Loving and Leaving the Phonograph 

Why Napster, extraterrestrials, Southern hillbillies and Dick Clark mean more to the future of music than copyright and the Recording Industry Association of America

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000

Beatrice I love my phonograph

But you have broke my windin' chain

And you taken my lovin'

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And you give it to yo' other man

--Robert Johnson
"Phonograph Blues"


It's mid-December 1999. Something's almost over and we didn't even know it . . .

I'm driving with Matt out to the warehouse barrens in Downey, California, far east of most of Los Angeles. Matt is dusky Californian blond; a proud wearer of chunky black glasses; owner of a 1978 Datsun painted metallic baby blue; the one who introduced me to the charms of blowing up hostage targets at LAX Firing Range. I.e., a record collector. On this drive, we're listening to records, albeit digitally, on compact disc. At the moment the Rolling Stones. Let It Bleed. "Gimme Shelter."

"This is not the same as listening to records," Matt says. "When I listen to this, I don't understand it. You can't see it. Pick up a record, though, and you can look at the grooves, see where the bass rumbles, where the drums drop out, where the wave gets thin and then gets fat again. In sum total, 'Gimme Shelter' is this thick," he says, bringing his hand to eye level and indicating a half-inch gap between his forefinger and his thumb.

A beat.

"'Freebird' is a full inch.

"It's like Brian Eno says," explains Matt. "'Analog delays gracefully. Digital decays absolutely.' Digital is just not the same." This is the first of many points. "Having a collection of records proves you have history. You've been listening, buying, collecting for a long time. You've accumulated something. Flipping a record over takes energy. You have to get up to listen to it all the way through. This shows you'll devote both time and energy to the thing you love."

"Or that you're misspending your energy, and wasting space," I say. Born into the CD era, I've never really bought LPs. The compact disc sounds fine to me, but to a record collector an album is about more than music. It is a sublime object, more real than life.

Matt offers little debate. "The space argument doesn't fly with me. People fill their living spaces with so many useless and ugly objects. And yeah, I know there are lots of record collectors out there who forget to tie their shoes, who have no friends, who don't eat or eat too much, who don't clean their homes, but so what?"

We're on our way out to Erika Records, one of the last vinyl-pressing plants left in California. Erika traces its origins back to the '70s, when a Hungarian family, the Dunsters, began to acquire the expensive machinery needed to press vinyl. The business was closed briefly in the '80s when a member of the family's second generation of record men, Joe, was caught bootlegging Rod Stewart Greatest Hits LPs. Joe was forced to divest himself of his record presses, but the family returned to records in the '80s when Joe's sister, Liz, opened the record label and pressing plant Erika. (It's named after her daughter.)

"Records for her are like dolls are for other girls," says Matt. "She still dreams of dressing and molding teased-out rockers." Liz revived the business at the height of L.A.'s glam era, selling her Corvette to put out heavy-metal vinyl. Although her label quickly fell by the wayside, the manufacturing operation remains. (Liz and her husband recently began Independent Music Distribution, which will distribute records for a number of independent labels.)

When we get to the plant, an anonymous block of corrugated-metal buildings, Liz guides us out to the presses. We pass one of Liz's workmen, a balding, 6-foot-4 man with a half-toothless smile, acid holes in his worn T-shirt, and cracked, sausage-thick digits. We are far from Malibu and Hollywood, but I imagine everyone here feels part of a glamorous lineage. The platinum and gold records lining Erika's walls offer a condensed history of post-'50s pop: the Beatles' Anthology, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, New Kids on the Block.

Erika is most esteemed for its expertise in creating custom records such as 7-inches in the shape of hearts or stars; records speckled with color like Jackson Pollock spin art; or picture discs on which the grooves lie over, say, an illustration of pneumatic breasts, a depiction of the devil or a metal band's highly stylized photograph. To make custom records, though, you've got to make the things one at a time, by hand. To prove this, Liz leads us to the manual record presses.

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