The Big Dig
“It swings between passion and obsession, constantly. It’s definitely at the point where I’m like, ‘do I want to buy groceries this week, or do I want to go digging in Indianapolis?’”
Aaron Soma spends 12 to 16 hours a week, on average, digging for vinyl. At least once a month, he leaves the state to rummage through basements and backrooms for dusty jewels of sound. He calls it the “great nerd odyssey” – and he’s not being flip, despite the shadow of cool that has settled on record culture in recent years.
Aaron can describe what he’s into – Northern soul, forgotten originals of ‘80s pop songs – but it’s hard to put a finger on what he’s really searching for. So in consideration of the question, he made a list, went to some record shops, and thought about it for a while. Here are four things he managed to sort out.
Aaron’s first digs were through his parent’s formidable collection of records. “I picked up Beatles albums,” he says, “wondering, looking at the records, noticing that the song wasn’t written by John Lennon or Paul McCartney, but some American R&B artist somewhere.”
“That’s the really exciting thing about collecting,” says Andy Noble, co-owner of LotusLand Records. “You’re always following a path, and you’re probably following multiple paths.”
“It could take you back to the beginning of recorded time – or to Africa, or to Brazil – just by following the sound, the producer, the people who were thanked in the liner notes, weird stuff like that. It’s an exploration.”
Aaron is always learning; every dig is a research project.
“I’ll bring a battery-powered portable record player with me to a shop and just dig through, set stuff aside. That’s how I teach myself what’s going on. I hardly ever know what I’m looking for when I go out: it’s really a dive into the unknown.”
2. Midwestern music
Aaron’s serious collecting started with ‘60s psychedelic rock, especially local acts – Michael and the Messengers, The Illusion, The Legends. For the past two or three years, he’s been collecting mainly funk and soul music, and still turns up a lot of local material.
“Because I dig regionally, I tend to come up with a decent amount of stuff that was actually happening here – Harvey Scales and the Seven Sounds, The Esquires.”
On a sunny late-summer afternoon, Aaron drives me out to an empty storefront on North Avenue. Audie’s Records has been closed since the late ‘80s, and judging from the steamrollers parked next door, it might not be standing for much longer. It used to be a major distribution hub for hip hop, soul and funk in the Midwest.
“A lot of that stuff is still here. In bigger Midwest cities – St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis – a lot of the shops get really picked through.”
Still, good finds don’t come easy – especially with the continued trade of American music internationally. “The British came over in the 80’s and pretty much liquidated our records,” Aaron says. “They’re like the jocks of record collecting. They like soccer and they like American soul records.”
Andy’s vinyl habit has taken him to the UK and continental Europe. “There are certain records from Milwaukee that you can only get over there,” he says.
Aaron’s rate of return – hours spent digging versus records obtained – varies based on what he knows and what he’s looking for.
“You can go out on a Saturday, go into a basement, look through five, six, seven-thousand records in three hours. If you can pull out 20 – or two – it makes it all worthwhile.”
3. Something that’s interesting when the needle hits the vinyl
An unassuming guy with chunky vintage glasses and a lo-fi aesthetic, Aaron insists throughout the interview that he’s not a noteworthy digger. There are plenty of collector heavyweights in Milwaukee – Brent Goodsell, Dave Monroe, the aforementioned Noble Brothers. But part of what makes Aaron an interesting guy to talk to is that he’s such an everyman – at least as far as record diggers go.
“I’m the guy that catches what [the major collectors] miss … I’m essentially biting at their heels.”
Andy Noble has one of the largest collections of funk records in the country – “it’s not about size,” he says, “it’s about rarities” – and an impressively down-to-earth attitude about collecting.
“I just collect records I think are good, which means my record collection is sort of subjective. Some people are a lot more categorical – ‘I have every soul record made in Milwaukee, I have every soundtrack that MGM ever put out.’ [But] if you’re a collector, you should be thinking about those issues every day. Collecting anything to me is an introspective thing. You’re finding out things about yourself – about the internal – through the external. That’s how I think about it. I’m constantly redefining what should be [in my collection].”
Aaron agrees that there’s more to collecting records than the quest to impress. The records don’t sag the floorboards at his house – it’s about quality over quantity.
“I can turn 200 records I’m not that interested in into three amazing records. [And] it’s always been about finding nice copies to listen to, not like, ‘Look at me, I’ve got the $5,000 copy of something I don’t even care for.’
“Sure, it’s exciting to find something that’s extremely rare – I stumble across stuff like that once in a while, but it’s always in really poor condition. I’ll buy something for a dollar and take it home and scrub it in my sink in the hopes that I might be able to listen to it – just to at least hear the song.”
It could just be a matter of time before Aaron is playing in the major leagues of record digging; he doesn’t see himself losing interest any time soon, and to hear Andy talk about it, becoming a big shot happens by accident, especially when it comes to the decision to open a record shop.
“Record shops get started when people amass so many records that your house would be a record store,” he says. “You’d have to be selling stuff all the time just to get to the pantry.”
“You’ll have Smokey Robinson and the Miracles,” Aaron says, “and then you’ll have 25 other groups that sound like that, but never got the attention. It’s all about the search for lost genius.”
Aaron and Andy both try to tell me that they aren’t any different from people who collect maps, stamps, or model trains. But there’s something about the rapture of record digging that makes sense. The imprint of musical culture is everywhere in modern life – record collecting quantifies that influence.
For Andy, it’s a calling.
“20 years from now, you’ll interview someone who’s a MySpace digger, someone who found all the songs on MySpace pages that are amazing that no one ever heard. I’m personally devoted to records, and that’s more than enough for my lifetime, but I’m just saying – the Lord’s work is with the people who are digging through the nobodies of the world. If you see my record collection – it’s all nobodies, they never made it. I’m sure the 10 best rappers in America have a MySpace page, and that’s it. That’s the only place you can hear their music.
“This is, in a way, what the record diggers do – you’re kind of deciding which forgotten records are going to be heard by the masses. Almost all of them are horrible, but some of them are great, and who decides what gets heard? You’re preserving that part of culture. You’re a librarian.”
Aaron considers himself less obsessive than most of the record collectors he’s met. And Andy, despite his encyclopedia of music knowledge and a freshly-released feature film about his way of life, comes across as exceedingly normal, not at all crazed.
Still, Aaron says, “It’s dangerous to get into a rut where it becomes the be-all and end-all of your life. It can really become what you think about when you get up in the morning.” And really, it’s not hard to see why. VS