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The Thrill is Gone: Is the Web Taking the Excitement out of Record Collecting?

March 1, 2009


I savor the edgy competition of a good Ebay bid-war. I still relish the thought of my narrow victory last year over a guy from Vancouver contending for an out-of-print Neil Young vinyl from 1973. Yet I wonder if that experience can compete with the quiet rush of seeing a rare album in a neighborhood record shop like Chad’s here in Chattanooga. It’s hard to replace the sensation of waiting, almost suspended in time, while the acknowledgment of such an ideal coincidence washes over me.

There is a certain excitement a collector feels when holding the clear plastic-sleeved case of a classic record in his own hands, studying the details of its cover art, sliding out the album and noting the exceptional quality of its condition. The pleasure of visually appraising the actual item is one thing. To handle it while conducting an internal debate over the prudence of dropping the remainder of one’s paycheck on this rare find is another, more exhilarating, thing.

These kinds of experiences do still take place in the basements and storefronts of our cities, the kinds of places where record shops are still open for business (The latest issue of Paste features an article called—surprise—“The Record Store: A Good Thing” which features a short compendium of quality music outlets from around the nation). We can still drop in to one of these establishments during business hours and spend thirty minutes browsing the bins looking for a worthwhile album to purchase. Yet we can also log into a bit torrent and have that same album downloaded onto our PC’s hard drive in mp3 format in the amount of time it would take us to slip on our sneakers and locate our wallets.

At the end of the day, what has really changed? Musical gems are still out there waiting for us in the cultural soil, same as before Ebay, Amazon or Napster, Lime Wire and the bit torrents. Except now we have a silicon drill with which to mine them, in ten seconds flat, from the earth. Recent or rare recordings, ripped from the stockpile of a distant collector and converted to easily-translatable files, are available to us at a button’s touch. True, this is simply another example of organic industry becoming obsolete, an update of the twentieth century trade-off of man hours for the convenience and efficiency of technological labor-saving devices.

I am not necessarily opposed to convenience and efficiency. Nor I am opposed to the way the net has removed the obstacle of distance from our media sharing or purchasing; I like that a kid who lives in a remote location of Wyoming that is hundreds of miles from the nearest record store, but who has an internet connection and a file sharing application, can now get a hold of an mp3 version of the Bob Dylan album he’s been wanting. I also like the fact that he is now able, if he desires, to purchase that album on vinyl or compact disc and have it Fed Exed to his doorstep. So why am I hesitant to celebrate the part recorded music has to play in the story our grandchildren will read about in cultural history books as “The Advent of the Digital Age”?

In one sense, I’m divided. I appreciate the time we save and the effort we conserve by using our tech pets. Let me be the first one to say I think it an amazing thing that I can carry my entire music collection, along with a small library of audio books, podcast programs, movies and videos to work with me everyday on my ipod. I like knowing that I can have any song or book or movie I’d like to listen to playing at the press of two or three buttons; I also like that the player holding this media fits easily into my shirt pocket.

Let me also be the first to admit that I sometimes feel like my appreciation of music is growing stale. This usually happens when I notice that, over the last week, I’ve taken in a dozen albums without opening a case or inserting a disc (and also, in that same amount of time, listened to an entire book without turning a page). When I’m at home, I listen to music in the old style. I enjoy manually flipping through my record collection, pulling out an album I haven’t heard in a while, reappraising its cover art and remembering what it was I liked about the design in the first place. Though it may take twenty seconds minutes, I enjoy pulling the album or disc from that cover, keying up the player and letting it roll. Yet will I still be doing this five years from now, when I’m feeling lazier and media technology has made it even easier for me to stay that way?

To further the point, take iphones as another example. Everyone I know who owns one adores it. These people can be seen standing a step off from the crowd at social functions, coddling those portable information epicenters in their palms, petting their shiny touch screens affectionately, and purring quietly under their breath (sometimes I can almost hear those iphones purr back). If a dispute breaks out over the release date of a certain movie, the correct Latin name for a species of flower, or the capital city of an obscure South Asian country—well, the ipod owners have surfed over to Wikipedia and fished up the answer before any of us can agree to disagree. “Amazing!” we say. We didn’t even have to sit our beers down and walk inside to consult our atlas or Encyclopedia Britannica for the answer.

But how many of us coming of age in the tech generation still keep oversized atlases or encyclopedia collections on hand these days? Which of us still bothers to pull out a leather-bound volume for the sheer joy of flipping through its pages, running our fingers over the glossy photos, and smelling the faint musk of the pages as we flip each over and read on to the next? Why waste time with dusty National Geographics and World Books when there’s Wiki?

But the sensory joy we get from the processes of handling hard copies of books and albums is not the only thing becoming lost from our appreciation of knowledge and art. For music lovers, something else has begun vanishing from our lives, disappearing amidst our recent technological steps forward: namely, the thrill of the impulse buy.

It was one thing to walk into a record store in the mid nineties and pick up the latest Beastie Boy’s album. I was a fan of the band when I walked in to the store, and would be a fan when I walked out. What’s more, I had already heard the album’s hottest song (“Sabotage”) on MTV and was sold on its goodness; was already convinced that the Beastie’s almost never struck out; and so was confident that even if Ill Communication didn’t completely blow the doors off my pleasure centers, the purchase would still more than pay for itself in listening enjoyment. It was a sealed deal in my book, one made with next to no doubt.

Now, it was another thing to walk into a record store on any given day and see an album by a band I’d never heard tracks from, but yet whose name, or album art, or track titles, or something mysterious and telepathic I couldn’t put my finger on, caught my attention, and made me consider its purchase. To walk home with this album was to take a considerable step in the dark. It was to give a band a chance and hope that its members delivered the goods and met the generosity of my purchase with music worth hearing more than once.

There was always the danger that the band would turn out to be engaging in name or appearance only. But still, that’s the price you paid. And this was the nature of the risk. It was a risk taken because of those admittedly rare instances when the enjoyment of a somewhat dubious purchase endows the product with a value that overshadows its price tag. We took it because we believed that a splurge could become a good-hearted gamble we ended up winning. We believed surprisingly good music could do surprising things—like stop time for three-and-a-half minutes, or, if the volume was at the right level, turn ordinary blood to fire, or, in some cases, revise history.

Is this step in the dark still made? Of course. Every day. By thousands—maybe even millions—of people. I think it’s a safe bet that the bit torrents serve copious amounts of music consumers by the hour with mp3s by bands most of them are hearing for the first time.

What drew them in for a listen? Most consumers are probably responding to a buzz generated by an online music zine or a friend who is always recommending new bands. But I imagine there are those listeners who were drawn to a certain band or songwriter by a detail as arbitrary the act’s name—a name that, for whatever reason, she is fond of. So she (let’s say the listener’s a she) simply downloads that act’s latest album in mp3 format, uploads those files onto her ipod, and gives them a listen on her next car or subway commute. If the music those files hold turns out to be as good as she’d hoped, then she has found herself a new title to add to her ever-expanding list of good records. What’s more, she can rejoice that the returns on her recent venture far outweigh the effort she expended.

Eight years ago, while perusing the results of a Napster search, I came across a song titled “Punishing Sun” by a band called Giant Sand. Something about the oxymoronic moniker of this group piqued my curiosity, and so I decided to take a chance and download “Punishing Sun.” This dusty little desert ballad delivered. I quickly downloaded the album it came from, and then tried to get my hands on every Giant Sand release available. That album, Chore of Enchantment, easily stands beside my favorite LPs of the last decade.

But what if “Punishing Sun” had turned out to be a dud? What if the song, and also the album that housed it, failed to excite my musical palate, but instead ended up sounding, even after a repeat listen, like music destined for the junk pile? If I’d downloaded the album in the recent era of ipods and portable mp3s players, then the unwanted files could be left to take up a meager amount of space on my player’s eighty gigabyte storage bin, or else be deleted and forgotten. In the end, a little over an hour of my valuable time would have been wasted. If you don’t count the time it’d take me to listen to the album once through, then we’re actually talking about a couple minutes burned, what with the stalagmite-slow dial-up connection I was using back then.

Had I gambled and lost on an actual hard copy of Chore of Enchantment, much more effort would have been required for me to break even and see a satisfying return on my transaction. I would have needed to gather up the unwanted record from my disc changer or turntable, return it to its package, slip on my sneakers, locate my wallet and catch a bus back to the record shop. Once inside, I’d probably have to wait in line for a cashier and then haggle with him over a decent exchange payment. Then, after getting my mind off the three dollar loss with a shake at the café down the street, I’d need to catch the bus back home where, in the comforting world of a favorite novel or film, I’d try to forget all about my blunder.

Thanks to the advent of digital file sharing, we’ve successfully eliminated this waste of time, money and effort. Essentially, we’ve taken the sting out of music acquisition. We’ve done away with the risk. And in axing the risk, we’ve cut out the thrill. I’ve noticed this loss countless times since first logging on to Napster almost a decade ago. And I was reminded of it again last week when, perusing the new releases section of an online music zine, a certain band’s name caught my eye.

The band, Wye Oak, had taken its name from a giant tree that once stood in the sleepy town of Wye Mills, Maryland, just thirty minutes from the neighborhood where I grew up. Throughout my life, this five hundred year old White Oak (which was the largest of its kind in America) was a symbol that stood not only for robust virility and rugged beauty, but also for my growing appreciation of my Grandfather, the man who first took me to see it.

If I had seen Wye Oak’s debut album, If Children, nestled away in the W bin of the rock section at my local record shop, I would have grabbed it in a flash. As I reached for the album’s cellophane case, my mind would be rolling with a montage of images of my grandfather and me standing alongside the tree. Processing the emotion each remembered image would inevitably bring, I’d b-line for the counter, pull out a twenty, take my change and head for the bus stop. Once in my bedroom, I’d rip that cellophane from the disc case, and key up the player, eager to hear the sound of a band whose choice of a name is a direct channel into my childhood.

Hitting play, I’d fidget a little, nervous that what I was about to hear might not live up to the expectations I’d already assumed for it. In fact, I’d be prepared for it to fall miserably short. For what band’s music could match the cinematic montage of a childhood memory note for note? What song cycle could rival a string of nostalgia-soaked flashbacks from a time in our lives most of us have revised to fit our adult longings for the unique sensation of innocent discovery? Few albums can stand this test. Indeed, most collectors are in search of a new one to add to those few.

Yet we are also in search of records that might simply reward the impulse that prompted us to purchase them. We ask nothing more than that they succeed in transcending our expectations, if only by a hair. So we take that step in the dark, however slight; we risk time and money. This risk was, and still is, worth it. Even if it means we’ll have to drop our last dollar on bus fare. But of course catching that bus means stepping away from the cyber-highway, if only for an hour or two.

One Comment leave one →
  1. dubiousmerit permalink
    March 1, 2009 5:02 am

    I agree to a point. I tend to take my risks at thrift stores where, if I’m lucky, I’ll come across some gem that is not only great music that is unknown to me, but not trashed by the previous owner (see this: Generally the cost to experiment is only $2-$3, and I’m willing to risk that much if something looks intriguing.

    On the other side of the evil internet download is the argument that there is more music than ever available, and that digital technology has made it possible for anyone with the inspiration to make a record. This is, like most innovations, good and bad: there is a lot of dross along with the good. It just takes more work to find the good stuff.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and I’ve dropped a link into mine (I have several).

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