Before my upcoming trip to the record store, I comb through my collection and pull Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, Johnny Cash, Live at San Quentin, Jimi Hendrix, Band of Gypsies, and the Who’s Tommy and the Kids are Alright. I’m always tempted to get rid of Dark Side of the Moon, but it’s the 180-gram 2016 reissue transferred from original master tapes recorded at Abbey Road Studios. I’m never sure about Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, so I keep it. The artwork and music depress me – something that doesn’t happen with any other Led Zeppelin record, but the moody songs are too good. Once-played contemporary country albums are definitely being traded! A few bands are central in my musical development, so The Rolling Stones, Ozzy Osbourne, and Queen (twenty-seven records in total) have a permanent space on my shelves. Nearly everything else can go.
I am a minimalist collector with 178 records, and I am ruthless in culling them. If I haven’t listened within the last year and don’t intend to play it within the next month, then it’s time to swap the record for what could be a new gem. Having fewer records keeps me focused on the ones I find meaningful. I asked Joshua Becker, author of the upcoming book Things That Matter (2022), who’s featured in the documentary Minimalism (2016), if it was possible to be a minimalist and collector at the same time.
“Minimalism, by definition, is the intentional promotion of things we most value by removing everything that distracts us from it. I have no doubt that by keeping only the records that hold special meaning to you, you elevate their importance in your life.”
I’ve been a minimalist since childhood. Unlike my friends with attics full of baby clothes, toys, and mementos, we moved every few years, so I learned to get rid of useless and unused items. I’ve narrowed down my books to twelve that are not easily found at the public library. My daily wardrobe consists of t-shirts and track pants. Annual tune-ups are necessary for my vintage bicycle, but I have no car to maintain. I own no watches or jewelry, and I’ve sold off never-polished Tiffany silver that sat collecting dust on ignored tabletops. A sterling inheritance of absurd cigarette boxes, candy dishes, and candlesticks that helped procure my last remaining valuables: a stereo, which I consider my work equipment.
Some minimalists shed their physical media and rely solely on streaming services, but I need the sensual feel of paper and the hidden promise in obsidian vinyl. When I was younger, record jackets and sleeves depicted my favorite musicians and how they changed over the years. The artwork was a portal into brilliant new worlds, like those painted by Roger Dean for Yes albums. Who didn’t daydream about crossing into the universe of Tales from Topographic Oceans? Liner notes acquainted listeners with engineers, studios, and producers. Printed lyrics were chapters of a book offering insight into the band while introducing mind-expanding concepts. I will never forget hearing Queen’s “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke” from Queen II (1974). Inspired by Richard Dadd’s (1817–1886) canvas of the same name, Freddie Mercury repaints the layered mythical fairy realm into 2:41 minutes of verse.
Not only was this the first time I heard the harpsichord, but I was also encouraged to learn new words — the keys to unlocking a song’s meaning. Let’s just say there weren’t too many sixth graders using a college dictionary to look up ostler, tatterdemalion, and satyr. The sum of these sensory experiences provides a total immersion into the music, one that a streaming subscription cannot replace.
When I began rebuilding my record collection a few years ago, I purchased a set of shelves that could hold 400 albums – I even considered buying two, just in case. In a hurry to fill the empty spaces, I acquired, washed, and organized records but still agonized over missing titles. As the collection grew, I unknowingly started buying duplicates of my favorite records. No one needs two copies of The Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue. The next logical step would have been to create a database — either a spreadsheet or Discogs catalog, but that requires a great deal of work — turning my hobby into a job. According to Becker, “Too often we bury the most important under the least significant, and that is often the case when we fall into the trap of merely collecting quantity rather than quality.” When I surpassed my capacity to keep track of all the new albums, I lost track of the ones I already loved.
There are people with thousands, even millions, of records. Brazilian businessman José “Zero” Freitas owns about seven million. Elton John’s collection once numbered 70,000. Grandmaster Flash built a two-story house to archive his diverse lifetime collection, which he shares with fellow DJs and up-and-coming musicians. It’s unlikely I will ever have more than two hundred albums, a scant quantity for serious collectors yet excessive to minimalists. However, we must judge for ourselves how much happiness or misery is derived from stuff. In discovering the true spirit of my collection, minimizing records has become more important than amassing them. Now, if I could only find a new home for two dozen classical albums, I’d have my more space on my shelf and in my head.
Header image: enso calligraphy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Kanjuro Shibata XX.