I don’t suppose we’re at all unusual in finding the repeated variations of lockdown bringing some compensation in the chance to listen to more music. We’ve been spoiled by the various Facebook Live streams that friends have been doing, which have in turn inspired us to do our own and sent us delving into the boxes of records for that forgotten gem. But we’ve also been trying to dig into other stuff in our collections and reacquaint ourselves with the music we share a house with. We’ve spun LPs on a Dansette out in garden in warm weather and, as I write this, we’re playing through a bunch of CDs newly-arrived from Jasmine Records. I’ve even had my entire LP collection out of its corner of the attic to sort through it and put it in some kind of order. However, all this has made meincreasingly conscious that I’ve really no proper idea of what we’ve got, by whom, on what format and what medium. Cue the kind of conversation that goes ‘I fancy playing Goatsville in tonight’s set – I’m sure we’ve got that on something…’ and leads into frantic combing through singles and albums, before resorting to sites like Rockin’ Country Style to find out what it might have been released on, flicking through music on phones to see if iTunes might give us a clue, and eventually ending up finding it’s tucked away on a CD that we can’t play on a turntable!
To give some idea of the scale of the problem, our singles are divided between the stuff I use regularly for DJing at clubs, which lives in flight cases ready for use, our go-to listening material, stored where we can get at it easily in a selection of period record boxes, and the ‘don’t need to play too often, but want to hang onto it’ stuff, duplicates and alternative issues that we’ve acquired along the way and that can live somewhere more inaccessible. Then there’s the LPs, most of which have to live in the attic, my 78s, which are going to have to be tucked away somewhere at ground level before they wreak havoc on the roof joists, and CDs – hundreds of them – less tangible in their appeal, but the source of huge numbers of tracks that we could never own on vinyl, let alone originalissues, if indeed it ever appeared on disc.
In an ideal world, all of that would be stored in one magnificent record room with racks of bespoke storage along the walls and an awesome set of equipment at one end to play it all on – but then we’d have nowhere to live! So the more pragmatic challenge is to be able to work out where to look for what we want.
A brutally realist approach would be to put everything into a single format so we could find it all in one place with a bit of simple searching. In truth, I’ve already done that to a large extent with a device called a Brennan – essentially an MP3 player with a CD slot and a massive memory. Put in a CD, the internal library works out what it is, it converts it to MP3 and tucks it away for future enjoyment to be played either as an album, in one of a limited number of playlists or – for the really brave – on completely random play. Mind you, the latter can result in the bizarre experience of a bit of searing rockabilly being immediately followed by some deep soul, cool jazz, a movement from a concerto, a TV soundtrack or a bit of British comedy (our collection of vintage music types is nothing if not wide-ranging!). Of course, that needs the source to be either a CD or something already converted to MP3, so over the years I’ve painstakingly recorded most of my vinyl onto music CDs which means I’ve not only been able to feed the Brennan, but also load stuff into iTunes and still have a physical CD as a backup or to play in the car. I’ve toyed with the idea of trying a direct deck-to-MP3 turntable but most of them seem to involve a fair amount of manipulation of the data files afterwards and you don’t get the physical CD as an alternative format. The Brennan has its limitations – mostly resolved by its more recent versions, but I can’t face the cost or task of starting all over again – so I’ve settled for the fact that it doesn’t recognize a lot of more recent CDs, so searching isn’t terribly reliable. That said, it’s a great way of being able to press a few buttons and be able to immerse ourselves into music we might have forgotten we had and, being portable and with a built-in amplifier, I’ve also been able to unplug it from the stereo and take it with me while I’ve been working away.
Of course, a better way of establishing a well-catalogued and searchable library of recorded music would be to load it all into iTunes. I’d still have to do either the vinyl-to-CD-to-PC bit, or grasp the deck to MP3 nettle but, once loaded, finding stuff in iTunes is fairly easy, especially if working on a PC or laptop with a screen and keyboard to play with. The problem is firstly one of storage – an unedited collection the size of ours is going to take up an awful lot of storage space on any device unless one entrusts it to ‘the cloud’, and I’m sufficiently vintage to be unhappy at having so much valuable material stashed away somewhere I can’t see or control (yeah, luddite, I know – but what do you expect from a MidCentury Chap?). The other problem is that you’re left either having to play music through a set of LoFi PC speakers or plug the device into a decent HiFi amplifier, which either means compromising on audio quality or suffering the inconvenience of having your device hooked up to the music system when you might need it for something else (I won’t go into the furious debate about the impact of MP3 compression on the quality of the sound itself – not least because a lot of the stuff we play wasn’t exactly recorded in glorious high fidelity technology). It’s a shame in one respect, as I love that bit at the bottom of the iTunes screen that tells you the total playing time; I’ve got a suspicion that if I stuck the whole collection in there I’d discover I quickly need to find a recipe for eternal life to get through it all!
More than anything else, it’s all a bit sterile. Whilst we might want to know what’s tucked away on what LP, squirreled away on 45 in one of the boxes, or on one of those massive CD compilations with tiny writing on the cover, we’re quite likely to want to play something in the format we’ve acquired it on – especially if that’s delicious stinky old vinyl. For live DJing – or at least the way we do it – that’s essential, but even for home enjoyment there’s something immensely satisfying about popping an album on the turntable rather than just dialling it up on a device. Which takes us back to trying to work out what we’ve got and where to find it…
So, my project for Lockdown III (or whatever it is we’re in now), is to work out some way of cataloguing all this stuff. Again, I’m part way there as – collector and administrator (OK, anorak) that I am – I’ve got lists of the 78s, 45s, LPs and CDs in the collection. That’s most of what I need for the 78s and 45s, as they’re pretty much one track each side and one artist; on the other hand of course,albums, whether on vinyl or CD, will each have multiple tracks, if not artists so I need to turn the single entry for each album into a track listing. I’ve had a look at some specialist software, but most of that seems to come with an annual feeand it means being committed to keeping the software up to date for it to work.So I think it’s going to be a case of creating the mother of all spreadsheets. I’ll be aided in my quest by sites like Discogs where I can pull down track and artist listings from their database, and the Brennan’s memory will be handy as it can do a data dump (though sadly not in spreadsheet format). Still, I’ve a feeling this is going to be a labour of love that should take me well beyond lockdown and hopefully into our post-Coronavirus existence. It’ll be fun finding out what’s there that I might have forgotten existed, and I’ll be sticking stuff on the turntable as I go to keep me entertained; I just need to stop myself getting tempted into trying to catalogue recording dates, information about all the musicians and all the other lovely snippets of information that would turn this into a never-ending labour of love.
And if it all proves too complicated? Well, I can always revert to a much more organic approach of ‘I think we’ve got that on something – hang on and I’ve have a root in the attic’! Watch this space, and if you’ve got any bright ideas, please let me know…