“Cool Records Don’t Make The Basis For Good History”: A Chat About The Perils Of Record Collecting (And Weird Biases Of Nick Hornby) With Cultural Guru Karl Hagstrom Miller


Karl Hagstrom Miller is a cultural historian (and professor at UT-Austin), whose first book, Segregating Sound, rethinks folk and blues by looking at the formative moments of these genres through the lens of the intellectuals and phonograph companies with the most interest in shaping them.

I first encountered Miller at this year’s IASPM conference (the International Association for the Study of Popular Music; think EMP’s older, nerdier brother. Miller presented at both). His presentation, titled “The Prices of Scarcity: The Culture and Economy of Out-of-Print Jazz Recordings,” was easily my favorite of the entire conference. He’s kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his talk.

One of the more interesting ideas you explore is that neither of the two long-held popular myths about record collectors works to explain “the exploitation and opportunism at the heart of record collecting.” Can you elaborate a bit on this?

I started out wanting to write a piece about collecting and its multiple roles within music economies and scholarship. I was surprised to find that the vast majority of writing about collectors depicts them as a pretty sorry lot. They are hoarders and packrats who use their accumulations of vinyl to compensate for their psychological shortcoming and their inability to forge meaningful human relationships or to make an impact on the world of music they love so much. At best, they were depicted as a little weird. And most of these depictions were coming from self-professed record collectors! Something else was going on behind the curtain.

First, collecting is about consumption. It is therefore about money. Many of the collectors I have come across have more than a bit of disdain for major record labels and their historical tendency to care about money more than music. These protests–while I share a great deal with them–have begun to ring a bit untrue to me. If you’ve ever seen a collector haggling over a box of rare records discovered at a flea market or garage sale you know: Collecting is just as much about the money–buying low and selling high, even if it means misleading the mark into believing their records aren’t worth much. Collectors have largely developed an alternative, parallel music market. In many respects, it differs more in scale than in kind when compared to major players. Few sit around the bar telling tales about the ultra-rare records they bought for a small fortune. They share stories of getting their prized jewels for a song.

Can you give some historical examples of record collectors actually shaping entire musical genres?

Once you get beyond the stereotype of the pasty, out-of-touch record nerd, one can see that there are a lot of normal collectors that are known for other things. Record collecting and music writing often go hand in hand, not surprisingly. I briefly surveyed some of the schools of music writing that came out of record-collecting communities, from the hot jazz advocacy journalism of the 1930s and 1940s through a lot of recent writing on hip-hop.

What interests me, and what I have not yet fully figured out, is the ways in which the interests of writing music history overlap or collide with the interests of record collecting. How does the collecting drive shape the kinds of stories authors find interesting and important? Many, but not all, collectors put a special value on the rarity of a record. Things that are difficult to find are more sought after. There are comparatively few Barbra Streisand collectors. Her discs are relatively easy to come by. There are many more who salivate upon finding Charley Patton 78s, Sun Ra self-pressings, or a pristine copy of the Bley-Peacock Synthesizer Show. I’m right there with them.

What interests me is how this valuing of rarity butts up against some of the central mandates of social history. Is the collector’s interest in rare music the basis for good and useful history writing? It gets down to how we define popular music. Many scholars have made the distinction between two meanings of popular music. On the one hand, popular music can be defined as that which sells the best. Consumers vote with their dollars. Generations of scholars have attempted to move beyond this simple formula, because it equates people’s culture too closely to the products that are available in the marketplace. A second meaning of popular music is that is the music coming from the people, the populace. You have to look beyond the record racks to see what music people are making themselves. Folk music, indie music, early hip-hop: These, and many other styles, have accrued a measure of cachet because of the supposed distance from the pop charts. They have been celebrated as somehow more representative of people’s cultures than are the corporate widgets pushed by the majors.

Well and good. Social historians, beginning as far back as the 19th century but really taking off in the 1970s, turned to people’s music to help write the history of ordinary anonymous people rather than the rich and famous. I am a huge fan of this approach. What worries me is that the record collecting fetish for that rare record has the potential to distort what we consider ordinary people’s music from a previous era. To give a very simple example: Writing a history of the 1960s which only focused on the music of Mitch Miller, Martin Denny, and Johnny Mathis, would be a distortion. Just because these artists sold millions of records does not mean that they represented what was going on. On the other hand, writing a history of the sixties that emphasized obscure free jazz, noise bands, or other rare music would be equally distorting. Rare records that sold only a few copies, while valued by the collector, has much less value to the historian interested in chronicling the relationships between music and society. Cool records don’t make the basis for good history. Most folks weren’t cool, even if they didn’t go nuts for the all the formulaic stuff coming from the majors.

Are there any current collectors or labels working by these same ideas?

There’s the Numero Label, but they are not alone. I must say I really dig the music on many of their releases but I am wary of being seduced by the rhetoric of obscurity and eccentricity that dominates their press releases.

You also write about this sort of thing in your new book, correct?

Yes, in Segregating Sound I write about the development of blues and country music genres in the early 20th century. One of the things I found was that many scholars, particularly white scholars writing about black music, turned to the blues out of their own dislike of the pop tunes coming out of New York. They created fantasies about the Southern black experience that had very little to do with how African-Americans in the region either lived or made music. Instead of fetishizing rarity like modern collectors, folklorists fetishized isolation. Any evidence of black Southern singers love for pop music, for music by white artists, or even for music education, was systematically ignored.

Gotta say I get the same vibe from some of the Numero stuff. One of my favorite releases is their recent, Light: On The South Side, which combines an LP with a book of rich photographs by Michael Abramson. The music kicks. But I see some of the same strategies of racial differentiation and romance that drove earlier folklorists. Just check the opening essay by the king of the maladjusted record collectors, Nick Hornby. The Englishman dreamed about Chicago’s South Side as a kid listening to Rolling Stones, who “owed a lot to the people who used to make music in that benighted part of the United States.” Benighted? What? That term was used for years to try to describe the South as a savage place out of time. It was not a compliment. I’ve never heard it used to refer to Chicago, the Promised Land for so many black Southerners trying to escape the terror of Southern racism and segregation. Hornby celebrates the music for confirming his own fantasies. No problem with that. But it sure doesn’t give much insight into what folks on the South Side were thinking.