might be in a beat-up cardboard box or a garbage bag, and whoever is there pounces, with a flashlight, flipping through the discs with gloved fingers in search of something rare or valuable. Those experiences make you wonder if it’s all worth it, Mr. Dier said — but the upside is that the dealers often don’t realize what they have. Maybe you’ll find, say, a mint copy of an old Meters record that’s worth $75, and you’ll pay $3.

“It all starts to make sense really quickly,” he said.

Besides the records themselves, there are a bunch of other tools of the D.J.-ing and collecting trade. A portable turntable is indispensable, Mr. Dier said, because it lets you listen to a record before you buy. Often great records will look completely unremarkable, or something that looks interesting might sound otherwise. Numark makes one popular model, he said, as does Vestax. Mr. Dier uses one that is even smaller, and, in my opinion, even cooler: a vintage Audio-Technica Mr. Disc, which was also known overseas as the Sound Burger.

Besides listening, collectors also decide what to buy by reading — flipping through Japanese discography books that print vital information, and pictures, for all kinds of different records. Mr. Dier also relies on, a site where fellow collectors upload brief audio clips of rare records, to help him evaluate what is worth seeking out and spending money on.

An interesting question, related to all of this, has to do with the place of more recent technology. Some people do collect rare compact discs, but what of downloading? On one hand, Mr. Dier said, someone with focus and good taste can spend a lot of time on identifying tracks, then downloading them elsewhere, legally or illegally, and put together a pretty interesting collection without ever holding a vinyl record in his hands. Since a lot of D.J.’s incorporate laptops, equipped with software from companies like Serato, it wouldn’t even look all that unusual.

On the other hand, a lot of collectors, who have spent their own early mornings sifting through boxes, might see that as a form of cheating. As Mr. Dier put it, of some of the harder-core record people, “They also appreciate the art of digging, and they’re not just going to let some schlub who’s downloaded a bunch of stuff play their parties.”

Finally, although Mr. Dier is all too aware of the nearly infinite number of records in the world just waiting to be bought, he has also, on the side, started making his own. He has a mix out on CD and, with a D.J. named Peter Gunn, a set of what they call “mashdowns,” tracks that combine Southern crunk with the British grime sound.

“Adding more records to the world,” he said, with a laugh. “Just what the world needs, right?”

Source [NY Times]

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