Marshall Bolton: Zen and the Art of Lovely Records

We all know what Zen is - but what are lovely records?

Well firstly: Have you noticed that someone else’s lovely records are not always lovely for you? This must mean that they are not lovely in and of themselves - but become lovely through time and effort, chance and contingency. It’s our personal investment that makes them lovely.

But wait a minute: How many lovely records can you have then?

I want to suggest that you can’t have very many at a time. Our objects of desire are randomly complex and they belong to no-one else but us. It is all in our mind's eye (and ear) and there isn't room for many.

So I am not going to provide you with yet another display of lovely records, because they probably won’t click with you anyway, and they will be just another collection of personal orphans on the net wasting your time and overwhelming you with worry (Why don’t I like that?), anxiety (I can’t live without this record, where can I buy it?) and unease (How can another person like that?).

Hifi should be fun, right? And shopping isn’t.

So I want to give you (back) all your own lovely records...

Let’s recap.

  • Scarcity
  • Idiosyncrasy
  • Chance
all seem to determine the alchemy of lovely records.

So here's what you have to do....

First step. Get rid of some (a lot) of your records! I am sure there are many records taking up space (in your mind, on your shelves and in your hard disc) that you no longer listen to or like. Throw them away. Delete. And with no feelings of guilt. Enjoy a lean and mean collection, where you almost randomly can pick an album and you know that it almost certainly will give you a lovely experience.

Second step. You put on a record and you didn’t get a lovely experience? Throw that album away. It’s a Frisbee, and just hear the whispering woosh of the delete key.

Third step. Stop buying new records. Take a sabbath from all the angst. Listening to new records is work, work, work and the chances are low that this new record will prove to be lovely. Be content with what you have.

Fourth step. Don’t read about new records (or other people’s lovely records) cos then you won’t be tempted. As the fortune-teller said to the singer-songwriter: Beware of the beautiful stranger. The one after the one you know now.

I know, I know. Every day in every way things just got better.

Rusty's picture

Thanks for some good perspective.

Greyfossil's picture

I have indeed been doing as you suggest. Having too many tracks is an exercise in frustration so when I come across something I won't listen to again, I delete it but I should have started years ago. That said, as a result of Lovely Records I have added to my collection. Its a double edged sword.

Anton's picture

Do you hear this record? I love this record. It holds music admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I play it, it has a lovely sound. Yet for me, this record is already scratched. When a guest drops it or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and gets marred, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this record is already scratched, every minute with it is precious.


What is the sound of no record playing?

Bob Karp's picture

I can appreciate your wisdom here, Marshall. There is much that I can embrace - and have. A lot of peace can come from removing clutter and simplifying. And, there *is* an element of audiophile obsession that leaves us constantly seeking the *next* MUST have album. That quest can get out-of-control and rob you of your tranquility (as well as a good portion of your bank account!). That said, I don’t see myself, or too many audiophiles I know, truly *slashing* the size of our music collection. And I think it would be a mistake to do so.

I might modify your guidance:

Periodically enter a “new music abstinence” mode. During this time (a few days, a week, or perhaps a month) dive deep into your current collection. Reconnect with old favorites that you have not visited in a while. Listen to titles that you forgot you even owned. Grab things randomly off the shelf and play them. Savor and appreciate all that you have.

While appreciating your current collection, you will probably find some titles that don’t seem to move you like they used to, or (perhaps surprisingly) you may find titles that you just don’t like at all. At this point, I don’t throw them out (or give them away), but I return them to the shelf slightly jogged out so that I can come back to them again (relatively) soon. Some time later, undoubtedly in a different mood or state of mind, I’ll pull out a jogged title and play it again. It is not uncommon for the music to grab my attention, and I think, “whew, I’m glad I didn’t get rid of that one!” Of course, some things strikeout again. I don’t give them three strikes; time is too precious. At two strikes I remove the title from my collection and give it away.

This “weeding” lets me transfer music that (hopefully) can be enjoyed by others, and makes some space in my collection for new music. I think taking a periodic break from new music acquisition is a fine idea. But I can’t get onboard with ceasing to look at (listen to) new landscapes. Hearing and developing an appreciation for new music is a growth process for me - and I don’t want, or expect, that process to ever end. Tidal has certainly become and a good vehicle for expanding my listening horizons without (so badly) depleting my savings.

Your advice on restoring peace and balance is well placed. I suspect that many (probably most) of us lean rather heavily toward the obsessive side of music collecting. Pulling ourselves back the other way - and truly appreciating all that we *already* have - is certainly a very good idea, as is purging cluster that we won’t miss. Thank you.

Anton's picture

If we can never listen to the same system twice, why are we always changing gear?

It's not the having, it's the getting?


Shoshin's picture

After practicing intermittently for several years, I doubt I know what Zen is. I am confident, though, that what you have described has little relationship to "Zen".

I dislike waste, clutter, the unused... so the proposed strategy has immediate appeal - I have applied it at various points. It is not "Zen".

Sure, I'd like to be less concerned about how many records I own, or whether I like them presently, and whether my collection is what it "should" be. Honestly though, I rarely think about that stuff - I don't see myself as a music collector or audiophile. More important is an awareness of my mental/emotional attachments, my capacity to just listen, and a natural curiosity (not to be confused with a desire to have).

Control, avoidance and denial might provide temporary relief - and if one is fortunate, promote a limited awareness - but they are not "Zen".

Warm regards.