It’s early March 2021. A freshly brewed cup of coffee blows little steam clouds in the air on the side table next to the couch. Time to look for some new music. My fingers are on the keyboard of my laptop, impatiently waiting for my brain to come up with an album title or artist. Shall I first have a look at this week’s new entries, or go straight to the special offers? Check out upcoming releases or the reissue section? Sort by genre, record label, artist, release date, format, price, back in stock, or popularity? My head starts spinning, before I even have a sip of my morning coffee, an autistic meltdown announcement is on its way. A heartfelt longing for the good old days overtakes me. The desire to go crate digging has never been stronger.
I find myself reminiscing about the days when we could do that. When we could go on record shopping sprees; those joyful weekends when those of us who love music could spend endless hours crate digging through thousands of records. I love my Bluesound network streamer but it’s not the same thing.
Allow me to take you back for a moment. I recall the sunlight filtering through the windowpanes as I enter one of my favorite record stores in Amsterdam. It seems as if nothing has changed since my last visit a few years ago; the aroma that is so characteristic of record shops in the Netherlands.
The smell of rain on the pavement, combined with dust, coffee, carpet and cardboard boxes. This is one of the larger stores in the country, the structure feels like a collection of cozy boutiques. The space covers a total of five old buildings that used to be separate but are now connected by passageways to each house with its own genre or product type.
It took me just over one hour by train to get here, or the equivalent of one self-compilated Spotify playlist, as I prefer to indicate travel time to get to our capital. From Amsterdam Central Station, it’s about ten minutes by bike taxi to get to the record store. However, preparation for this dig started earlier at my house; for someone having Asperger’s going on trips like these comes with some extra challenges.
By checking the train schedule in advance and making a map of all the record stores that I like to visit, I am able to filter out most distractions and prevent getting overstimulated by external incentives.
My Aspie superpower when on a crate digging spree is a hyper focus that allows me to go in fully and search relentlessly for the vinyl nuggets in each collection. The downside of this radical form of concentration is that I often lose track of time, so I forget to eat which results in a terrible headache, or I forget to go to the bathroom until my bladder screams bloody murder. Therefore, nothing is left up to chance — I come prepared.
The contents of my UDG courier bag have been assembled with military precision: keys, money, sunglasses and noise cancelling headphones.
Having arrived at the location, I walk past the food and coffee area, turn left and go straight to the jazz section to start my quest for some nice albums. The goal for today is to at least score a couple of jazz fusion albums from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — The Crusaders, Dave Grusin, Bob James and Larry Coryell.
The strategy is, as always, to use my experience and knowledge about record labels that put out jazz fusion records; what producers, studio musicians and specific cover art are characteristic for that era and style of music. I find myself checking the Discogs app on my phone to find out if a specific Lee Ritenour album is already part of my collection. After a couple of hours digging and finding a nice stack of fresh vinyl, I notice that I’ve already spent almost half of the budget I allowed myself to “invest” today. And I still have 3 more record stores to visit.
Just another day in the life of a record collecting addict I guess.
I have begun to realize how much I miss this experience. The sensation of my fingers meticulously moving through crates. The thrill of finding a personal holy grail or a reissue of that overpriced original, chatting with staff about music in general or their all-time favorites and having short conversations with kindred spirits. You know what I’m talking about, there’s nothing like it.
Since the pandemic hit over a year ago, we have all had to adapt to a world that has changed significantly; as we mourn the loss of people, we also mourn the life as we knew it. For vinyl enthusiasts, DJ’s and record collectors, the current health restrictions prevent us from going on physical digs, so we have to find ways to transport that activity and our community to an online environment.
According to my Discogs app I still managed to buy 127 albums last year — far less than the average of 250 records a year that I totaled before our lives changed so drastically. I found some interesting reissues, old stock, and recent releases, but no second-hand discs. All of these records are straight out of the warehouse, still wrapped in foil and in pristine condition. Not that there’s no second-hand online market, there’s plenty of collections for sale.
But not being able to touch an album, listen to it and personally check the quality makes me hesitant to buy pre-owned records. Looking back on these past months, I have been struggling to adapt but this new situation has also allowed me to become aware of the way I have selected my new tunes all these years.
Parts of Europe are locking down again so crate digging might be out of the question for another few months.
So, what strategies are there for scoring online for old school crate diggers like me?
Let’s take a trip back in time to my living room earlier this month. Having just dealt with an early morning melt down, I am up for a second cup of coffee. Take a deep breath, I tell myself. Online crate digging is supposed to be fun. After the caffeine starts to kick in, I give it another try. What genre fits my current mood? Japanese jazz is what first comes to mind.
I decide to check BBC icon Gilles Peterson’s Instagram account because I remember seeing his recent suggestions on that specific category. Next step is to go to a couple of online record shops to check availability and prices. I scroll through some websites, like hhv.de, platomania.nl and bandcamp.com.
Some pages have filters you can select to find your way among all the genres, new releases and formats. Some online shops let you fend for yourself; they expect you to have a specific idea of what you’re looking for. That’s where the problem starts for me. Most of the time I’m not looking for specific records.
I just want to find albums that have an aspect that somehow triggers my curiosity, or the ones that I have never heard of. Pretty odd for a record collector you might say, because most folks seem to use a wish list. But I really don’t have any preference. Is setting filters on a website the future of black gold treasure hunting? I hear myself thinking. Is this the future of black gold treasure hunting? It can’t be. Dealing with so many changes requires flexibility which might not be my strong suit, but I’ve come to realize I can still apply most of my knowledge – albeit a little differently.
I started to think about how I make my selections, when I apply my dexterity to the crates?
It’s very hard to put into words, but I guess I am an intuitive crate digger. I find what I want when I am not actively searching. The fact that I am a visually oriented person and I have a photographic memory are my most important assets.
First and foremost, the image is key. If you know what you are in the mood for, what specific cover art is characteristic for that era and style of music? I can assess whether I even need to look at the back of the sleeve, on the basis of the lighting used in the picture, the font used in the album title, or the clothes worn by the artist.
Secondly, I can fall back on a mental archive of information concerning record labels that put out jazz fusion records, whether it’s the names of producers, or studio musicians – I can recognize names of interest instantly.
But my most important quality is that I rely on embodied knowledge, in which fingers and eyes collaborate without my mind interfering. Follow the flow of the search.
So, recognizing aspects of the album sleeve is key, for both record store searches as well as online shopping. From now on, my experience and knowledge in scrolling through images, can be supplemented by checking availability, prices or whatever filter options are offered on any specific site.
Let me be clear: live digging cannot be replaced. However, if the situation asks of us to be flexible, the hard-core diggers will find their fix. I would love to hear from you, how has crate digging changed for you and how do you see the future?