This Is Your Brain On Vinyl, and Other Tales From Obsessive Collecting in the Pandemic

People who collect vinyl often describe their hobby as an "addiction." Here's what its vice-like grip looks like from the inside

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This Is Your Brain On Vinyl, and Other Tales From Obsessive Collecting in the Pandemic

It started slowly late last year. An album here and one there. Only essentials, I promised myself. But as I started poking around the internet to build out my vinyl collection, I realized many essentials—the albums that helped shape my musical taste—were out of print or otherwise difficult to obtain at a reasonable price. In secondary markets, like the marketplace of the online music database Discogs, it’s common to see records going for several times their retail price. New releases—by which I also mean new pressings of old albums—often sell out quickly, months in advance of their street dates. Demand forces a collector to think ahead—“Will I ever want this in my collection?”—and pull the trigger within minutes of a record going on sale, lest it sell out and you pay several times the retail price when you realize later that indeed, that record is something you had to have. You live in fear of reaching a point in the future where you wish you bought that thing that you could have. Hobbies are supposed to be about pleasure, but for me, what has taken over this hobby is another sensation all together: anxiety.

Not long after I began collecting vinyl, I realized that it actually had the grip of a habit. It’s not a sensible hobby by any means—here I am paying $30 for music that I could stream for free on several platforms. It isn’t just about the love of music, but about the thrill of the hunt itself. Naturally, the hunt would be less thrilling without competition. I’m but one of thousands of vinyl obsessives.

In my travels (by which I mostly mean internet browsing, though there is nothing quite like the feeling of possibility that bubbles up as I approach a brick and mortar record shop on foot), I’ve seen some pretty amazing/utterly stupid/maybe both shit. For example, in late March of this year, a decade-old album from a disbanded group sold 5,000 copies in 100 seconds. The record was Daft Punk’s score for the 2010 film Tron: Legacy, pressed on multicolored double vinyl by film memorabilia company Mondo. Despite being a minor work in the beloved duo’s sparse catalog, the album moved an average of 50 units per second.

That fervor was more reminiscent of a Supreme drop than a casual perusal of one’s neighborhood record store, and with good reason—the month before, the album, which had been previously offered in November 2020, had sold for $199.99 on Discogs, whose marketplace of secondhand vinyl so robust that it effectively sets the value of records in real-time. Think of it as a sort of user-generated Blue Book for vinyl. Mondo was asking $35, a steal.

I know all this, by the way, because I was playing along. I was among the disgruntled collectors who tried and failed to procure that Daft Punk album (I followed a bad link), and I’ve thought about it a lot in the months since. I really wish I had on vinyl music that I haven’t listened to in its entirety for about 10 years. Tron: Legacy is but one of several releases I’ve seen virtually evaporate as soon as they’re put up for sale. Like carousel rings that I have to pay for (and do so gladly), some I grab and some pass me by. And oh, the exhilaration when I get my hands on something whose immediate Discogs price suggests it’s of great value. It makes good music sound better. Earlier this year, I was thrilled to acquire the first vinyl release of Detroit house producer Moodymann’s 2020 album Taken Away. That’s an album that I do like but liked even more when I saw that it was going for $183 on Discogs a week after its release, a massive mark-up from the $35 I paid for it. The price has settled in the time since, with copies available in the $75 range. That doesn’t make me feel high, per se, but smug for getting it cheap.

“It’s always nice to know we’re doing the right thing in comparison to other humans, right?” is how Dr. Shirley Mueller put this obsession into perspective. Mueller is a physician, board-certified in neurology and psychiatry, the author of the 2019 book Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play, and a collector herself (of Chinese porcelain). Watching an item appreciate in value, she suggested, “substantiates how wise you are and how smart you are that you picked it out.” But if I feel like some kind of genius for having hopped on R&B artist Joyce Wrice’s self-released debut Overgrown when I see it going for several times more than what I paid for it, I feel like I have it less together when I lust after a restocked colored variant of a record I just bought, which recently happened with Digable Planets’ 1993 album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). (I didn’t bite.) I wouldn’t say I hide my purchasing from my boyfriend, though I do try to rescue the mail before he gets home, filing my new purchases on the shelf immediately, lest he ask for the umpteenth time, “Another record?” (The answer is always yes because there’s always another record.) I recently found myself seriously considering dropping $300 on a record I already own, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, albeit a supposedly far superior pressing of it. Someone on the Reddit /VinylCollectors thread where I saw the coveted out-of-print Davis pressing advertised called it “a great deal.” It’s gone for as much as $529.41 on Discogs, where its median selling price is $317.50. That comment was hard to argue with.

For years now, vinyl has been rhapsodized at length for its uniqueness among media. It takes two hands to hold (if you’re being cautious to not get your fingerprints all over it, and you should be cautious) and comes housed in art. Vinyl emits a unique so-called “warmth” when played, according to some of its fans, and its uncompressed sound can be thrilling to behold in a streaming world. It probably seems ridiculous to outsiders when vinyl enthusiasts claim to “hear things I’ve never heard before” while listening to a cherished album on vinyl, but the subjective experience can be earth-shattering on a good sound system. To my ears, Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album, a favorite of mine since its release in 1996, has a soundstage as big as a small galaxy on wax. An already astonishing piece of music somehow manages to astonish even more when played on vinyl, as I discovered last year.

“There’s something sacred about the whole thing,” musician John Vanderslice waxes ecstatic in the 2020 Vice documentary Vinyl Nation. “Twelve by twelve. Thirty-three rpm. The visual idea of this thing spinning for 18 minutes. The idea that a needle… first off, it’s a diamond… There’s a diamond that’s like bumping in between this canyon.” Later in that doc, a record collector cries when she considers a future in which her collection no longer belongs to her and its parts are separated.

I can relate to a certain amount of vinyl preciousness. A well-mastered record’s crisp highs and guttural lows transmit a distinct emotional dynamism. It sparkles in your ears. It moves you unlike any recorded sound. As a result of hearing them on vinyl, I have fallen in love with albums that I previously ignored (Sade’s Stronger Than Pride has replaced Love Deluxe as my favorite of the band’s LPs, thanks to the pristine box set of the band’s discography released last year, This Far). The relative inconvenience of vinyl compared to streaming means that I tend to sit through full albums (or at least complete sides of them) instead of shuffling around. The medium forces your focus in an ADHD-enabling world. When music streams as readily as water from the faucet, having it in solid form makes it so much easier to bond with.

The demand for vinyl that makes it so alluring has reached a fever pitch. A large package from Billboard that ran in June, “How Vinyl Got Its Groove Back,” detailed the state of the industry. Vinyl raked in $626 million in revenue in 2020 (up 29 percent, according to Market Watch), and sales are up almost 100 percent this year. 2020 was also the year that sales of vinyl outpaced those of CDs for the first time since the ’80s, according to CNN. The aforementioned Discogs marketplace was home to 11.96 million sales of vinyl albums in 2020 (a 40 percent bump from the previous year). As many have noted, a lot of this activity seemed a direct result of lockdown. When I started amassing vinyl last fall, the idea that I was filling the void people and socializing had left in my life with things (records in this case) started creeping in. Upon further reflection, this seemed less like a metaphor and more like exactly what I was in fact doing.

Mueller told me that while there are collectors who replace people with objects and even have intelligible rationales for doing so (objects don’t talk back!), most collecting isn’t so pathological. “Most of the time [the things we collect] are in addition to the positives of life,” she said. “They’re additive rather than subtracting and distracting.” She suspected the collecting boom of lockdown, as noted in several trend pieces like this one, had more to do with finally having time to go deep with a preexisting interest than disordered behavior.

Meanwhile, per Billboard’s reporting, record pressing plants are falling well behind the vinyl demand. A piece reported that while the world’s record pressers can manufacture 160 million records a year, the current demand sits around an estimated 320 to 400 million. Supplies are tight, and backlogs mean that some plants take over half a year to turn around orders. This is on top of the relative pittance labels will receive in vinyl profits (another piece estimates that if a record company makes $3 or $4 per unit of a 3,000 run that sells out, the company just landed a whopping $9,000 to $12,000). The incentive to pick up the pace is often nonexistent, especially because the vinyl bubble seems destined to pop at some point, as bubbles are wont to do.

High demand on low supply makes obtaining vinyl stressful. Flippers—people who snap up new releases for the express purpose of selling them at several times of their retail value—abound. Marked-up records will sit on Discogs for months, maybe years. Some records end up acting like Veblen goods—transactions are logged publicly on Discogs, so people can see how much past buyers paid for records. How much people have paid dictates the current prices. A 2020 colored reissue of Gwen Stefani’s solo debut Love.Angel.Music.Baby has sold for $148 on Discogs. Currently, the lowest price it’s going for on Discogs is €125, or $147.42.

Adam Minter, author of the 2019 book Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, who also collects records, says the widespread interest in vinyl mimics that which was more local to Japan years ago in its audiophile market. “You’d have people flying over from Tokyo to U.S. flea markets and buying vinyl to bring back,” he recalled. As for the retail-to-secondhand flipping, Minter describes this as “Capitalism 101,” based on the principle of manipulating scarcity to create a margin. “People are always going to be scalping stuff in limited quantity and people are always going to be engineering scarcity,” he said by phone. “So long as there’s free markets, I think we’ll be seeing that till the end of time.”

People often discuss their hobbies as an addiction, and there can be a slippery slope between the two. According to Mueller’s assessment of our brains on collecting, objects can stimulate our brains just like drugs can.

“The anticipation of obtaining an object stimulates our pleasure center more than even obtaining it,” she explained. “That’s why you always go after the next record.” Mueller’s words remind me of some written by Hunter Biden in his memoir of his life on crack, Beautiful Things: The best part of smoking crack is the millisecond before the pipe hits one’s lips.

That dopamine rush plus the positive reinforcement of a record appreciating in value before your eyes (at least vis a vis Discogs prices) makes the already enjoyable experience of building a music library irresistible. But it is the act of building itself, not future potential, wherein the true value lies.

“There is very little that sustains its value over the decades, much less centuries,” said Minter. “I’ve spent enough time in thrift stores and reporting on collectibles. Vinyl behaves like other collectible markets. It sort of gives me some humility when I buy the stuff in the sense that I enjoy it. I’m not buying it with the illusion that it’s going to be part of my IRA, that I’m going to make money off it.” In a 2017 piece on, Third Man Records co-founder Ben Blackwell suggested that viewing vinyl as an investment was “dumb as shit.”

“You should think of resale value for a car or a house. But a record?” he continued. “If you’re getting into anything for any sort of monetary reasons, you should just be buying fucking stocks.”

What distinguishes vinyl from other previously hot collectibles, what makes it more than just flattened Beanie Babies for music nerds, is its usefulness. A record is simultaneously an object to behold and something to play. But these qualities are at odds, as vinyl degrades over time (to what degree and how much this can be mitigated with a good turntable and needle is debated). Worn-out vinyl is both less playable and less collectable, which means the best way to preserve your collection is not to use it, which from my perspective defeats the purpose of having it at all. There is also the environmental impact of vinyl to consider, including carcinogenic chemicals released from the PVC that’s used to press records. You can’t play records if you don’t have an Earth to play them on.

But until then, the turntables keep spinning.

“We have to believe that we are important in some way, and anything that substantiates that is good for us in terms of feeling positive everyday and probably even helping other people,” Mueller told me. “If we feel good about ourselves, then we can be nicer to other people, and beneficial, and help them do things.”

I love her optimistic spin on my habit. If anyone asks, my record collection helped prime me for re-entry into society. Vinyl, like nature, is healing.

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