I started collecting records sort of by accident. I was pretty deep in the punk memorabilia pages of eBay when I came across a transparent, red, limited-pressing of Richard Hell and the Voidoids' seminal first album, Blank Generation. I didn’t know much about records, but it was $8 and seemed like a wildly great deal. After I bought it, I figured I should get a record player. After I bought that, I started to go to thrift and record stores and buy bundles of records from the $1 bin. After seeing me embark on my new collecting quest, my mother felt prompted to go through her storage unit and find what was left of her own record collectings, which—lucky for me—ended up being a gold mine and the core of my new collection.
My whole experience, I realize now, was collecting chaos—it's just lucky that it all worked out in the end, resulting in me having a well-rounded collection that I really enjoy. But don't do as I did. If you’re thinking of starting a record collection, there are probably some things you need to know first, and some expert advice you should follow. And since my "expert" advice pretty much consists of “spend a few hours in a record store,” thus making it not very comprehensive, I decided to speak to two New Yorkers who do have very extensive knowledge about (and collections of) records: Rahill Jamalifard, DJ and front woman of rock outfits Habibi and Roya who has also worked at an East Village record store for years, and Brian Chillemi, musician behind the bands Junk Boys and CHILLEMI, writer behind Brian's List on Alt Citizen, and your basic musical wunderkind.
To start off with, why should anyone bother having a vinyl collection right now? We do, after all, live in the age of digital music and streaming platforms. And yet, it's undeniable that vinyl players bring back a sense of novelty, magic, and discovery. Or, as Chillemi explains, “I like the idea of having two sides to an album, two beginnings and two endings. I like the large format art and the singular function of a stereo. By putting something physical out into the world, it means it will have its own life in people's homes, could travel across the world, and ultimately be sold and resold again.”
Listening to one of your favorite albums on vinyl—especially if it’s old—can change the experience completely. On vinyl, several of my favorite albums became even more complex and interesting, as if the space between the grooves translated into a more immersive and entrancing audio journey.
The most important thing to remember is that starting a record collection isn’t that difficult. In essence, it’s just buying a bunch of records. Don't let yourself be intimidated by all the music snobs that are seemingly lurking in every corner of the internet. Just get out there and get started. As Chillemi points out, the biggest hurdle isn’t actually choosing your records—it’s buying a proper vinyl player and sound system.
Since you're just a beginner collector, though, there's no need to get too fancy. I bought mine off of Amazon, and even Rahill found hers “in ninth grade, it was a lil’ suitcase record player at a thrift store, but now I bet you could walk into an Urban Outfitters and get a really easy beginner player.”
If the prospect of playing financial Russian roulette by picking up what may or may not be a working vinyl player at a thrift store isn’t exactly attractive to you, then follow Rahill’s advice and head to the popular retailer. They sell standard Crosley suitcase players with built-in speakers, as well as some more high-tech and high-end models. Just don't be afraid to ask for help or scour music websites for advice.
Now that you have a record player, let's get to the actual records. Like I mentioned earlier, the $1 bin at your local record store is a great place to start. Spend $5 and grab a handful, at the very least you’ve got some cool retro artwork to hang in your room and, at best, you’ll discover your new favorite band. You can also make an event of it, as Rahill suggests, and “go into a record store on a day where time is of no concern and just dig. Listen to as many records as you can, take a chance on a cool cover. Just be open-minded and have fun.”
And how much should you be paying for a record? Honestly, it all depends. If the record is used, like much of the stuff you’ll come across both in IRL record stores or on eBay, then it’s really about your judgment. Things that you should take into mind when determining a record's value is its rarity, if it’s a limited, original, or reissue pressing, or if it has a sentimental cost to you, specifically. That said, most records will fall somewhere between $5 and $40, and you shouldn't be paying much more than that unless you really know what you're after. There are also ways of judging the actual quality of a record such as its weight, the thickness of the lacquer, and the number of the grooves; Chillemi says, “The more grooves you have to represent the same piece of music, the better, louder, and bassier it can be.” Grooves are basically "just information," Chillemi points out, so the more you have, the better.
Subscription vinyl services are also an easy and stress-free way to build up your record collection, especially if you’re looking to get your hands on more contemporary records. For $23, Vinyl Me Please will send you a new and limited pressing vinyl every month. Jack White’s Record Label, Third Man Records, also has its own subscription service called the Vault that operates similarly.
Everyone has their own idea of what the “staples” of a record collection should be, but in broad strokes, they tend to be from the golden age of records—the '50s through the '80s. Obviously, contemporary records are also cool, but since they're not as hard to find, buying them feels less like a cool discovery and more like a normal purchase—and not only is starting a collection is all about the discovery factor but, also, these older records were made to be played on vinyl, so that really adds to the listening experience.
While those classic, must-have records vary from person to person, for me, the essential records (aside from the aforementioned Richard Hell album) are The Stooges' Metallic KO, The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, Patti Smith's Horses, and Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Chillemi’s picks are “1950s original rockers like Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee, and Gene Vincent along with the British invasion bands and the big guys in classic country music.” Rahill’s picks are a little more specific; she cites The Velvet Underground & Nico’s self-titled LP, Brian Eno's Another Green World, Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, and John Fahey's Requia.
As your collection grows and you become more familiar with records, you’ll learn if there are certain companies with pressings you particularly love, if you like reissues or originals, and you'll develop your own opinion about the core records of your collection. The important thing when starting your own collection is to have fun with it. At the end of the day, vinyl records are just another way to enjoy music, and just life, in general.