While I do not want to suggest that anybody could draw solid conclusions based upon this one (albeit massive) collecting case study, I would like to weigh in on the topic of Paul Mawhinney’s record collection.
My favorite record store in the DC area is actually fairly far from DC – it’s a beautifully-curated shop in Annapolis that sits in the shadow of the Maryland State House called KA-CHUNK!! Records (capitalization and punctuation are formalized). Everytime my friend Jessica and I would venture out from DC, we would each find something eye-popping in stock and always wound up having a great conversation with the owner, Matt Mona.
Mona recently posted this commentary to Facebook about this “article”* he found on Gizmodo regarding the “world’s greatest music collection” belonging to Pittsburgh-area veteran Paul Mawhinney.
“If you’re looking for a sign that we live in a digital world that cares not for the physical manifestations of our analog past, you need only look at Paul Mawhinney’s record collection.” UGH! NO! It’s a couple million records collected absolutely indiscriminately! He just kept one of everything he sold in his store at a time when LP’s were the dominant format and weren’t limited in nature. They’re not expensive records because they made a bazillion of them and most are probably terrible. That and we’re talking about a multi mullion dollar collection where the buyer is going to an insane collector or a large chain store like Amoeba who would struggle to flip all these records when there’s only a small percentage of records that are truly valuable. It’s not a barometer of people’s lack of caring about physical music, it’s a barometer of insane millionaire collectors. Write this article again when someone can’t sell an affordable record collection sized at a couple hundred to a couple thousand and then you might be on to something.
Mona brings up a key point regarding something widely misunderstood about record collecting and modern archivism in general. As Russell Belk has written extensively, (paraphrasing) discrimination is what separates the collector or archivist from the hoarder. While Mawhinney does know a great deal about vinyl and is clearly as passionate as any music fan, the volume of his collection creates myriad problems. Even more than a decade ago, before mainstream publications were coveting vinyl as the next great hope of tangible music, thousands of ostensibly valueless records were just as available as they are today at dusty shelves in Goodwills and other thrift stores.
David Lowenthal, who (for some painfully bizarre reason) did not figure too heavily into my thesis research, wrote in “Possessed by the Past:”
Beleaguered by loss and change, we keep our bearings only by clinging to remnants of stability. Hence preservers’ aversion to letting anything go, postmodern manias for period styles, cults of prehistory at megalithic sites. Mourning past neglect, we cherish islands of security in seas of change.
This is probably the most sympathetic paragraph in the entire book. His acerbic tone doesn’t suggest that he belittles our collective mourning of a socially constructed past, but he does fear that by allowing the lure of heritage of outpace other modes of retrieval, we cheapen everything that our forebears stood for. The short film that the “article” decorates is a well-made vignette that gives the owner a mouthpiece, but really lays on the appeal to nostalgia and ignores the pragmatic reality behind Mawhinney’s situation. A lot of press and the narrative on vinyl’s “revival” does this, as Jason Heller illustrated by his rant on Record Store Day earlier this year.
So, the long and short of it is: if the average record nerd had $3,000,000 to spend, what could they possibly do with this collection? Just to transport it would require extensive human-power and would cost a fortune, and finding a place to store it before even making motions to sell it would cost money unless this mystery buyer had his/her own warehouse space. It reminds of an episode of Pawn Stars where Rick speculates buying a fighter jet, but balks at it, because it would ultimately cost up to $10,000 a month to hangar that thing if nobody buys it off of him. The commitment-laden overhead would just prove too big. I know that fighter jets aren’t exactly a popular collectors’ item, but such are the risks that come with the new collectibles economy.
Mawhinney’s collection is the fighter jet of pawn-shop items. It’s disappointing that he’s having such trouble selling it (at least, for the big handful of gems buried among his shelves), but it’s definitely no indicator of vinyl’s role in today’s world. Almost in spite of the digital world, analog will always have a place, and its redefinition within that place is what is so interesting right now. At least, I hope it’s interesting enough for people to read my thesis (which, if anyone’s interested, should be filed with the CSULB Library within a few weeks [/plug]).
* I don’t like referring to embedded videos with a couple paragraphs of commentary around them as “articles” because it disrespects the work that good journalists and social scientists do on writing actual heavily researched pieces for reputable websites and journals.
** The “article” on Gizmodo, coincidentally, was written by someone with whom I attended undergrad, and who does know his music. He introduced me to (smog)/Bill Callahan, so I do owe him a modicum of gratitude. Additionally, he may (partially, if my memory serves) have introduced me to The Dismemberment Plan, so for that alone, my hat is permanently tipped in his direction.