I’ve been wanting to reorganize my records for a while. I had them alphabetized, which was decent enough, but that always felt lacking. I could never remember where I put those weird records (was Pronouncing The Scientific Names Of Seashells Of North America recorded by R. Tucker Abbott filed under “Pro” or “Sea” or “Abb?”). Elise would want to listen to “old & folksy” albums or something similarly genre-oriented. But most of all, alphabetical wasn’t how I pictured my collection. I think of it in terms of genre, the blues or drone records, the kind of African music I have, and how pitiful my soundtracks section is.
I spilled over into a second 2×4 Expedit sometime in the past couple years, which just turned into a catch-all for new acquisitions. I had a full shelf that was alphabetized and one that was roughly chronological. Fuck that. I had a lengthy winter break from work, so it seemed like the perfect time to tcb.
My main concern before I began was that I’d forget where I shelved a record and be unable to find it. A beautifully simple suggestion made by my pal Michelle was to keep track by using the notes field in my Discogs collection (where every record is cataloged, except for a surprising amount of stuff not in their database). But once I started spending more time with my records, figuring out their top-level genre and what my genres meant to me, it seemed almost impossible to forget where I put something. I ditched the Discogs notes idea but still used the site heavily in comparing my impression of a record’s genre with the ones Discogs use.
My plan wasn’t really a plan. I had a vague idea of the genres I’d use (one of which was “Holiday”) and I wanted to cherry pick a few of my favorite record labels to have their own section, so my general hierarchy was Label > Holiday > Genre. Christmas With John Fahey Volume II would get filed under “Takoma” but Boże Narodzenie: Polish Christmas Songs And Sketches would go under “Holiday” instead of “International.” And I knew I didn’t want a miscellaneous section. I’ve been taught as an archivist to despise it and I’d be damned if I couldn’t fit a record into an appropriate genre. That was it for a plan of attack, though. I was basically winging it. I had the end result in mind, organizing my collection to mirror my perception of my collection, and I felt that was all I needed.
I wanted to be efficient, which to me meant not deliberating over where to put an individual record for too long and not having to look at/handle a record more than once, so I figured I’d take all the records out of the shelves, store ’em in boxes, and go to town. Except I didn’t have enough boxes. So I took out as many records as I could and forged onward, one LP at a time.
There were some things I knew I’d have to deal with during the re-org that I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) plan for. Should drone & noise be two separate sections? Probably but I’d play it by ear. What about folk & blues? I started out keeping them together but the section got too big & varied, so I bisected it.
I ended up singling out more labels than I initially thought. I think I originally picked about 6 or so and ended up with double that. I’d come across a few special records and be reminded of another label worthy of solo shelf space, like Isounderscore or Editions Mego & its subdivisions. Some of them aren’t very robust but I hope they will be at some point. Plus I have a soft spot for some labels and it wasn’t fair for them to get shafted for having a small vinyl discography (<3 u Enemies List).
I had the idea of making a compilations section (either part of or separate from soundtracks) but I stopped that almost as soon as I tried. It didn’t feel right having a classic rock radio comp next to a New Wave comp next to a ’90s alternative comp. So they all stayed put.
There were lots of problem records, those that walked the line between genres, those that I couldn’t remember well enough to categorize without playing again (one of the perks of spending 3 days with your collection is listening to everything), and those that clearly didn’t belong in the genre I was putting them in but had nowhere else to go. But with each problem I came across, it allowed me to better understand what I had and what I thought of it. In my head, I was putting Mick Barr in my “New Rock” section but as soon as I threw on Coiled Malescence I knew it needed to go in “Metal” (almost “Noise” but not quite).
Sometimes I’d shelve a record in one genre even though it didn’t feel quite right. This lead me to break my rule of efficiency. Once I re-shelved everything and had gotten a feel for what each genre meant, I went through the sections and looked at every record again trying to find outliers. If I had enough outliers, I made a new genre, which actually happened a lot.
Prime example: ’80s music. I honestly never thought I had much of it but I ended up with a pretty substantial “’80s” section, culled from “Pop, Hip Hop, Techno, Beats,” “New Rock,” and “Early Rock, Oldies, Psych,” because Bonnie Tyler and Journey share a very special place in my heart. I pulled the early avant garde/electronic stuff out of “Drone,” and the country & ragtime/dixieland records out of “Folk” & “Blues.” I tried incorporating some new weird folk records into my “New Rock” section but that just didn’t work. Laughing Eye Weeping Eye was pretty much the sole catalyst for starting a new genre. They couldn’t find a home anywhere and I was able to find some other (loosely) similar records to give “New Folk” a spot. None of the new sections were huge but I gathered enough records to warrant them getting their own genres.
As I was going through, I was alphabetizing records within genre so I could still easily & quickly find things. I opted to switch it up for the “International” and labels sections, though. “International” has a bit of a gradient effect that’s organized by broad geography, usually by country or ethnicity, for maximum collocation. Each label is sorted by catalog number/chronology because it looks good (especially with Experimedia & Type). The exception is Smithsonian Folkways, which got kind of a micro-genre sorting because I have lots of them and, again, that’s just how I think about them. It didn’t make sense to have Sounds Of Insects right alongside Khamis El Fino Ali’s Music For The Classical Oud. Doing the granular work on Folkways was a ton of fun and probably my favorite part of the whole project. I’m especially fond of my Folkways collection.
I have a modest sized collection (a little less than a thousand) and felt that was the perfect size to let me do what I wanted and what was needed. If it was any smaller, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this at all. Any bigger and I probably would’ve needed a better plan ahead of time.
I learned that my collection is unique, the way I think of it is unique, and by necessity the way I organize it is unique. I doubt anyone would categorize my collection the way I did. My genre definitions mean something specific to me and I filed records (mostly) according to my opinion of them. My collection feels much more personalized, and while part of the reason I did this was to help Elise figure out what record she wants to listen to (so she doesn’t accidentally pick out Prurient thinking it’s Phantogram), I feel like no one could navigate my collection properly and no one could mimic my organization. I already felt devoted to my records but that shit just got leveled up.
I’m sure I’ll end up re-organizing my records again at some point. New genres will undoubtedly pop up as my collection grows, but during this project, I couldn’t help but think of what having a genre spectrum without cardboard dividers would be like. There was so much internal debate over genre. How noisy can a drone record be? Are there enough riffs in the noise to be metal? I know the song titles have “Blues” in them, but isn’t this pretty folky? I imagined having my collection as a rainbow of genres with Sutekh Hexen falling between Ash Borer & Kevin Drumm or maybe Big Bill Broonzy sitting in the middle of Leadbelly & Charlotte Daniels & Pat Webb. It’d most likely make more problems than it solves because there’s always problems (but it’d be super fucking fun). A record collection is never neat & tidy. So as hard as I tried, I still ended up with a dumping ground for outliers, a small & pathetic crew of New Age, Bossanova, and college vocal groups, which I could barely be bothered to name.