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Unpacking My Record Collection

In the age of the MP3, when all that is solid melts into digital air, what is to become of record collecting's physical attractions? If only Walter Benjamin were here to say.

First published in FEED online magazine, March 2000.

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. -- Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library" I AM UNPACKING my CD collection. Yes, I am. Not the way Benjamin famously unpacked his book collection, seven decades ago, amid "the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper." Not hardly. I'm unpacking my music the way we generally unpack information these days: by setting it free entirely from dust and paper and crates of any kind. By making it immaterial.

Neil Young, Al Green, Joni Mitchell, Thelonious Monk, Portishead, Joćo Gilberto -- one by one, over the weeks and months since I bought a computer fast enough to handle the job, I have been taking the gems of my collection down off the shelves, compressing their contents into MP3 files, and transferring them to the unseen surface of a thirteen-gigabyte hard disk. The technical term for this process is "ripping," but what it feels like, really, is transubstantiation: hard, shiny CDs disappear into the computer's maw, and there, at the click of a button, they melt away into pure and fluid musical information. The CDs pop back out intact, of course, but having given up their ghost to my machine, they no longer retain even the vestigial charisma that they had going in. My music collection, in principle, remains on my shelves, but increasingly it lives in my computer.

And in other people's computers, too, naturally. For these are the times that try intellectual-property holders' souls, when music flies from hard drive to hard drive on wings of desire and in the face of every known law of copyright. Most afternoons of late you'll find me logged into Napster Inc.'s increasingly notorious worldwide MP3 exchange (which was recently sued by the Recording Industry Association of America and profiled on the front page of the New York Times last week), where I open my music collection to all comers in return for the right to suck down megabytes of Moby, Beck, and Cher from theirs. Some days, when my downloading is done, I sit watching the uploads go out, wondering at the user names and their choices. (Who is this Beat Thief? Who is dkalfus, of the Leonard Cohen fixation? Who is Duchess and what does she want with all my bossa nova records?) I sit and wonder where exactly my collection is headed, and now and then I wonder the same about collections generally.

For Benjamin, who thought as deeply and as feelingly as anyone ever has about the relationship between modern individuals and the artifacts modernity piles up around them, collections displayed that relationship at its most intense and intimate. Collecting was a passion, erotic at heart, and like all such passions it approached the soul of its object through the body, through the object's physical manifestation and the history written palpably on its surfaces. Benjamin loved his books not so much for the words they contained as for the indissoluble blend of content, craft, and wear-and-tear that told the story of each book's fateful journey to its place in his library.

Could he possibly, then, have loved a collection as disembodied and dispersed as my growing library of MP3s? Would he even recognize this weightless, borderless cloud of data as a collection?

I like to think so. Because if ever an age was in need of his passionately object-oriented intelligence, it's this one. The Internet is changing everything, we hear, but we hear suprisingly little about how it's changing the erotics of our relationship to stuff. And I suspect those changes are nothing minor. I suspect, indeed, that we stand on the threshold of an era in which collecting -- the consummate act of consumption -- is more intense and intimate than ever. And I'm not just talking about eBay, either (though it's true our unprecedented power to lose our souls and credit ratings to the pursuit of rare Scandinavian ceramics must be reckoned a sign of momentous times). I'm talking, rather, about the pursuit of the immaterial, of the disembodied -- of information pure and fluid.

I'm talking about my MP3s. And I wish to God old Walter Benjamin were alive to articulate the complex pleasures their presence on my hard drive gives me. I wish he were here to suggest what is really new about this new kind of collection, and what this new kind of collecting might have to say about the shape of our desires right now, right here, at modernity's latest leading edge.

ONE BRIGHT AFTERNOON at a suburban Southern California supermarket in the year 1971, a harried single mother gave in to the clamoring of her two young children, boy and girl, and purchased for them a long-playing record prominently displayed near the checkout line. The boy, eight years old, was me. The record: Do It Now! Twenty Great Original Hits, a haphazard compilation of almost-memorable rock and soul chart-toppers from the previous three years. My sister and I had seen it advertised in the gaps between late-afternoon cartoons and had come to want it with the heartbreakingly pure desire of the child consumer. It was the first record either of us had ever owned.

That day I was inducted into the mystery that Benjamin declared "the most profound enchantment for the collector": the transformation of objects into possessions, "the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them." Do It Now! was my first taste of that thrill. It was the beginning of my record collection -- and of my life as a record collector.

Fast forward now to the twilight years of the twentieth century. One thousand vinyl records and eight hundred compact discs later, the thrill, for me, was definitively gone. My discophilia had grown and flourished throughout my adolescence, leading me, after college, into the one truly professional form of record collecting there is: I became a rock critic. And while at first the job felt like heaven on earth, Christmas every day, and all the other things nonprofessionals imagine it must feel like to be relentlessly barraged by free music-industry product, within a few years it mostly just felt like a relentless barrage.

My hunger to acquire withered away and eventually died, taking my rock-critical career with it. I started writing about other things, stopped getting free music in the mail, and incredibly, stopped buying records altogether. I was done.

BUT THEN, late last spring, after several years of indifference to music, I saw something in a college dorm room that reminded me what the collector's passion looked and felt like. What I saw was a pirate's treasure: a thick loose-leaf album stuffed with some three dozen naked CD-Rs, each one burnt with about a hundred MP3 files. The boy who showed me this trove had gathered its roughly three hundred and fifty LPs' worth of songs over two years of assiduous downloading. He was a warez trafficker, a member of various groups dedicated to moving pirated digital goods -- software, games, movies, music -- as fast as high-bandwidth Net lines allowed.

"The zero-day scene," he called it. "It's a competition. A race to see who can get the latest stuff up first. Way it works is, say some CDs are being released tomorrow. These groups have people that go out, buy these CDs, or get them however they can, rip them, and then put them up on our site."

The boy talked fast, his knee bouncing with nervous energy. I could see in his eyes, and in the hasty ballpoint scrawls with which he'd labeled the MP3s in his binder, that it wasn't the songs themselves that interested him. It wasn't even how many he had. What he collected was the speed with which they'd traveled from their corporate origins to his computer. Their fluidity, not their history. The whole obsessive idea, in fact, was to compress a record's history to nothingness, to a vanishing sliver of time: zero days.

I was already interested, by then, in what was being called the MP3 revolution. Who wasn't? But up to that point, my interest had mainly been in the questions that interested everybody else: How would the record industry respond to MP3's subversion of copyright, or for that matter survive it? What new possibilities did the format offer for musical expression and for musical careers? The young pirate's treasure, though, suggested other questions, the kinds a Walter Benjamin might ask, and, as I dwelt on what I'd seen, I started to wonder if I couldn't come up with some answers on my own.

And thus began my second life as a collector. The new computer arrived in the fall, and within a few weeks I had discovered the thrill of a new kind of acquisition. Moving songs from CD to hard drive, it turned out, felt less like relocating them than like minting them anew. It was an act of redemption -- a release of music hitherto trapped in amber into a new, more ample existence. Unpacked and loaded into a "jukebox" program like RealJukebox or MusicMatch, my records dissolved into the liquid-crystal order of a database. Organizing them was suddenly more than easy. It was a game. With a click I sorted them by artist, with another click by genre, with another by album title. Click: I called up all songs less than two minutes long. Click: all instrumentals. Click: all songs that sort of sound like that one Kid Loco jammy.

The pleasures of organization, of course, have always been part of collecting's appeal -- just as much as is the chaos of memories and emotions invested in the objects of the collection. Collectors have always catalogued, categorized, arranged their things in tidy rows even as their things insist on retaining the disheveled specificity of their individual charms. "There is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension," wrote Benjamin, "between the poles of disorder and order." But is it possible the supreme organizability of digital collections has finally upset that balance? Does the disembodiment of the collectible entail a loss not only of the intimate, possessive touch but of a certain intimately personal disorder as well?

Perhaps. But if unpacking my CD collection has drained it of some kinds of intimacy, I can't help feeling it has also infused it with others. Sitting before my computer, gazing at the lists of songs on my screen, I feel closer to my music than I ever have before. I point, I click, I hear. I can know these records now as I have never known them, moving from song to song with an immediacy no user interface from the Victrola to the CD carrousel has yet afforded. I can chase associations and similarities that might have remained hidden or only guessed at while my songs still lived in plastic, on the shelves. Stripped of its physical shell, my music collection lies naked before me, more available to my touch, in some ways, than it was when I could actually touch it.

And if I am now on more intimate terms with my collection, then I am also more intimate -- thanks, above all, to Napster -- with my fellow collectors. And not to sound weird or anything, but I do mean intimate. Maybe it's just me, but I suspect that most people who have ever opened their personal computers to live, incoming connections from anywhere on the Internet -- as Napster requires users to do -- have felt an almost sexual frisson at their sudden connectedness and vulnerability to the wired population of the world. Add to this the fact that Napster is a network essentially saturated with raw, undiluted music lust (enhanced, thanks to copyright law, by the perennial turn-on of the illicit), and you are left to conclude that record collecting has become a sexy pursuit indeed. The traditional eros of collecting has been perverted, connecting the collector not just to objects but, of all things, to other people.

It would be nice if Walter Benjamin could be here to see this. Because if anything gave him pause about collecting, it was its essential selfishness. "Unpacking My Library," his classic essay on the subject, ends on an elegiac note, with the recognition that a democratic age was no place for the private hoarding of beautiful objects. He predicted the extinction of the collector and the collector's passion, and while he agreed that public collections were rightfully the way of the future, he insisted that only a private owner could really know an object as it deserves to be known. His passion and his politics collided in a contradiction he never managed to resolve. He went to his grave convinced there was no way for the intimate knowledge of the collector and the shared knowledge of the collective to occupy one and the same social space.

If only he could have logged onto Napster for an afternoon.