The Pursuit of Inconvenient Music

Early American rural blues 78s inspires the highest prices
Early American rural blues 78s inspires the highest prices

“There are some people who would kill their own mother for the only copy of a Son House record, and they sure as hell would kill your mother, and you.” From the article “They’ve Got Those Old, Hard-to-Find Blues” by Amada Petrusich on New York Times.

At the age when almost every piece of music on earth can be downloaded from online and be played on a tiny plastic equipment, there are still people who are fervent for collecting some “unwieldy, impractical and unstable” records which only hold two to three minutes music per side, for a thousand dollars or even more.

If the chance of encountering a UFO is better than that of finding a 78 rpm record of Willie Brown, then it is understandable that someone has a standing offer of $25,000 for such a record. In this case, content and the media are inseparable. In particular some songs were only recorded on 78s and to locate them is essentially to preserve cultural heritage beyond the materialism. On the other hand, The content of some of the records has been digitized, according to the article; nevertheless the digitalization does not decrease the values of the records. As Mr. John Heneghan said in the article:”Collecting is about possessing an object.”

I have owned records before, not 78s, but the 45 rpm vinyl kind. I remember when I was a kid, my neighbor had a floor stand model record-player which took the most prominent position of the room. The music was of some Yue Opera in a dialect that I totally didn’t understand, but I was always amazed to hear the magic sound coming out of the gentle touch of a tiny needle on the grooves of a record.

Then one day I went to Record Rama in the North Hills of Pittsburgh and looked for some vinyl simply to frame vinyl covers for decoration. But eventually long after the store was supposed to close, I checked out with a few records and a record player. (And the idea of framing covers never happened.) Later I frequented Jerry’s Record in Squirrel Hill and began to realize that they did take up space. Now not only the record players and dozens of records are in a storage unit after I moved to New York, but also Record Rama, with two and half million records, was for sale of 3 million dollars a few years ago and the owner, David Bowie’s, retirement plan is still postponed.

My only experience with the 78s was on a trip to Zanesville, Ohio a few years ago. In an antiques mall along route 40 which was closing, I found some smaller-sized records in not-so-good condition. Geo told me that they were in a different format and could not be played by our record player.  Had Geo explained them from a different perspective such as they ARE the predecessors of the vinyl records, I would have paid more attention. (He later told me how to tell a good old record from a bad one–if you throw it and it shatters, it was a good one). But in the age when content and media are decoupled to such a degree that music should be plug-and-played anywhere, to add another system on top of DVD, CD and Stereo just for one special format was not a small commitment.

From the collecting point of view, I hold a more or less pessimistic view of the future of 78s. The scarcity of these records determines a very small circle of die-hard collectors. Neither the scarcity nor the small circle is a blessing for the continuun of collecting business. The former means there aren’t  many entry-level items to entice and introduce beginning collectors, while the latter means less publicity and the circulation of the information is limited within an elite group.

More importantly, the future of collecting lies in the hands of the younger generation. The current collectors may have owned records or seen records being played from Grandma’s home, so that these shining discs are of sentimental values. But it is hard to believe that the current teenagers, who may have hardly used ipods, let alone walkmans, may keep the same enthusiasm toward something so alien to their lives. True, not many houses are decorated with Chippendale or Classical furniture anymore, but the mainstream culture has established their status by showing them in art museums, historical homes, on Television and in movies. A 78s  collection, on the other hand, is a run-of-the-mill off-centered hobby, whose rise and fall is tightly connected to the collectors, not to the notion or symbol of cultured class.

Nevertheless, I feel connected with those collectors. I bought an iPod when the first model came out and only a few lucky guys could get one from Target online stores before they were out-of-stock every day. But I am still using CDs extensively. They take space, not to the extent of records, but they are physically there, on six, eight or ten shelves. Today people use an iPod when driving in a car, sitting in a subway, running or even working. Music is thus consumed to fill the silence with sound as inadvertently as we steer off the highway to McDonald’s drive-through just to fill our stomach. The notion of convenience comes with the price that doesn’t nourish our mind or body.

What we need is not the action of listening, but the result of hearing.

I know I can have the result of hearing, at least  in an “inconvenient” way. When I take a CD out of the box and put it in the CD player, I commit the next 30 or 40 something minutes of my life to that music. And a few seconds more to find the right disc and press a few buttons does come at any significant sacrifice.

PS: Last month, Geo and I found this Edison cylinder player in Sumerset, PA and took a video of it.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.


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