Discourses in Music: Volume 3 Number 3 (Spring 2002)

Unpacking the CD Library

By Jay Hodgson

My first record was a gift from my father. I remember sitting on his knee in front of the stereo, watching the record spin, and hearing "Strawberry Fields Forever" for the first time. When I hear the track now, I am in dialogue with my father and that specific moment, on his knee, in front of the stereo. Two decades later, I know that my copy of Magical Mystery Tour, which I recently purchased on CD, preserves the moment for me the way photographs can. The CD rests on my shelf next to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (1973), a CD given to me by a friend who has recently emerged from hospital. Though I only rarely listened to the album, it occupied the centre of my collection as a token of our friendship while he was away. It moved to the bottom shelf with my Beatles CDs when he was released and we found other ways to interact.

The purpose of this paper is to interrogate the space of a CD library. I will present findings from research I have conducted to theorize the various interactions that occur between collectors and their CDs within this space. The vinyl LP and stereo cassette deserve similar scrutiny by collectors of both, though each requires a range of considerations beyond the scope of this paper, and peculiar to them as distinct recording media.1


I conducted interviews with seven self-proclaimed CD collectors and enjoyed long conversations with each concerning their collecting practices outside of the interview. The insights these participants gave about their lives were often intimate. I would like to express my gratitude for their willingness to open these private details to my probing and publication within this essay. That being said, the study group consisted of, according to their own admission, six white, heterosexual male and one white, heterosexual female Canadians and Americans ranging in age from twenty to twenty-six (see Appendix A). I relate this information to explain the slanting of results toward a white, heterosexual perspective of collecting CDs in this preliminary study; I had planned to work with a more diverse study group and plan to expand my study group for future research. In addition, I will present the results of a brief survey (Appendix B) that I circulated to a more diverse group to test and augment the hypotheses posited here. Further, by choosing to study CDs in particular, I have limited the scope of this inquiry to only those who can afford to purchase and make use of CDs. Though there is no criterion to essentialize a CD purchaser, I believe the fact that CDs are a commodity presupposes that collectors can finance their collecting activities; it also transmits some information about the collector's age, income, and numerous other variables.

I have used work by Sara Cohen, Susan Fast, Tia DeNora and Robert Walser, as models for interpreting the ethnographic data I present.2 This paper is not an explanation of acquiring or collecting CDs in Western capitalist culture, nor is it ethnographic, though it occasionally draws on observations made by participants in a study group. It is, rather, an examination of four distinct issues that I think must be accounted for when looking at musical practice that is facilitated by CDs, as well as an initial foray into the space of the CD library.

Unpacking the Term: the Accidental Collector

Will Straw defines collecting records as "a practice of connoisseurship and systematic consumption. Record collections are seen as both public displays of power/knowledge and private refuges from the sexual or social world."3 At no time in his article does Straw problematize the term collecting. He takes the term as it traditionally means, to describe individuals who display their cultural capital - their ability to recognize and make use of cultural codes in cultural objects - by collecting together recordings that are valued similarly by a group of their peers. By accepting the term's traditional significance, Straw is able to agree to what he considers to be an "easy and intuitive acceptance of the idea that.... collecting [recordings], within Anglo-American cultures at least, is among the more predictably male-dominated of music-related practices."4 His acceptance of this assumption leads Straw to conclude with the claim that women "emerge when the music is over, and the boys in the band go back to discussing their record collections."5

Straw assumes the traditional masculinization of collecting in the West that Frederick Baekeland argues for in an article entitled "Psychological Aspects of Art Collecting." Baekeland's essentialization of gender is, in my opinion, so problematic and yet representative of prevalent notions of collecting that his comments should be reproduced here:

Many women privately amass personal possessions far in excess of any practical need, without any thought of public exhibition other than adornment; we rarely think of accumulations of dress, shoes, perfumes, china and the like as collections. They consist of relatively intimate and transient objects intended to directly enhance their owners' self-images, to be used until they are worn out or broken, and then to be discarded. Men's collections, however, be they of stamps, cars, guns or art, tend to have clear-cut thematic emphases and standard, external reference points in public or private collections. Thus women's collections tend to be personal and ahistorical, just as, traditionally, women have tended to have a relatively greater emotional investment in people than in ideas and men to some extent the reverse.6

According to Baekeland, it is because "women have tended to have a relatively greater emotional investment in people than in ideas" that their collecting practices differ from those of men. While Straw, in citing Baekeland, argues that "the opposition of 'people' to 'ideas'.... misses the extent to which it is an ideal of systematicity itself which typically grounds the masculinist inclination to collect," he offers little data to support this claim.

There are many methods and reasons for men and women to collect recordings. The Northern Soul music culture of northern England during the late 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s is an example of a collective listening practice that involved directed effort on the part of a diverse listening community. Members of the Northern Soul community valued a recording's rarity over its commercial success. "Northern Soul was the music made by hundreds of singers and bands who were copying the Detroit sound of sixties Motown pop," according to Bill Brewster and Frank Boughton. "The music of unsuccessful artists, tiny labels and small towns, all lost within the vast expanses of the U.S. entertainment machine, but in northern England from the end of the sixties through to the heyday of [Northern Soul] in the middle seventies, it was exhumed and exalted."7 The collective practice of connoisseurship and systematic consumption that defined the Northern Soul music community was "as much archaeology as record playing," according to Brewster and Boughton, "a record couldn't just be good, it also had to be rare as hell."8

The Northern Soul music scene is of value to this study because it represents a mode of connoisseurship and systematic consumption that was undertaken by more than one collector at a time. Men and women alike danced to the sounds of rare as hell recordings, and agreed to the criteria for collecting and making public use of those recordings with Northern Soul Disc Jockeys. I find it interesting that Brewster and Boughton never specifically use the term collecting to describe the practice of the Northern Soul music community. If we adjust its definition to mean any process of systematic consumption, personally determined or by a collective, the Northern Soul group can be described as a community of collectors engaged in a practice of connoisseurship and systematic consumption of rare as hell recordings. I also find it interesting that, according to Brewster and Boughton, the Northern Soul community was mostly comprised of labourers living in northern England, and DJs who were raised in, and remained members of, this community. The working class of the Northern Soul community may have identified with a record's lack of financial success, or its failure to achieve financial influence. In a sense, then, Northern Soul listeners rescued a record from a financially imposed obscurity. The practice may likewise have served as an out-and-out rejection of the record industry, the financially successful recording artist, or, simply, the capitalist procedure of using financial achievement to determine which artists get to be heard. Whatever their motivation, Northern Soul listeners silenced the number 1 hit, and gave voice to those artists that were neglected in the record charts.

Walter Benjamin offers a compelling argument that collecting is not so much defined by the financial value of the objects that a collector gathers, but by the collector's relationship to those objects. In "Unpacking My Library," Benjamin offers a definition of collecting that is useful because he does not shy away from basing his observations on the subjective relationship that collectors maintain with their possessions. It is not that the collector's possessions "come alive in him," he argues, "it is he who lives in them."9 He explains his understanding of what it means to be a collector as follows:

What I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection. If I do this by elaborating on the various ways of acquiring books, this is something entirely arbitrary. This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories, which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories.10

For Benjamin, the relationship with the possessions and not the canonic merits of a collection defines the owner's status as a collector. To relate Benjamin's comments to collecting recordings, whether it is a man, a woman or a group, experiencing this spring tide of memories is irrelevant. To collect is to define one's self as much by one's possessions as through them.

Many of the subjects I interviewed, male and female alike, demonstrated Benjamin's assertion when I asked them to describe their CD collections. Julia, for example, a twenty-three year old female student at New York University considers her collection to be a kind of diary, or self-portrait. "I wouldn't part with any of [my CDs]," she stated, adding that her CDs contained "too many memories." Cheesemass, a twenty-three year old entrepreneur in New York City said, "I still have every CD. I still listen to my NKOTB [New Kids On The Block] CD. They make me feel old." A female (aged 40+) respondent to my survey wrote: "I feel my collection . . . reveals who I am," although she could not point to any single CD in her collection that was particularly descriptive of her. I, myself, have often cited certain CDs in my collection to describe myself to other musicians.

The term collector therefore deserves careful scrutiny. For the purposes of this essay, I will adopt the following expanded definition: anyone who acquires CDs and makes public and/or private use of them. I do not argue that tight-knit subcultures of collecting that follow stricter systems of consumption as Straw describes are absent from Western culture. Instead, I focus on a broader category of collector. These collectors acquire CDs following a fluid system of subjective pleasure, and come by their collections because recording technology makes an object of every recorded performance. Their collections are thus the by-products of musical experience in the age of recordings, and differ from those of the collector that Straw describes only according to external criteria for judging the canonic merits of a collection. Taken as a force, the accidental collector plays a central role in Western musical practice. To describe this role, however, I must examine the technology by which his/her collecting practices are made possible.

Unpacking the Technology: Buying CDs as a Musical Practice

Collecting recordings is a relatively new practice. Before 1877 - the year Edison invented the first sound recording technology - there were no recordings for collectors to acquire. To possess music and to document their experiences of music, collectors acquired sheet music or the possessions of artists to create a reliquary of objects they perceived to be invested with something of the artist's aura. A trace of this kind of collecting remains in the collections of concert ticket stubs, which serve as a diary of the collector's concert attendance. Of all the collecting practices in Western musical culture, however, collecting recordings represents one of the most recent methods to possess and personalize music.

According to Jacques Attali, listening to recordings became a common practice in the West in 1925. "Until 1925, the record was very little used," Attali writes; "the waxes were of bad quality and transmission was only possible by placing the micro-transmitter close to the phonograph's acoustical horn, resulting in very bad transmission."11 During 1925, however, pickups that converted the pits in the wax cylinder into sound directly from the cylinder were invented, and the wax cylinders themselves were improved to enhance the sound quality of recordings during their reanimation. As Western audiences accepted mechanical reproductions of music as an experience that could be as entertaining as a concert, libraries of recordings became increasingly commonplace in households. Since 1982, the year of its invention, the compact disc has come to occupy a prominent position in these collections.

Acquiring recordings may seem to be a private act, one with little (if any) impact on the system of musical production in the capitalized West. Actually, the opposite is true. Its impact on music making in the West is, in my opinion, so strong that buying recordings deserves to be classified as a musical practice in-and-of-itself. The idea of charts and the Top 40 system of classifying the most successful, relevant music in Western capitalist culture are directly influenced by the tastes and preferences of Western music audiences. The Billboard record charts tabulate how many copies of a recording audiences purchase. The value of the music contained by a recording is irrelevant to these charts, though it is by no means irrelevant to recording artists and listeners. In his autobiography, George Martin, who produced recordings for The Beatles, describes the success of The Beatles's "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (1964) as based on its success in the American Top 40 rather than on the merits of the recording:

Brian Epstein's [The Beatles' manager] voice sounded very excited, and just a little drunk. It seemed early to be in that condition. I soon knew why he was. "I've just left [The Beatles] celebrating, and they're as thrilled as I am," he said, pausing for a moment to build up the suspense. I said nothing.... "We're number one in America on next week's charts. It's quite definite. I've just been on the phone to New York." So that was it. At last we had made it, through the medium of a song called "I Want to Hold Your Hand." After a year of really hard [work] we had finally breached the walls of the biggest record market in the world.12

The fact that "I Want To Hold Your Hand" had "breached the walls of the biggest record market in the world" would excite anyone standing to gain financially from such a success. What is significant however is that Martin locates the number one success of the single in America as the moment when he and The Beatles had finally made it. The song was not what made the band successful, according to Martin, but the medium through which the band reached the number 1 position on the American charts. Any other song by The Beatles would have sufficed. Martin's sentiment is clear: his and The Beatles' success was to reach the number one position, regardless of which song got them there.

Major and independent record labels often use record charts as a tool to determine which artists are worthy of financial investment.13 If an artist is considered to have either the potential to achieve a number one position on the Billboard charts or to show favourably, record companies will give that recording artist an advance to make a recording. The company then typically markets the recording in the hopes that their advertisements will influence buyers to purchase it. If the recording does not sell enough copies to satisfy a record company, the company may withdraw their financial investment from the artist. The decision to provide an artist with financial backing, being almost entirely based upon the past or a perceived potential for future success on those charts, can be determined, at least in part, by purchasers of recordings. In this respect, the consumption practices of Western listeners can directly influence what groups or voices a record company will release, and thereby the musical environment of Western culture.

In 1925, the year Attali claims recordings were first commonly experienced in the West, acquiring recordings first achieved significance in Western musical practice. Despite this, many scholars and collectors disagree, claiming that there is no productive connection between purchasing and consuming recordings, and the musical process of making recordings. Theodor Adorno perhaps best represents this mode of thought. I should make clear that I do not wish to discard Adorno's theories concerning mass-produced cultural works, but to problematize some aspects of his line of reasoning and, in so doing, retain certain observations that I consider valuable to this study. In addition, what follows is a reduction of Adorno's larger theories, since I have determined to follow his arguments only as they relate specifically to the practice of making and listening to recordings.

For Adorno, mass production of recordings had enormous consequence on how listeners relate to music. "If one seeks to find out who likes a commercial piece [of music], one cannot avoid the suspicion that liking and disliking are inappropriate to the situation," he writes:

An approach in terms of value judgements has become a fiction for the person who finds himself hemmed in by standardized musical goods. He can neither escape impotence nor decide between the offerings where everything is so completely identical that preference in fact depends merely on biographical details or on the situation in which things are heard.14

Because mechanical reproduction shifted the material means of cultural production from the artist's personal sphere to an industrialized complex of mass production in which the artist's intentions must accommodate the economic concerns of mass production and the standardizing effects of its technologies, Adorno argues that the artist's individuality or particularity fulfils a lesser function in the refinement and character of cultural works and practices. Further, artists find themselves alienated from their own products, since artists inevitably hand over ownership of their recordings to record labels that manufacture and distribute them on a mass scale. Artists and listeners thus become mired in a cultural quagmire in which pleasing many people may produce their tastes and preferences. According to Adorno, this results in a situation in which the artist no longer leads, but is instead led by the twin imperatives of mass production and profits. This turnabout has dire cultural ramifications for Adorno.

"Serious art has been withheld from those for whom the hardship and oppression of life make a mockery of seriousness," Adorno writes, "and who might be glad if they can use time not spent at the production line just to keep going."15 Life in a capitalist society entails hardship and oppression, in Adorno's account, and one of his primary concerns was that, in his estimation, products of the culture industry prevented collective action by workers to relieve their hardship, or to overcome their oppression, because "serious" art is "withheld" from the working classes. Regardless of the kind of cultural élitism that might have led Adorno to distinguish between "serious" art - that which is withheld from people who work at production lines, according to his account - and other kinds of art, Adorno's interrogation of the social significance of sound reproduction is interesting to note. Because a recording is a reproduction of a moment in time that the listener is always-already absent from when initiating playback, recordings enable a discourse that, in Adorno's words, has "nothing to do with deliberate communication of a humane message or statement."16 Adorno claims that musical experience in recordings has the potential to homogenize difference because each listener hears the same reproduction of the event and is forced to participate in what Attali would consider the same simulacrum of ritual sacrifice, or socialization, regardless of its suitability to the social stratum occupied. Any potential for social transformation was thereby quashed by what Adorno called, in a letter dated 3 March 1936 to Walter Benjamin, "the stigmata of capitalism.... Both [high art and mass-produced consumer art] are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up."17 This perspective of the culture industry, which Adorno specifically argues in relation to music in "The Perennial Fashion - Jazz," and to the phonograph in "The Curves of the Needle", reduces the record medium, and everything that contacts it, to the status of an object.

Once a technology of mass production has been characterized as a contaminant to the integrity of any cultural practice, the ramifications of that technology on whatever it is used to engage in, on the level of content, becomes a determinant of the practice. Brian Winston describes an interesting challenge to this mode of theorizing media technology as a technological determinist model, in which technology is considered "the dominant, determining factor.... of cultural developments." 18 Marshall McLuhan's catchphrase "the medium is the message" is exemplary of technological determinist thinking. According to McLuhan, every technology introduces a new social "scale or pace or pattern of living" and "it matters not whether [the technology] turns out cornflakes or Cadillacs."19 With radio, for example, McLuhan writes that the technology itself "transforms the relation of everybody to everybody, regardless of programming."20 I would argue that this perspective assumes that technology is autonomous, or that every technology does not come to its users already invested with cultural priorities and ideological values to guide the formation of the new social "scale or pace or pattern" that each may inspire. In fact, this is shown in the relationship between recording-artists and owners of their CDs. Adorno's observations of the technological transformations occurring at the site of cultural production and exchange are significant in this case, although, given the technological developments that have occurred since Adorno, the site of dominant cultural production in the West is an undeniably heterogeneous space in which technologies of cultural production and consumption are often retooled to suit many uses and needs.

The use of turntables and vinyl LPs to create music by hip-hop DJs, for example, represents a viable alternative to the homogenizing effect of mass cultural production that Adorno railed against. As Russell A. Potter argues of sampling, for example, which allows DJs to make post-production edits without first performing the musical material, "it is [a] kind of resistance -- resistance that literally takes control of the means of production, that produces out of the consumed."21 According to Tricia Rose, and Paul Théberge, black hip-hop artists have used sampling to resist the hegemonic ordering of power and marginality within Western capitalist society. Tricia Rose theorizes that the sampling of a portion of a speech by Malcolm X - "there are going to be some changes made here" - into Queen Latifah's Ladies First calls on Malcolm as part of a collective African-American historical memory and recontextualizes him not only as a voice in support of contemporary struggles in South Africa, but also as a voice in support of imminent changes regarding the degraded status of black women and specifically black women rappers."22 Théberge draws upon Rose's work with this specific example and theorizes that "by attempting in this way to make a connection with a past from which they have been physically, and most often violently severed, rappers use sampling as a form of dialogue with the past.... sampling practices can thus become a form of political action and empowerment."23 Rose and Théberge thus describe Queen Latifah's Ladies First as a record with commercial exchange-value, but also as a social document with an explicitly political use-value, and thus as a potential agent of social change.

We must unpack these kinds of priorities and values from any use of music technology, or scholars run the risk of overlooking their impact on listeners' personal interactions with a recorded performance, and thus on Western musical practice in general. The DJ's use of already recorded performances to create breakbeats, for example, entails what Antoine Hennion, in a study of the recording studio, deems a process of production-consumption, in which (for our purposes) the Disc Jockey listens with an ear toward future musical production. The Disc Jockey's productivity thus starts from the vantage point of consumption, and his/her use of sampling technologies interrogates the sovereignty of instrumental performance over musical productivity. Recycling and (re)devising use-values for already recorded performances, the DJ demonstrates that cultural practices that make use of technologies of mass production do not necessarily result in, as Adorno writes, "more of the same."24 Artists who use already recorded performances as the ontological basis for their music understand recordings not as repetition but as a new praxis of production.

DJs share many of their capabilities with listeners. Most significantly, the listener allows music on a recording to exist as material sound via playback, and determines the sequence of performances that s/he will hear by choosing which CDs to hear. Listeners may adjust the bass on their stereo system, and argue with the artist responsible for mixing a recording for a different, more bass-heavy configuration of sound. When recording-artists complete the recording process for a CD, they have succeeded in silencing their recorded performance into a digital sequence of ones and zeros. After this point, the recorded performance may only exist as material sound by the listener's motivation. This grants the listener agency to accept, reject or interrogate recordings within a personal sphere that many do not acknowledge exists in any way but as a space wherein listeners download pre-tailored meanings from their possessions.

Unpacking the CD: Symbolic (Social) Value

Though just as suspicious of mass-produced commodities as Adorno, Jean Baudrillard's theory of consumption in "The System of Objects" is valuable for its insistence that every object or commodity has a social, symbolic value. Acquiring a CD library might be viewed as a micro-practice of the total consumption practices of Western cultural citizens that Baudrillard describes. Baudrillard argues that Western capitalist culture is predicated on the conspicuous consumption of commodities that have been invested with symbolic value. Every object, according to Baudrillard, connotes its purchaser's buying power, and therefore his/her social position in the capitalized West. Baudrillard suggests that any conspicuous consumption of an object is a ritual of socialization wherein purchasers display their ownership of that object to assume a particular social level in relation to consumers who buy and display cheaper or more expensive models. "Consumption, in so far as it is meaningful, is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs," he writes. "Objects are categories of objects which quite tyrannically induce categories of people."25 The meaning of consumption is therefore discursively produced, according to Baudrillard, as his theory does not allow the consumer agency to interrogate and devise other symbolic connotations for an object. Once again, the scholar casts the consumer as a passive receiver of meanings already produced. What is of value in Baudrillard's theory, however, is his assertion that objects themselves are intrinsically meaningful. The ritual of socialization by objects may therefore occur privately. CD owners may perceive the symbolic value of their possessions, which maintain a relation to Western culture at large, within the privacy of their CD libraries. In this respect, CD libraries are not necessarily "refuges from the sexual or social world" as Straw contends, but one possible mode of constructing and interacting with this sexual and social world, defined by the collector.

To argue that conspicuous consumption expresses only an abstract code of consumption, manufactured by external interests, ignores a variety of people who have used CDs to express a range of personally determined and often-unconventional connotations. Naomi Klein considers one such category of consumer as being engaged in the cultural practice of ironic consumption. Klein argues that "ironic consumers express their disdain for mass culture not by opting out of it but by abandoning themselves to it entirely... but with a sly ironic twist."26 This sly ironic twist takes many forms but it is often an unconventional use for an object devised for it by the ironic consumer. An "ironic consumption" is thus ironic, according to Klein, in relation to conventional modes of consumption, and is not necessarily humorous. Thus, for example, while the "ironic consumer" may purchase The Beatles's entire recorded repertoire, they use the recordings in a way that counters their conventional usage such as, for example, as table-coasters. This recontextualization can produce symbolic connotations for those recordings that is at once influenced by, and so in dialogue with, their conventional significance in Western culture, and yet incompatible with that significance as well. In this respect, ironic consumption may be described as the practice of, in Pierre Bourdieu's words, "the accumulation of symbolic capital [for an object]. Symbolic capital is to be understood as economic or political capital that is disavowed, misrecognized and thereby recognized."27

While one interviewee hung CDs to value their visual properties over their sonic properties, thereby misrecognizing the conventional use of CDs in Western capitalist culture, other interviewees and respondents to my survey did not feel that they used their CDs in any manner that might be considered ironic. Each followed the conventional script for using CDs in Western culture, arguing that they only "listened" to their CDs. It strikes me, however, that there is a visual element to collecting CDs that is often overlooked. Some of my CDs, for example, line the top two shelves of an entertainment centre in my study. Though I do not often rearrange the order of these CDs, I am always careful to tidy them so that they do not appear cluttered to me. How my collection looks is critically significant for me. Though it is not often acknowledged, the visual properties of a CD library, and even a CD, may contribute to the pleasures that a listener derives from it. I admit, for example, that I am more likely to purchase a "reissue" of an older recording, even if the cost is more, based on the visual properties of the reissue, and in the hopes that the record company has added art to the accompanying booklet. I often like to flip through the booklet and look at pictures of the performing artist as I listen. I am also more likely to purchase a CD with a photograph on the cover; I have turned the covers of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and On the Corner, for example, inside-out in order to expose a photograph of the trumpeter in place of the original cover art. Doing so, however, involved a bit of a struggle: I felt as though I had somehow defaced these CDs.

Any collection of CDs presents its owner with external cultural forces that mediate his or her experience of listening to CDs, including how to use those CDs and how to care for them. Conglomerated into a CD library, collections of CDs push listeners' experiences of music into a sphere of multivalence in which it is not simply music being consumed and interrogated by the collector.

Unpacking the CD Library: Text, Habitus and Cognitive Map

As we have seen, a CD library is a product of consumption and the industrial system of production by which CDs are manufactured. The collector him/herself also plays an active role in determining the specific textual make-up of his/her library, and thus what of the social world may be available to him or her in it. S/he might even be considered the force that activates the social in his or her CDs, since the social therein is necessarily a product of his or her singular experience. The space of the CD library is characterized, then, by the Bakhtinian concept of heteroglossia, in which the base conditions governing (for my purposes) the collectors contextual location in time and space are argued to ensure that his or her possessions will signify according to an interaction between both culturally and personally determined variables.28 According to a definition of heteroglossia that Michael Holquist offers, these base conditions are "social, historical, meteorological" and, most importantly, "physiological" variables.29 Responses to a survey question that asked respondents to describe how they relate to what they classified to be their favourite CD, demonstrate that these collectors invest their CDs, and their music, with personal significance:

"There are a lot of memories attached to this recording. It's great driving music. I spend a lot of time driving." [female: 35+]
"I can hear aspects of my life in the music." [male: 40+]
"Both these recordings are etched into my soul....listening to this album is usually a spiritual experience." [female: 40+]

A CD library may be understood as a text from which collectors read or interpret significance, each CD acting as the locus for a set of negotiations and interrogations, whether they be spiritual or otherwise, of Western cultural values and personal experiences relating to those values. As Roland Barthes argues, a text is a social space that "leaves no language safe, outside, nor any subject of the enunciation in position as judge, master, analyst, confessor, decoder."30 Barthes describes reading as an act of determining how and what a text will mean, even though reading is inevitably influenced by external forces that are active within the heteroglossaic context of the reader. According to Barthes, "a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author."31 The reader of a text therefore does not simply produce meanings for a text; rather s/he shapes its significance by reasoning the "mutual relations of dialogue, parody [and] contestation" that are contained therein. This, too, is the task of the listener who occupies the space of a CD library.

As a text, a CD library forms a micro-narrative of the collector's life that s/he reads, or interprets, according to personally and culturally determined variables. The personalization of musical experience that is achieved through a CD library makes the text a micro-narrative of the collector's life, as both the locus, and a record, of his or her musical activity. More significantly, the hierarchy into which CD libraries are ordered by collectors often represents a physical materialization of the listener's habitus, which Pierre Bourdieu defines as "systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices."32 However the collector chooses to order his or her CDs, whether by genre or order of acquisition for example, is an order that is familiar to the listener and that connects the library to the culture that s/he relates to through it. In this respect, the CD library is a social relation that is constituted by the collector. As one female respondent to my survey wrote, "I feel my collection.... reveals who I am as a person." The revelation of the collector by his or her possessions is therefore activated by the nature of the collection -- i.e., music on recordings, the symbolic connotations of those recordings, etc. -- and also by the collector's perception (constitution) of him or herself within this set of foreign objects. Responses to a survey question asking respondents to explain how they have arranged their collections demonstrate that ordering (or not) one's CDs is often an activity that occurs in relation to numerous, possibly extra-musical considerations:

"They are in an order familiar to me already, to re-order them would just confuse me." [female:50+]
"On the shelf where I keep my CDs I generally put jazz recordings on the bottom shelf, rock on the top, etc." [female: 20-25]
"I order my collection by category." [female: 20-25]
"Alphabetically by artist." [female: 40+]
"By acquisition, newest ones purchased closest to where I work and listen." [male: 40+]
"I order alphabetically. Several years ago, I stopped ordering by genre (rock, classical, etc.) because I didn't like the idea of separating out and potentially creating a hierarchy in that way. I get a kick out of seeing Brahms next to James Brown." [female: 40+]

Many of the respondents have ordered their CD libraries in a manner that somehow relates to how music is categorized and documented in Western culture at large. The final respondents comments that I have reproduced above describe a collector who has chosen an order for CDs in opposition to the category of genre, "because I didn't like the idea of separating out and potentially creating a hierarchy in that way." The order of this collection was consciously determined as both a source of pleasure - "I get a kick out of it" she writes - and as a critique of the method of distinguishing between musics and musicians in Western culture via culturally situated aesthetic judgments, a hierarchy that nevertheless maintains an oppositional relation to how music is ordered and categorized in the West. Other respondents order their collection by acquisition, thereby maintaining a relation to the commodification of music in Western culture and a reminder of their ability to purchase CDs in the first place, or do not arrange their collections because "they are in an order familiar to me already; to re-order them would just confuse me." While the hierarchies that these collectors choose may not reflect a desire on their part to counter how music is categorized in Western culture, the order of the CDs in their libraries places their possessions in an arrangement that forces, or exposes, prevalent Western notions of music to confront the collector. A CD library might then represent a cognitive map for collectors to chart relationships that they have, or that they choose not to have, with Western culture. By ordering and making use of their CDs, collectors occupy a heterogeneous social space that cannot be mapped to any particular meaning but that which they interpret from their libraries, as those libraries exist at specific times. Since these interpretations are inevitably influenced by the symbolic (social) value of CDs, and the relationship that these connotations maintain to Western culture, the space of a CD library is a lived, dynamic relation between the collector and the capitalized West. Their CDs document not only the musical experiences of collectors, but also their lives in Western culture at large.


A CD library is a social space in which collectors interact with objects that are both social and personal, each CD a lived dialectic between the listener and the culture that produces it. This interaction is informed by the experience of the music that each CD offers, a topic I have not been able to broach within the confines of this article, my intention being that this article should supplement any approach to CD reception. In our current age of recording, when the decision to purchase a recording contributes to the vitality of the music it contains, the various interactions each collector undergoes by collecting together a CD library deserve to be understood as unique practices that can be just as creative as the procedures that recording-artists undergo to make a CD. As a recording artist myself, my experience making CDs has led me to understand that it is listeners who allow a master sequence of binary code, that is a CD, to exist as material sound, and thus, debatably, it is the listener who completes a recorded performance by allowing that performance to exist as material sound. By choosing which particular sounds to hear as they are suitable to a particular context, and in relation to a range of considerations peculiar to that context, the listener fulfils a function that I consider to be performative and undeniably musically productive. The CD library thus comes into view as a kind of record and material by-product of musical experience in an age of recordings. It is for this reason that I propose we expand the definition of the term collector, or work with a broader definition of what constitutes collecting, to also mean someone who acquires his or her CDs because s/he wants to hear the music it contains. By doing so, the accidental collector can be located within a broader category of consumers whose role in musical practice may be described as musically productive, and their collections may thus be taken seriously. As a musically productive group in Western culture, CD collectors can provide valuable information to scholars regarding how music is experienced within the space of a CD library, and how external forces that are always-already present in them mediate that experience.

Appendix A

Demographic Information: Interview Subjects

Alias Chosen Age Sex Marital Status City
Bill 20 male married Kitchener, Ont.
Mikey 26 male single Brooklyn, NY (USA)
Cheesemass 23 male single Brooklyn, NY (USA)
Julia 23 female single Brooklyn, NY (USA)
Robro 25 male single Boston, MA (USA)
Cam 21 male single Orillia, Ont.
Adam 23 male single Orillia, Ont.

-All subjects classified themselves as white and heterosexual.

Sample Interview Questions:
(1) Are you a CD collector?
(2) What is collecting?
(3) Why do you collect?
(4) How many CDs do you own?
(5) How many records, cassettes, MP3s, etc. do you own?
(6) How often do you listen to your recordings?
(7) Describe your CD collection?
(8) How do you order your CDs?
(9) Why do you order your CDs this way?
(10) Are there any CDs missing from your collection right now?
(11) What CDs do you most frequently listen to?
(12) What do those CDs mean to you?
(13) What was the first CD you acquired?
(14) How did you acquire it?
(15) Do you use any CDs in an unusual way?
(16) If so, which CDs? and why do you use them that way?
Interview #2 I performed a number of follow-up interviews with subjects during October and November 2001.

Appendix B

Survey circulated via e-mail, October 2001. Responses arrived between October and December 2001. On Mon, 22 Oct 2001, Jay Hodgson wrote:

Hello all,
I was wondering if I might ask you to fill out this survey. It is for personal purposes as well as preliminary work towards a paper. If you would like to forward it along to someone else as well, please feel free to do so (in fact, it would be appreciated). You can indicate your answers by stars, dashes, writing "this one," etc. I will do my best to keep your responses as anonymous as possible. I will immediately copy your answers to a WP file from your return e-mails and erase those e-mails. If you do not want to take part, please delete this e-mail. Thanks for your help.


(1) How many recordings do you own?
(2) On what medium do you predominantly collect recordings?
(3)Do you consider yourself a "collector" of recordings?
(4)Have you ever downloaded music from a website free of charge?
(5) Have you ever "burned" a CD before?
(6) If you don't already, what recordings would you be most likely to collect on vinyl LP?
(7) How many cassettes do you own? (If you own none, please go to question #9)
(8) Of these, how many did you mix yourself? (i.e., how many of these did you create from "blank" cassettes)?
(9)If you own cassettes, would you be more likely to buy or mix your own?
(10) How often do you listen to recordings (not broadcast media such as radio, etc.) in a week?
(11) Do you tend to keep your recordings in one particular space (i.e., on a shelf, next to the stereo, etc.)
(12) When time permits, how often do you order those recordings?
(13) How do you order or arrange your recordings if you do? (For example: I order mine as follows -- any recording that I have listened to since the last time I ordered my collection is now in a pile on the floor by my stereo; on the shelf where I keep my CDs I generally put "jazz" recordings on the bottom shelf, "rock" on the top, etc.).
(14) Gender:
(15) What recording do you listen to most?
(16) How did you acquire that recording?
(17) What do my recordings mean to you?
Thanks for your help,

PS -- any criticisms or comments on how this survey might be improved would also be extremely useful.

Jay Hodgson is a graduate of the Berklee School of Music (Boston) and has recently completed his Masters degree in Music Criticism at McMaster University. He will be pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Alberta in September 2002.

Works Cited

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception", Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works, eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

--, Dialectic of the Enlightenment. London: Allen Lane, 1972.

Theodor Adorno, "The Perennial Fashion - Jazz", The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O'Connor. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

--, Nadelkurven, Musikblatter des Anbruch 10 (February 1928), pp. 47-50.

--, "On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening", The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein. New York: Routledge,1991.

Jacques Attali, "On Musical Reproduction (Exchange-Object and Use-Object)", Music, Culture and Society: A Reader, ed. Derek Scott. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Frederick Baekeland, "Psychological Aspects of Art Collecting", Interpreting Objects and Collections, ed. Susan M. Pearce. New York: Routledge, 1994.

M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Roland Barthes, "From Work to Text", Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

--, "The Death of the Author", Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Jean Baudrillard, "The System of Objects", Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (2nd edition), ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Collecting", Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Ernst Bloch et al, Aesthetics and Politics, ed. and tr. Rodney Taylor. London: NLB, 1977.

Pierre Bourdieu, "The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods", The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

--, Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Bill Brewster and Frank Boughton, "Northern Soul: After Tonight Is All Over", Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: the History of the Disc Jockey. New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofolo, Rock n Roll Is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Record Industry. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1977.

Sara Cohen, "Ethnography and Popular Music Studies", Popular Music 12/2 (1993), pp. 123-138.

Tia DeNora, Music and Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Barbara Engh, "Adorno and the Sirens: tele-phono-graphic bodies", Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, eds. L. Dunn and N. Jones. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Susan Fast, In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Simon Frith and Howard Horne, Art into Pop. London: Methuen, 1987.

Reebee Garofolo, "Music Versus Markets: the Fragmentation of Pop", Rockin' Out: Popular Music in the USA. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Antoine Hennion, "The Production of Success: An Antimusicology of the Pop Song", On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word, eds. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Michael Holquist, "Glossary", in M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Naomi Klein, "No Space", No Logo. Canada: Knopf, 2000.

Stephen Lee, "Re-Examining the Concept of the Independent Record Company: the Case of Wax Trax! Records", Popular Music 14/1 (1995), pp. 13-32.

George Martin and Nick Hornby, "Classical Primer", All You Need Is Ears: The Inside Personal Story of the Genius Who Created The Beatles. New York: St. Martins Press, 1979.

Marshall McLuhan, "The Medium Is The Message", Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967, 2001.

--, "Media Evolution, Media Forms", Essential McLuhan, ed. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone. Toronto: Anansi, 1995.

David Morton, "The Tape Recorder, Home Entertainment, and the Roots of American Rerecording Culture", Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Keith Negus, Producing Pop: Culture and Conflict in the Popular Music Industry. London: Edward Arnold, 1992.

Philip Smith, "Culture as Ideology in Western Marxism", Cultural Studies: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Will Straw, "Sizing Up Record Collections: Gender and connoisseurship in Rock Music Culture", Sexing the Groove, ed. Sheila Whiteley. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Robert Walser, Running With the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal. New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.

Brian Winston, "How Are Media Born?" Media Studies: A Reader, eds. Paul Marris and Sue Thornham. Washington Square: New York University Press, 2000.


1. David Morton, for example, interrogates the practice of recording music onto "blank" cassette tapes in David Morton, "The Tape Recorder, Home Entertainment, and the Roots of American Rerecording Culture," Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000), pp. 136-171. "Cam" also collected vinyl.

2. Respectively: Sara Cohen, "Ethnography and Popular Music Studies," Popular Music 12/2 (1993), pp. 123-138; Susan Fast, In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Tia DeNora, Music and Everyday Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Robert Walser, Running With the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press, 1993).

3. Will Straw, "Sizing Up Record Collections: Gender and connoisseurship in rock music culture," Sexing the Groove, ed. Sheila Whiteley (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 4-5. I would like to make clear that I find Straw's article to be extremely insightful, however his unquestioning acceptance of "systematicity" as a peculiarly male attribute leads to, in my opinion, many oversights which I felt needed rectification.

4. Straw, 5.

5. Straw, 15.

6. Frederick Baekeland, "Psychological Aspects of Art Collecting," Interpreting Objects and Collections, ed. Susan M. Pearce (New York: Routledge, 1994), 207. Straw cites Baekeland, arguing that "it is the ideal of systematicity" itself which "typically grounds the masculinist inclination to collect," in Straw, 6.

7. Bill Brewster and Frank Boughton, "Northern Soul: After Tonight Is All Over," Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: the History of the Disc Jockey (New York: Grove Press, 2000), pp. 78-79.

8. Brewster and Boughton, 79.

9. Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Collecting," Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 67.

10. Benjamin, pp. 59-60.

11. Jacques Attali, "On Musical Reproduction (Exchange Object and Use-Object)," Music, Culture and Society: A Reader, ed. Derek Scott. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 213. This article is culled from pages 96-101 of Jacques Attali, Noise: the Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).

12. All interviewees and survey respondents collected, among other media, CDs.

13. George Martin and Bruce Hornby, "Classical Primer," All You Need Is Ears: The Inside Personal Story of the Genius Who Created The Beatles (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), 11.

14. For a thorough discussion of the record industry and record charts see Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofolo, Rock 'n' Roll Is Here To Pay: the History and Politics of the Music Industry (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1977). See also Reebee Garofolo, "Music Versus Markets: the Fragmentation of Pop," Rockin' Out: Popular Music in the USA (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997). Stephen Lee examines the relationship between Independent and Major record companies in Stephen Lee, "Re-Examining the Concept of the "Independent Record Company: the Case of Wax Trax! Records," Popular Music 14/1 (1995), pp. 13-32. Simon Frith and Howard Horne argue that by the 1980s, within UK pop culture, "creativity, commentary and commerce have become indistinguishable," in Simon Frith and Howard Horne, Art into Pop (London: Methuen, 1987), 69. Keith Negus describes how, in the UK, "white, male guitar-dominated rock bands were being prioritized as long-term commercial propositions and accorded considerable investment," in Keith Negus, Producing Pop: Culture and Conflict in the Popular Music Industry (London: Edward Arnold, 1992).

15. Theodor Adorno, "On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening," The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J.M. Bernstein (New York: Routledge, 1991), 30.

16. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception," Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works, eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 81.

17. Theodor Adorno, "Nadelkurven," Musikblatter des Anbruch 10 (February 1928), pp. 47-50, cited in Barbara Engh, "Adorno and the Sirens: tele-phono-graphic bodies," Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, eds. L. Dunn and N. Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 120.

18. Anna McCarthy, "Shaping Public and Private Space With TV Screens, " Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 117.

19. Brian Winston, "How Are Media Born?" Media Studies: A Reader, eds. Paul Marris and Sue Thornham (Washington Square: New York University Press, 2000), 786.

20. Marshall McLuhan, "The Medium is the Message," Understanding Media; the Extensions of Man (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), 7.

21. Marshall McLuhan, "Media Evolutions, Media Forms," Essential McLuhan, eds. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone. (Toronto: Anansi, 1995), 292.

22. Russell A. Potter, "Not the Same: Race, Repetition and Difference in Hip-Hop and Dance Music," Mapping the Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory, eds. Thomas Swiss, John Sloop and Andrew Herman (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 41.

23. Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1994), pp. 165-166.

24. Paul Théberge, Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1997), 205.

25. Theodor Adorno, "The Perennial Fashion - Jazz," The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O Connor. (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 272.

26. Jean Baudrillard, "The System of Objects," Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 25.

27. Naomi Klein, "No Space," No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Canada: Knopf, 2000), pp. 77-78.

28. Pierre Bourdieu, "The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods," The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 75.

29. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 263.

30. Michael Holquist, "Glossary," The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 428.

31. Roland Barthes, "From Work to Text," Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 155.

32. Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 148.