Physical media: records, cassettes, compact discs, mini-discs(?)….Let’s discuss the different methods of organising a collection. To do that I am forced to make the following outrageous and unfounded claim: for our present purposes, all physical media is created equal. Obviously it’s not true. But for now just pretend that CDs hold the same charms as cassettes, and the same aesthetic lustre as vinyl records. We all curate and nurture our collections with equal tenderness.
When I was young, and in possession of about fifteen CDs, I would manage a chart like system. The rules were simple. Every time a CD got played, it moved up one on the rack. The original factory setting for this system was alphabetical, for want of a more equitable method. But with so small a collection, and no other means of listening to music on demand, a beloved album would quickly float to the top. As the collection grew, problems began to arise with this approach. A new CD would be placed at the bottom. After an initial burst of momentum propelling them up, they would quickly run out of steam. New entries would find themselves having to be played thirty or forty times before making it to the top ten. It became harder to remember where certain albums were located. Compilations were also allowed to compete. But their presence upon scrutiny looked messy.
One soon feels an irresistible urge to transcend the chaos of youth . A more egalitarian and systematic approach became necessary. This was my first foray into a simple alphabetical approach. But the young collection is often randomly eclectic, with early acquisitions of Santana sat next to Gorillaz and Linkin Park. Anomalous dad rock – either gifted by well-meaning relatives or purchased before the age of reason – would sit uncomfortably alongside our newest and proudest purchases of Killswitch Engage. Compilations were naturally relegated to the post ‘Z’ section; the misc bin.
After a time this discord becomes unbearable. By the late teens one has discovered their ‘thing’. We purchase batches of releases all at once, usually all in the same vein; entire back catalogues are acquired wholesale. Surely they should sit closer together on the shelf? Not separated by the unforgiving uniformity of the alphabet. At this time I had a clear idea of what I wanted. I would separate by genre, then alphabetical, then in order of release. But what genres?
‘Why, based on your current collection: black metal, death metal, grindcore, heavy metal, rock, classical, and misc of course.’
‘Ok, but what about Carcass’s post ‘Symphonies of Sickness’ albums, surely they go in death metal, that means splitting up their back catalogue. What about Kyuss? They rock or metal mate? What about Burzum? Some of it’s ambient? Should that go in misc? What about that Future Sound of London album, that can’t sit in its own electronica section surely?’
‘Just stick it in with classical and misc’.
‘Wait, so classical and misc is one section’
And so it went on. After a brief moment of insanity where I tried to order everything chronologically by release, then chronologically by when I had purchased them, the genres gradually dissolved into the cardinal metal, rock, and other. And of course compilations remained at the end in their misc bin. But people still asked ‘Why aren’t Rammstein in your metal section’, ‘Why is Dead Can Dance in the same section as Debussy?’ ‘Are Rush really a heavy metal band?’
I didn’t want my collection to be yet another fuse for a tiresome genre debate. It’s just a way of storing music. So after some years I just dissolved everything into alphabetical order, in order of release by artist, for solo artists their surname would be used. Classical still remains in its own section. My classical music collection is relatively uncontroversial to segregate, using the generally accepted definition of the term. And this method has served me well for many years.
But there’s one arbitration I have to make to achieve this end. The scourge of split EPs. Honestly, how do you file them? I have always just taken my favourite artist on the EP, usually the artist that prompted me to buy the thing in the first place, and filed in their section. But I find this does not sit so well anymore. For a while I only owned one or two and I could squirrel the anomaly away in the back of my mind. A glitch in perfection is inevitable. But a recent purchase of ‘The Spirit Never Dies’ (2016), a Graveland/Nokturnal Mortum split, has apparently broken this camel’s back.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHERE TO FILE SPLIT EPs?!
Top billed artist? There isn’t always one.
Favourite artist? Any reorganisation of my collection has always been guided by an overarching quest for objectivity, this flies in the face of that principle.
Just put them at the back with the other compilations. Well that’s a smack in the face to the artists on that EP. How would they feel if they happily sold them to punters at gigs, thinking they’re going to a good home, only to discover we simple shit munchers are filing their labours of love in the misc bin? Along with ‘American Anthems’ and that free CD we got with Kerrang! Ten years ago?
Create a separate split EP section. If I had about twenty of them maybe, at the moment I have four or five in a collection of over a thousand. Also…how would you organise your split collection? We’re back where we started. This is classic Theresa May can-kicking.
The honest to god truth is I have no answer. Split EPs are the collectors equivalent of discovering a hidden contradiction at the heart of basic arithmetic. The ‘this sentence is false’ of archiving physical media. The unsolvable equation blocking any claim to fidelity in our filing systems. The only solution is to petition artists to stop fucking releasing them. Never mind the benefits of mutual promotion, cooperation, shared exposure. Just fucking stop cos we’re dying out here. This won’t solve the problem of those already released and at large. For me personally, I have torched my split EPs and hence the problem itself. As I write this I am warmed by a bonfire of purity and consistency. The destruction of these works (and the stench of plastic fumes) is a small price to pay for a good night’s sleep.