Vinyl Excursions: Scarce Sounds in Canberra

0627191350_hdr

Australia National University, June 2019

Happy Saturday! I’m sorry to never have completed my entries on my trip down under, especially considering how fantastic Hobart and IAG were in general. I still hope to post about some highlights. In the meantime, I’m finally enjoying an hour or so of downtime out of my box-filled house, so I thought I would finish this post on one of the highlights of my first week in Australia – a meeting with author and archivist Ross Laird, known to the internet community as Scarce Sounds.

I’d been in touch with Ross off and on since I first began the Ben Irving project in earnest roughly five years ago. He came up in internet searches as an expert on the Okeh records catalog, so I emailed him to ask if he had any record of the Ben Irving Orchestra (or any proof that Ben recorded and released any music). He got back to me quickly and thoroughly, running through expansive evidence that there was no record of anyone by that name in Okeh’s catalog.

I got back in touch with him earlier this summer in the weeks leading up to my trip down under. It turned out that as a longtime employee of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, he was based in Canberra and would be in town when I was there for the IASPM meeting. We met up in his old haunt on the Australia National Uni campus to chat a bit more about where our respective projects had brought us.

0628191407_hdr

Ross Laird and a bottle of Mount Majura 2009. Canberra, 6/28/19.

In an unanticipated bit of hospitality, he and his wife invited me to their home in the suburbs, where I’d be able to see one of the most unique and expansive record collections in the world. At least, I saw part of it. He mentioned that he had a shed full of shellac records (not so nimble and as prone to weathering as vinyl) and an additional office/storage room other than the one I saw. Here are some photos.

Thousands of records from his archive (including very rare ones) are for sale on his Discogs page, Scarce Sounds. As he explained to me, Ross doesn’t view himself as a collector as much an a curator. Pursuant to the name, most of his records are rare and don’t really exist within the public archive. He aims to change that for many great overlooked artists from the Global South, then sending the recordings afield to other music lovers. It’s a worthwhile pursuit and a point I hope I can reach one day.

 

He sampled a bunch of 78s and 45s for me, most of which were still shrouded in mystery (most, if any information that exists about them on the internet, he put there), but my single favorite song I heard all night was a bubblegum pop song by Rita Chao and Sakura, entitled “Bala Bala.” The song has a driving baritone sax lead, fantastic female duo vocals, about 4 different words in the whole song, and I loved it to death. Some good Samaritan put a piece of “Bala Bala” on a supercut they uploaded to YouTube about ten years ago.

Advertisements

The “Greatest” Music Collection in Crisis

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]).

via The Independent

LINER NOTES
* 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.

Dispatches from Research Land (Movement One)

"Do you remember asking Run-DMC for permission to... oh, no one ever has? Okay."

Cultural capital that you can buy in T-Shirt form. You have to admit that the “RESPECT” one is really cool, though.

BSM-Chinatown

The 2-Day swap meet took place right in the core of LA’s historic Chinatown district, which made for an interesting juxtaposition of landscapes.

This weekend, I kicked off the first of what will probably be innumerable rounds of research on place-as-motivator for vinyl collecting at the 5th Annual Beat Swap Meet up in Los Angeles. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the organizers and the participation of a prodigious amount of vendors, collectors, rappers, deejays, artists, producers, and a bevy of the type of characters that only LA can generate, it was an unbelievable (and almost overwhelming) celebration of vinyl culture that took over the core block of Chinatown over the course of the weekend. I met a generous assortment of cool people, and I also dug up a few new gems for my own collection, including the single weirdest unauthorized issue LP I’ve ever seen. More on that later.

On Saturday, I visited the Swap Meet as a consumer and observer, going from post to post around the Grand Star Jazz Club, speaking with vendors and crate diggers about their love of vinyl. Two particular conversations stood out. The first of which was with a journalist who confided that he wasn’t a huge vinyl collector, but he had just bought the Grandmaster Flash “White Lines” 12″ “because that was his high school’s unofficial anthem,” and he didn’t have the money to blow (no pun intended) on records back in 1984. I asked him where he went to high (no pun intended) school; he is from the Bronx. A coked-up (no pun necessary) Jerry Bruckheimer couldn’t have produced a more formulaic script.

Another person I met, a young woman who grew up in Bakersfield with a musician and collector for a father, admitted to me that she loved crate digging because it reminds her of spending time at thrift shops with her dad back in the day. We spoke initially when she saw me holding an ESG record, exasperated that I had beaten her to it. She raved about ESG (who were another Bronx institution…not as formulaic of a conversational turn as if they had been from Bako, but I digress). I ran into her later and we had a long conversation about how certain songs, especially “Moody” remind her of very specific moments of her youth in The Central Valley. If only Dwight Yoakam or Korn (stupid lack of backwards letters on WordPress!) were this funky.

On Sunday, I attended as a vendor. As far as my research was concerned, being tethered to a table certainly put me at a disadvantage. I wound up taking fewer notes than I did just wandering around on Day One, and my conversations were not as involved, since most of the people who came up and looked through my records were loathe to get too deep into conversation. There were plenty of exceptions, of course, but as one of the owners of a Highland Park record shop told me, that time the vinyl junkie spends flipping through a crate of records is “sacred, and you don’t want to interrupt that.” In retrospect, I wish I had tabled on Saturday, because Sunday was the immeasurably bigger day for the swap meet. Also, more dealers specializing in punk and hardcore were around, so perhaps I would have done better than simply break even on the day. Thanks to my friend who watched my table, though, I was able to drift for a little while, do some observation, and take a few photos.

"My collection of 'T.R.O.Y.' remixes is almost complete!"

The Beat Swap Meet is setting an example for vinyl fairs in attracting higher numbers of female record lovers.

The Beat Swap Meet is remarkable for a number of reasons. Where most record conventions and vinyl-centric events attract a stereotypically male, white, older demographic, most of the music and vinyl-lovers in attendance this weekend were markedly more diverse in terms of gender, race, and age. Considering the BSM’s attention to underrepresented demographics in vinyl collecting culture, they also did an excellent job ensuring that kids were welcome and (very importantly) occupied. Signs posted around implored people to keep the Beat Swap Meet safe and friendly for children. All over the grounds, kids of all ages and races danced, played, and in my single favorite photo I took all weekend (see below), did arts and crafts.

Who wouldn't want their kid to be dressed this well?

Three girls decorate 7″ records, re-purposing one of the festival’s most sacred items. The two sisters who ran and organized the craft tent rescued these old 7″s (right before somebody threw them all in a dumpster) and found a great use for them.

Needless to say, I’m still recovering from the two days. On my way out the other day, I wound up getting into an argument with an older collector about my thesis topic. (More accurately, he started the argument with me when he saw my research flyers, but let’s not split hairs). He told me I’m “on shaky ground” with my argument and that one would need about 10,000 LPs in his/her collection to be taken seriously, at least from where he stands. I told him I would love for him to take my survey and he said he did not own a computer. Attracting passionate criticism from this individual (who once told me I’d “grow into” Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks; I’m almost 30 and still don’t get it) can only mean one thing: I’m probably doing something right. If the Beat Swap Meet proves anything, it’s that the subcultures that preserved vinyl through its near-death in the late 80’s and early 90’s (dance and hip-hop) have grown back up and aren’t afraid to spread the ownership.

So, Upwards and on-wards. If any of you were at the BSM this weekend, I’d love to hear what you got your hands on and what you thought of the event. sonicgeography [at] gmail.

– Ty

Bonus Tracks

  • Few things will make you happier (if you’re an aging punk fan) than to see a group of teenagers ask you for Ramones records, and then being able to recommend Masked Intruder to them. 
  • I really wish I’d written down the names of more of the emcees and deejays I saw perform this weekend, but most of them are listed on the BSM site. I met too many outstanding personalities to really go into detail about here, but my personal favorite quote came from one dealer on Saturday who specialized in punk records from the 90’s: “I’ve avoided moving for 12 years because I didn’t want to [go through the trouble of] moving my records. You can just sell and replace furniture, but not a record collection.”
  • I’m not going to bore you all (or entertain you, depending on where you stand on vinyl) with a full list of what I dug up while in the course of my research, but I have no choice but to share this Johnny Cash bootleg with you all. If you don’t notice what’s wrong with this in under two seconds (and realize why its hilarious in under five), then you lose the internet. "These bootleggers didn't see anything clearly, now."