When it arrived, my teen was fascinated as I slit the plastic and unpacked the sleeve. "Why don't CD's come with all this cool stuff?" She watched in awe as I put it on the turntable, she and the 70's-era stereo components being the best things I brought out of that relationship. "How can you tell where the next song starts?" she asked, and I felt like I was teaching her how to churn butter as I showed her the vinyl in the light, like I was sharing some arcane, medieval ritual. Once I put it on, she shrugged and left, but I heard the beauty of nondigitized sound. What can I tell you? It's a fetish.
I was remembering this encounter today as I was reading a series of essays from the PopMatters crowd about shopping for music in the current climate. They reflect on the importance of the internet, the boorishness of record store clerks, the thrill of the hunt, sneaking music in on one's spouse, shifting generic boundaries.... all in all, a cool collection of essays. My favorite, though was Zeth Lundy's "The Plasticine Aroma of History," in which he discusses the Benjaminian aura of the record store.
[I]f music is my religion, then record stores are my places of worship. Shopping for music is as absorbing an exercise as listening to music, one that requires more than sitting in a chair and staring at a computer screen. Record-searching and record-buying is a visceral, obsessive thing, an activity that demands physical contact. There's a calming comfort in being surrounded by row upon row of discs and vinyl, a sense of solidarity imbibed by standing among decades of recorded music. You can't help but feel a part of it all. Moving from "A" to "B" to "C", the hunt for specific albums begets the surprise of unexpected bargains begets the discovery of releases you didn't even know existed. Shopping in record stores means bumping into fellow obsessives pawing through the row adjacent to you, "Street Fighting Man" scissor-kicking its way through the overhead stereo, fingers flirting meticulously through the myriad of possibilities.
I can't remember the last time I was in a record store. Well, that's not quite true. I was in one last week, looked for something very specific (Half Smiles of the Decomposed), didn't find it, and was out again inside 90 seconds. I cursed myself for not picking it up a week ago online, Lundy's great boogeyman. I get most of my music online or from my friends, though I have not yet made the great iPod leap (Christmas is coming, Thersites!). My addiction to CDBaby, where you get to hear two minutes of every song, borders on the comic.
Lundy's is essentially an urban complaint: any kid who grew up in a small town knew that the chances of finding what you wanted in your local record store were slim. My brother and I used to frequent a used record store whose owner resembled a pederast and whose collection leaned heavily toward the Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods side of things, but he had the benefit of being willing to trade three of yours for one of his. I learned to shop for records there, perfected the flip, the cursory study of the sleeve, the close inspection of the condition of the disc. Lundy is right about that: it was a tactile, visceral process. Personally, I think the death of the record store mirrored the rise of the CD, since CD's don't, in my daughter's phrase, come with "all this cool stuff." How do others buy music, I wonder? Are we Lundy-style purists? Or mp3-tossing fools?