Courtesy Doug Brown.
There are those that download or stream music, and there are those who collect records. Then there are the hardened crate diggers, those willing to wade through musty boxes of vinyl, bypassing ABBA and Billy Joel in search of black gold. And then there's Doug Brown, a Toronto high-school teacher and vinyl junkie whose collecting tendencies represent the far end of the record collecting spectrum, less a hobby than a way of life.
"When I bought my house, I asked the home inspector to look into the weight capacities of any given wall," says Brown, whose collection-about 5,000 LPs plus more than 500 seven-inch singles-spans three rooms, contains everything from Scandinavian "grindcore" to Supertramp and weighs upwards of a tonne. "He thought I was nuts."
But then, Brown isn't your typical collector, even by digger standards.
Besides owning Canada's largest Metallica collection, which includes everything from test runs and foreign pressings to a 35mm print of the trailer for Some Kind of Monster, he also hosts his own record fair, the Toronto Midtown Record Show. "I started it three years ago, sort of for selfish reasons," he says. "Imagine tens of thousands of records in one room, and you're the first one that gets to look through them all. That's how absurd it's become."
Of course, he's not the only one in town digging for wax. Last year, vinyl sales worldwide climbed to US $177 million, the highest they've been since 1997, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. It's a trend that's reflected in yearly (and more recently, twice-yearly) Record Store Day events, the latest of which happens this Saturday.
Created in 2008 to draw attention to the dwindling brick-and-mortar record store, RSD has become a global phenomenon, with labels and stores offering special, very limited pressings of new and old albums. Record Store Day is the streamlined version of Brown's more dedicated digging: with labels printing limited run exclusives in seeding them into mom-and-pop record shops. It offers the thrill of picking up a "rare" release, with none of the solitary, hunched-over labour.
"I've bought a few Record Store Day releases, but most of my purchasing happens outside of stores," says Brown. "The most interesting records don't tend to make it to a store; they're sold privately, at garage sales, or online, or in dollar bins."
When not working, Brown is hunting for records-at shows, in shops and online, searching through eBay, Craigslist and Kijiji. "I've met collectors with 20,000 LPs in garages and storage lockers, which I spent days digging through."
Then there was the time he trudged into a flooded basement. "The water went to my knees, and he said I could have the records - which were dry inside sealed containers - for my trouble.
Anyone who's ever flicked through LPs at a Goodwill or Value Village, only to come up empty handed an hour or later is bound to wonder if it's worth the time investment.
"That's the thing with digging," says Brown. "You have to be willing to waste your time, because a lot of the work involves sifting through so much of what you don't want, in hope of suddenly encountering something truly special or valuable. Even at the end of a show, after all the bins have been picked over by dealers and people like me, I can still find a record worth $50 in a dollar bin."
But digging isn't just for looking for what you know you want; it's also about allowing yourself to fall into the rabbit hole of obscurity. "Five or 10 years ago, I didn't even know what grindcore was, let alone Scandinavian grindcore," says Brown. "And even now I'm likely only touching on five percent of what's out there."
Record collecting, he says, is equal parts anthropology and history, more than just memorizing labels and catalogue numbers. "I see a record and notice the year, or the city it's from, and then I start thinking about what else came out around that time, or in that town. Who produced it? What's the label? Often you don't know, and that's the gamble."
Then there's the ephemera that a digger can unearth, such as a student card Brown came across recently while going through bunch of records. "I felt like I was looking through someone's personal belongings, someone's favourite records," he says. "Every record on my shelf, no matter how bad, was someone's favourite at some point. And every time I'm out there digging through records, I'm thinking about this, how music shapes lives and tell stories. That's why I collect records, because of music; because it's bigger than me."