Al Howard on the Art of Crate Digging
The local songwriter and musician discusses his history and strategies for finding unknown vinyl treasures
Photo by Kristy Walker
There’s record shopping, and there’s crate digging.
Record shopping is casual, easy-going. When you shop for records, sometimes you go in with a list of things you want to look for, maybe you’ll just browse through the new releases or just-in bin. The stakes are low, and more often than not you’ll leave with one or two records you’ve been looking for, or maybe you didn’t realize you were looking for, but you most likely leave satisfied.
Crate-digging is something different entirely. It’s not just shopping for records, it’s an intense hunt for hidden treasure—a deep dive into unknown archives for something you didn’t know you needed. Maybe dozens of somethings you didn’t know you needed. Maybe hundreds. It’s not for greenhorns; the competition is cutthroat and the rewards sometimes take more patience and acumen to find than most of us have or are willing to develop. For years it was exclusively the domain of DJs searching for samples to flip, but it’s since become a way for second-hand sellers to find the mother lode, and for collectors to unearth buried hoards of rarities.
Al Howard, local songwriter and musician in bands such as The Heavy Guilt, Birdy Bardot and The Midnight Pine, is a crate-digger. His garage is full of records. Some of them he’ll sell to someone else at some point. Some he’s never listened to. Some he might not even remember that he has. Simply walking your fingers through his own collection is a crate dig in and of itself.
Over the years he’s been to hundreds, even thousands of estate sales and swap meets for the chance to excavate a collection of pristine vinyl from a seller willing to make a deal. Ahead of Record Store Day’s Black Friday event, which offers buyers a higher profile opportunity to do some crate digging of their own—in addition to a number of limited-edition new pressings—I spoke to Howard about his own history of collecting records and his strategies for finding something great.
How did you get started collecting records?
When I was about 14 or 15, my bud Charlie got his learner’s permit and we were nerd, loser kids with nothing to do on weekends. It was the ‘90s, so everybody was getting rid of their records, so we started going to garage sales and I picked up some amazing records for just 25 cents. I found Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On! and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. I was like “holy hell!”
When did that become a more intense crate-digging pursuit?
I’ve always collected somewhat obsessively. One morning I was asked to drop off a friend, who was also my tattoo artist, at the airport for an early flight. And I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I went to a swap meet and ended up finding all kinds of amazing stuff. Now, I think I go to about seven swap meets a week, and I’m out of my house at about 5 a.m.
Do you end up sometimes taking home records out of curiosity more than anything? Like “oh, this looks cool!”, without even really knowing much about it?
There’s definitely a weird archeological element. I find records that weren’t even known to exist. For whatever reason, nobody has them or knows about them. There are all these obscure records we don’t know about. When MySpace was around, it seemed like everybody was in a band, and everyone had their mp3s that played on their page. But it turns out it’s always been like that.
I still consider myself a novice. Guys I deal with know so much more than me. But there’s always a stack of records when I’m shopping around that looks interesting or unusual to me. I know enough.
How many records in your collection have you never listened to?
Thousands. But I’ve listened to a lot of music too. I’ve never counted how many records I have. I really don’t know, but [the collection] is big enough. I’m a musician and that requires a lot of my time. I realized I’ve put out 30 full-length albums myself. I don’t find nearly as much listening time as I’d like to. I sometimes think about how there’s this golden hour of life where I’ll have more time and be able to sit back in a rocking chair and just listen.
So, is the key to finding the good stuff just getting there early?
Oh yeah. I’ll put it this way: I went to this estate sale once. There’s this whole glass culture of collecting antique bottles and stuff, and this guy passed away who was really big in those circles. My buddy gave me a heads up that there were going to be records there, too. So I got in line at 4 a.m., and I was fourth in line. But the estate sale didn’t start until 8 a.m. I went in and bought 95 pretty good records, and it ended up being picked pretty clean. Anyone who showed up at 8 a.m. probably didn’t get anything.
But then again I showed up at a swap meet once at 9 a.m. and ended up finding the rarest record I’ve ever seen: A 45 by a local punk band from the ‘80s called The No-No’s. It wound up selling for $1,200.
Al Howard will perform with The Redwoods Revue at Loews Coronado on New Year's Eve.