Guest Post: Late Lament

I’m on vacation!!! So, while I’m away, I’m going to be posting some things that I wrote in the past, I’m also going to be posting some things from friends. Today, my friend Ben, guest posts. You can read more from Ben on his blog. (And you can remind him to post more). 

I was given the privilege of guest blogging by my friend Shanella. I had previously written a long blog post about my love/hate relationship music and how that relates to the artistic impulse, so I decided to write something that builds on that, bringing together music, words, information and technology. I am writing as a musician and dedicated music listener.

It might seem strange to many youngsters living in this Internet age that people used to buy music in the format of compact discs, vinyl phonograph records (LPs) and cassette tapes. I am dating myself by mentioning that I used to have a fairly large collection of vinyl and still have a large collection of CDs. Similar to how the popularity of the compact disc caused the death of vinyl and cassette tapes back in the late 80s, the mp3, the Ipod, digital downloads and online retailers have caused the near death of CDs in our time, and with that, the death of brick and mortar music retail stores.

I really grieve over the death of brick and mortar stores like the Tower Records that used to be on West 4th Street in the Village. During my high school and college years it was a place of comfort and refuge, my ‘go to’ place when I had some free time. It was where I could see thousands of music albums in one place, with selections ranging from the most obscure albums to the most popular hits for sale and displayed beautifully. I could touch the actual physical items, not just see them as images on a website. The employees there were usually knowledgeable music fans that were helpful with recommendations and suggestions. The albums there were generally a little more expensive than those at competing stores, but the excellent selection and great service more than made up for it.

The albums were for a time a lot more visually striking. When vinyl was popular, music fans had a much better view of the album art on the larger vinyl album covers. Fans could better appreciate the large sized cover art that had to be more attention-grabbing and dramatic since the artwork used to be a much more important part of the music’s marketing. Cover artists pushed the limits of the medium, leading to some very innovative work. Sadly, after the CD replaced the LP, a big part of that was lost, since the artwork became much smaller. Now with advent of digital downloads, the music album cover is for the most part dead, sadly. There’s really no way a 500×500 tiny jpeg image can compare to a printed 12”x12” cover.

One of my regular rituals was to pick up the free monthly fan magazine (or ‘fanzine’) called the ‘Tower Pulse’ and read it on my train ride home from school. The magazine was ultimately just an oversized advertisement for the store, but it had a lot of features and spotlights on musical artists that I normally wouldn’t know or hear about. This was one of my few sources to discover anything new or noteworthy, because there were no Internet searches, music websites or music databases available yet. Hard to believe that back then, regular people depended on fanzines, newsletters and books (gasp!) to get such information. There was something about the physical quality of the magazine that I enjoyed a lot, like the way it felt in my hands or how the ink would smudge if my hands held the pages too long. There was something about the scent of the paper in combination with the string smell of the ink that was intoxicating because the cheap chemicals used in the printing of this free magazine were probably volatile.

My favorite section of the magazine was called ‘Desert Island Discs (DIDs),’ a section of lists submitted by Tower Pulse readers of albums they consider essential, that they could not live without. From those lists I could see what other people chose as their favorite and best music, and with that I got an idea of what music to try out next. This turned out to be a great marketing tool, so it was a win-win for both the store and the customers. With the development of the Internet, the store eventually shut down the physical Pulse magazine and made it go online. Reading the DID lists and new artist information online wasn’t quite the same, though the information was all stored in place and was thus easier to find and access. It was great that I didn’t have to worry about missing an issue, but I really missed the paper and the ink that made me high.

The music scene has changed so much lately that brick and mortar stores like Tower that didn’t adjust their business models to the new digital formats or account for their online competitors became huge casualties. Sadly, the era of retail stores with great selection and personalized service is gone and will probably never come back. The only major brick and mortar stores left are Best Buy and Target, which offer good prices but have only a limited selection of the most popular (and usually the most boring or lousy) artists. Forget about finding good independent music, obscure albums or anything not extremely popular. Also forget about asking a salesperson for help, information or suggestions – they won’t have any, and they’ll probably ask you to look it up online.

Online stores like Amazon have their place and offer quick and easy shopping with a great selection and decent prices, but the experience is very impersonal. For digital downloads, the Itunes Store is king, but shopping there also a very impersonal experience. It’s an extremely convenient way of shopping for music, but it turns music into 99 cent commodities rather than actual songs or parts of a whole album. I’m not saying that being able to buy a song for 99 cents is necessarily bad, but that it does makes one think of music differently, as really cheap merchandise or property.

I am by no means against technology; as it is, I have converted most of my collection to digital formats. It is the future and it is here, so music fans and people that make music part of their profession have to acknowledge this major development and adapt accordingly. The rules are different now; the business model has changed; there is no going back. Still, the modern process of obtaining and playing music has left me feeling a bit empty. The convenience of having my entire music collection on a hard drive is great, but there’s something odd and cold about thinking about my music as a bunch of files made up of ones and zeroes that I can access by clicking a mouse – it makes me value the music less. I took care of my music more and made a bigger deal out of it when the music format I used was fragile and inconvenient. There was something different when I had to handle the vinyl LP and make sure it didn’t get smudged, scratched or damaged, when setting up the turntable to play an album became an event, when it was something much more involved that just clicking on a file and hitting ‘play.’ There is something seriously lost in the appreciation of music when I now listen to relatively bad sounding computer files through bad laptop speakers or equally terrible Ipod headphones.

Making music portable now is a relatively quick and painless process of creating a playlist in a program like Itunes and synching music to a portable music player like an Ipod. Back in my vinyl days (I’m sounding like a grandfather here), making music for a portable device like a ‘Walkman’ cassette tape player was a long, tedious process of recording music from vinyl onto cassette tapes. Recording a tape was all done in real time – a one hour tape took at least that if one were recording from a full album, but a mix from many different albums took much longer given all the disc changes. The process was long, but something about it made me really appreciate each individual song. In contrast, the relative ease that current technology lets me take the music with me makes me take the music for granted.

Ultimately, more than my grieving for the death of Tower Records and stores like it, I mourn the removal of the human and creative element in the modern method of obtaining and listening to music – it’s a chilly endeavor, from the store experience (or lack thereof), to the marketing/presentation and (lack of) packaging, to the delivery of the music in its various (often bad sounding) formats, all the way to playing the music in awful sounding devices. Music technology truly has put more power and convenience in the hand of the people, but consequently has made the music experience much more mechanical and impersonal, devaluing it and making it less important. I fear that if we don’t change how we are receiving and transmitting music, then music itself may go the way of the vinyl LP – still appreciated and sought out by a tiny number of enthusiasts, but outmoded nonetheless. All that will be left then will be commercial jingles, movie and TV soundtracks, dance tunes and elevator music. That is a future I hope not to see.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Late Lament

  1. Nice post – I share your sense of loss but there is another side of this – for one thing, the leveling of the playing field between unsigned and signed artists which is allowing more new music to be available (for good and bad!)

  2. I’m still getting used to engaging with music on my iPod, which I only got a few years ago. You’re so right, Ben – buying a song on iTunes feels very different than buying an album. Our relationship with our music back then was indeed different… knowing the album order of songs was part of the magic… But I watch my daughter’s relationship with her music, and I have hope that such will never die.

    I’ve come to believe that vinyl will never die either. I was just saying recently that I don’t regret letting go of my (IMHO rather amazing) vinyl collection, but it may always hurt to think about it. My daughter is still mad at me. (See, vinyl will never die!) And the other night I saw a show at a local club… and they were selling vinyl at the tshirt counter!!

    Go get some healing time at a used record store, bro! 🙂

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