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Zen and the art of cataloging your record collection

Erik Thompson

Erik Thompson

Everyone is searching for a wholesome distraction dur­ing quarantine.

Doing puzzles, baking bread, recreating famous works of art—people are clearly in need of activities to distract them from the headlines and relieve the monotony and isolation that arise from staying at home.

For me, there’s Discogs.

I’ve found joy and personal satisfaction in finally entering my record collection into the popular online music database. I’ve always wanted to know precisely how many albums I own (1,000+ and counting) and roughly how much they’re worth. For insurance purposes alone, this is a worth­while endeavor for any record collector. With all this extra time on my hands, this was the perfect opportunity to join the worldwide Discogs music community. And I’m clearly not alone in feeling this way—from March 6 through March 29, more than 34,000 albums were entered into Discogs, an increase of about 9,000 over the same time period last year.

How Discogs works is relatively simple. Through their app, you scan barcodes, select which version of a record you own, and enter what condition the vinyl and sleeve are in.

For older albums without barcodes, it’s a little more complicated. You can search by album and artist name, and match the listing with the catalog number for the record. If you want to dig deeper to get the exact pressing of your specific album, you enter the matrix number and any additional identifiers etched into the vinyl runout of the album and match that with the corre­sponding albums in the Discogs database.

But enough with the technicalities.

What’s most rewarding is taking each record in my hands and thinking of where and when the album became a part of my life. I can recall the specific record shops where I purchased many of my LPs (RIP Atomic Records, Let It Be, Northern Lights, Oar Folkjokeopus, and Positively 4th Street). Each record conjures up memories of old friends I’ve gone record shopping with, cities I’ve lived in, or countries I’ve visited.

It’s fascinating to think of the different people who owned the used albums in my collection before me and what jour­neys those records took on their way to my shelves. Seeing names written on the backs of album sleeves makes me wonder who “David” and “Lucy” were, where they were when they bought these records, the stories of all the times they played the albums, and what circumstances led to the albums being sold. There’s an untold history layered in the dust on these old records.

It’s also pleasantly distracting when you get fully into the minutiae of entering each specific record. I enjoy getting lost within the tiny etched numbers on the vinyl run­outs. I take pleasure in deciphering whether my copy of Blood on the Tracks was pressed in Terre Haute or Santa Maria, and what small differences distinguish them from each other. Cracking the intricate numerical codes on each record in order to figure out where they originated and what makes one version superior to another is intriguing to me as both a music lover and someone obsessed with order and reason.

The 15 minutes it takes to figure out if I have the Philips or Presswell Pressing of Warhol’s zipper cover of Sticky Fingers becomes a peaceful time when I’m bliss­fully lost in the task at hand, not horrified by the news or anxiously checking Twitter for the latest outrage.

The bands themselves occasionally reward those of us who pore over their records so closely by hiding secret phrases or in-jokes within the vinyl runouts. Radio­head is notorious for such hidden mes­sages. On initial pressings of OK Computer, the phrases “I LIKE YOU, YOU ARE A WONDERFUL PERSON,” “I’M FULL OF ENTHUSIASM I’M GOING PLACES,” “I’LL BE HAPPY TO HELP YOU,” and “I’M AN IMPORTANT PERSON, WOULD YOU LIKE TO GO HOME WITH ME?” are etched into each of the album’s four sides. These encouraging, convivial sentiments hidden in the dark slabs of vinyl stand in stark contrast to the lonely, isolated anxiety expressed by the album itself. Who says Radiohead don’t have a sense of humor?

Local boys Hüsker Dü hid what sounds like the results of a bad trip onto early pressings of their landmark double album, Zen Arcade. Etched into the runouts of the four sides of vinyl is this ominous message: “FALLING, SHIRLEY - EVERYTIME I SQUARE OFF AGAINST SOMEONE’S GOD,” “I SPEND THE REST OF THE NIGHT (OR DAY) HALLUCINATING,” “AND NOW IT IS THE VISIONS OF A JOYOUS HELL...” “...WITHIN THE CIR­CUITS THAT MAKE PAC-MEN DIE AND VESSELS DISINTEGRATE...”

For those of us willing to examine our records closely, there are the occasional hidden messages that casual listeners might simply miss. These etchings are just another creative piece of the artistic puzzle that the musicians have buried away in the inner recesses of the vinyl itself. Is it meaningless gibberish? Sure. But is it fun to discover when you’ve been staring at records all day? Most definitely.

Ultimately, the process of entering my record collection into Discogs has brought me closer to the albums themselves. This experience has helped me refine and reca­librate my love of music for the modern age. Handling each and every album in my library has caused me to reflect on the person I was when I bought the records, and the person I became since hearing them. Cataloging my albums has been a slow, sometimes labor-intensive process, but it has been a welcome distraction at a time when even a fleeting moment of peaceful tranquility should be treasured and celebrated. And you can’t put a price or a catalog number on that.