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How to Clean Out Your Record Collection

A 7-step guide for album owners who want their personal space back

spinner image old records out of sleeves laid out in a messy pile
From special songs to the actual records, we take a look at ways to compartmentalize — and help you when it's time to just throw the music into the trash.
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We all face the music — sometimes literally. How many times have you walked past that wall of vinyl or CDs in your home and thought, “Should they stay, or should they go?” In the book that sparked the latest self-help craze, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, Margareta Magnusson offers at least a partial answer to that question.

Magnusson, who says she’s between 80 and 100, makes the compelling case that purging can never be done too soon. Starting at around age 65, Magnusson writes, we should start sorting through our possessions — determining what to keep, what to toss and what to hand over to relatives now, sparing them the hard labor of sifting through whatever we leave behind. “Remember the money you are saving by doing it yourself, and all the time you will save your family and friends who will not have to do it for you,” she warns, adding on a more upbeat note, “It is a delight to go through things and remember their worth.”

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As anyone who grew up with rock 'n' roll knows, record collections are packed with such memories; a song or album (or even album cover) can instantly hurl you back in time, like an aural fountain of youth. But CD collections also eat up an enormous amount of space, LPs are bigger, and the storage problem is growing because LP sales have increased more than 1,300 percent in the past 12 years. How, then, to death-clean such a library? Magnusson admits that, after letting her son-in-law cherry-pick a few LPs, she tossed the rest in the trash. If that thought sounds too horrific — and you don’t have time to transfer every piece of music in your collection onto your computer hard drive — here’s a step-by-step method of paring down a music library while saving your children from having to find a home for those worn-out Stevie Wonder or Emerson, Lake & Palmer records.

Step 1: Start by pulling out the records (or CDs or tapes) with the most sentimental value: the first few you owned, the one you played at your wedding reception, and other discs that evoke wonderful or momentous times in your life. Try to keep the stack to under 50 — enough to fill up what Magnusson calls a “throw-away box” of favorites that relatives can easily toss when you’re not around. Keep a turntable, CD player or tape deck in case you ever want to play any of them.

Step 2: For recent purchases that don’t have as much sentimental value (and let’s face it — no one mourns plastic CD cases), upload them onto your hard drive or onto a service like iTunes, then toss them into a giveaway pile.

Step 3: Next in the out-the-door stack: any record you haven’t played since Bill Clinton was president. If you haven’t found the time by now to dip into that 10-disc "deluxe edition'" of U2's Achtung Baby or that collection of central Asian throat singing you picked up on a whim, you probably won’t, ever.

spinner image detail of a shelf of vinyl records in sleeves
Hot records of the past can be spun into cold cash.
Trevor Hart/Gallery Stock

Step 4: In a separate pile, set aside anything that looks rare or collectible to pass along to family members. The chances that your collection contains something genuinely valuable (say, a mint-condition stereo copy of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today with the original cover of the band in white smocks and holding dismembered dolls, which can fetch as much as $4,000) is probably slim, but you never know. One good gauge of the value of vintage vinyl: eBay. According to Paul Bazylinski, co-owner of the illustrious Record Exchange store in Salem, Mass., also worth investigating are any classic Blue Note jazz LPs and extras-festooned items like the Beatles’ so-called “White Album” or Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, provided they contain the original inside posters and are in good condition.

Step 5: If you have the time or energy and could use extra cash, scoop up that pile of records in steps 2 or 3 and haul them to your local used-record store. Prime classic-rock LPs (the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours) can get you anywhere between $1 and $3 each, which can add up if you have an ample record library. 

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Step 6: Throw out anything in unplayable condition: warped or scratched-beyond-repair records with beaten-down covers. “A lot of people had storage issues with their records,” says Bazylinski. “I tell people to pull out a few, look for scratches and sniff them for any mold. Records stored in attics can be warped because of extreme fluctuation in room temperature. Sometimes I say to people, ‘Right record in the wrong condition.’”

Step 7: Don’t forget that compact discs, once described as indestructible, can be recycled. Mail them to the CD Recycling Center of America (check their website for the office nearest you). Rock 'n' roll never forgets — but it can be reconditioned into something equally useful.

David Browne, 57, is the author of Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970.

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