Monday, November 21, 2011

Old Time Rock and Roll

Earlier this year I purchased a music CD at an antique mall. Okay, to be fair, there were only a small handful of CD's in a booth that specialized in vinyl records, but yeah... CD's are now antiques.

Of course this had the effect of making me feel old. It hasn't been that long since they were the brand new technology that everyone was either excited about or dismissive of (“they'll never replace vinyl!”). The band Big Black referred to CD's as the “Rich man's 8-track,” comparing them, of course to a format that had a very short duration. A mere 20 years later and Big Black was right. I remember the first time I ever heard a CD. I was in grad school at the time (this would have been fall of 1987, the evening of December 4th specifically... I have other reasons to remember the date). I was living with a group of guys in a college apartment. One of my roommates had an amazing and enviable record collection comprised of tons of bands I had never heard of before. Though I had always been a music fan this was a musical awakening for me that has forever changed the way I listen to and consume music. But it was vinyl. I had gone to a friend's house for dinner one evening. They had an enormous, state of the art stereo system with, of all things, a CD player. At this point I was barely aware the technology existed. I had seen a few of the small jewel boxes, imports mostly, on the counter at the Record Den (one of the best music stores I've ever frequented), but really knew very little about them. We put on a CD, something classical that I can't name, and laid down on the floor to listen. The clarity of the sound, and the vibrations I felt through the floor beneath me just simply blew me away.

A year later, with money made from my first post-grad school real job, I had my own expensive stereo system with a CD player. This system also had a turntable and a cassette player, but I made the transition to CD's pretty quickly. I understand those record collectors who maintain that the sound of vinyl is warmer than digital music, but for me personally, I simply didn't miss the scratches and hissing that accompanied records. I bought not only new CD's but I spent a lot of money replacing my vinyl collection in this new format (I bought Cheap Trick's Heaven Tonight on vinyl, cassette, and CD... You're welcome, Robin Zander).

There were things I missed. I loved album covers and the liner notes that came with them. The new format changed that experience, but this was not really a detriment to my collecting.

I used to love going record shopping. Before CD's I would dig through album bins looking for new releases and checking out records. Digging through used album bins was always a treat. In the 80's, before I moved to Pittsburgh, friends and I would periodically make Saturday pilgrimages to go comics and record shopping. We would stop at Phantom of the Attic in Oakland (where I now work) for comics, and then hit Eide's for records and comics both. Eventually we discovered Jerry's Used Records in Oakland and Jim's Records in Bloomfield. Jim's eventually became Paul's CDs. In either version it was, for my tastes, hands down the best record store, new and used, ever. In all of my travels to other cities I would always compare record stores and comics shops to Paul's and Phantom of the Attic and everyone else always came up short. There was a lifestyle here that was beautifully captured by High Fidelity, both the movie and the book.

But times change. Money gets short and hobbies suffer. I eventually stopped buying vinyl entirely. Phantom of the Attic helped open a new record store, Brave New World, where I received an employee discount. As much as I loved Paul's CD's, budget led me to buying most of my new music where it cost me less. I would still go to Paul's to browse and buy from the Used section, but my visits became less and less frequent, to the point where I began to feel guilty when I did go.

Then the mp3 digital revolution began. I was resistant to the idea of the Ipod when it first came out. Like a lot of technology, I didn't really understand just how revolutionary it was until I had one.

I really never bought a lot of digital music. Some, certainly, but Itunes never claimed a lot of my money. I ripped all of my old CD's and created digital files, so my actual CD's began to just sit on the shelf. I would still buy new CD's, but I would immediately rip them to mp3, so the disc and the jewel case and the liner notes just got filed away. I borrowed CD's from friends and ripped them. I did some downloads of questionable legality. CD's became expensive, and I just didn't go shopping for it the way I once did.

The music began to exist at more of a distance from me. In my teens I would sit and listen to an album while reading the lyrics included with an album, or looking at the album art. The packaging was part of the initial experience of new music, engaging more of my senses. That became less and less true. As a result, very little music of the last decade or so has had the kind of lasting impact on me that earlier music did. Some of that is where I am in life. I simply don't have the time to dedicate to the hobby I once did. I'm not a 14 year old, just forming musical tastes that will accompany me for the rest of my life. But I am still always hungry for something new.

Even though I haven't had a working turntable in years the used record booth at the antique mall reminded me of the old days of record shopping. What drew my eye in the first place was a record sleeve, one of many, displayed on a rack on the wall. Adolescent Sex, the very first album by the post-glam, pre-punk, New Romantic band Japan (and all of those labels are used in a pretty tongue-in-cheek fashion).

Japan was one of the bands I was introduced to by my roommate with the amazing record collection, and their album Tin Drum was the first import CD I ever bought (at Jim's Records). For a long time their first two albums were not available on CD in America. I had bought the second one on vinyl but hadn't listened to it in years.

No turntable... Remember?

Seeing Adolescent Sex in Washington, Pa was surprising, simply because Japan is not a band I expect to find very readily anywhere, let alone displayed at an antique mall record stall. For a moment it brought back all of the excitement of the old days when I would find an unexpected treasure for my collection. The fact that this was something I had never owned only heightened the sensation. I realized how much I miss this aspect of my hobby. I miss the hunt and the unexpected find.

I didn't buy it because I have no way of playing it. When I returned home I started doing some web searches and within ten minutes found a source to download the album. I now have the music, after all these years, but it was a little anti-climactic.

Before I go on, I want to say that I know I could have continued to have this experience. Paul's CD's is still here. Jerry's Used Records is still considered one of the best sources of vinyl anywhere. I have a lot of friends who still buy and sell used vinyl and are still actively engaged in this hobby. I'm the one who stopped participating because of finances and the convenience of changing technology.

Sometime in the last year or so the comedian Patton Oswalt wrote an article for Wired Magazine called “Wake Up Geek Culture, Time to Die” in which he addressed this type of cultural change in geek hobbies (and I count record collecting as one of them). He talked about how there was a time when, if you were involved in any of these specialty hobbies part of the thrill of them was the outsider status and how tracking down and finding obscure memorabilia was part of the whole experience. He introduced the concept of ETEWAF - “Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.” With current technology and internet access, finding obscure memorabilia has become easy. Looking for a rare Star Wars action figure? Go to Ebay. Want to buy Adolescent Sex, the first album by Japan? There it is. Nothing is rare, and maybe, because of that, it no longer has any meaning. When friends and I were record shopping and that copy of The Gift of Music by the Jazz Butcher turned up in a used CD bin it was cause for celebration and created memories we still share. Now, anyone can have it.

Which brings me to a new online experience called Spotify. I've just started using it and already I can see that this is the direction the consumption of music is going to go (I may be wrong... I don't claim to be a futurist). It works like this. For a $9.99 a month fee you have unlimited access to streaming music (there are free options as well that involve advertising and some other restrictions). You can create playlists, listen to entire albums or single songs, streaming over your computer with a pretty amazing sound quality. You can make any of these available for play on your Ipod or other mobile devices even when you are not connected to the internet. In the last month I have listened to old albums I haven't heard in years. I've gone back and heard albums I completely missed. I've listened to new releases on the day the CD came out. I've explored some Blues and Jazz artists I have always heard of but never listened to.

And while I was thinking about this blog post I looked up Adolescent Sex by Japan, and looky there... It's available. I'm streaming it on Spotify as I write these words. You can listen while you read.

Japan – Adolescent Sex

The Spotify catalog, while not complete, is extensive. It's a different approach to the concept of ownership when it comes to music. You don't download songs. You can't burn the mp3's to disc. I don't “own” any of the music, but it's always available. It's like streaming Netflix, only with music. I don't need to own the music if I have access to it.

Which makes me feel a little guilty. I realize that my buying habits when it comes to music are partially responsible for the death of the brick and mortar record stores I used to haunt and love. Word on the street is that Paul's CDs is undergoing a significant change in the near future, and while I haven't shopped there in ages I maintain that it was the best music store ever, and its loss is a loss to our community and the culture of music.

And I contributed to that, simply by moving along with the inevitable changes in technology and the results of those changes.

And in the news recently is the announcement that most big record companies plan on discontinuing the manufacture of CD's by the end of 2012.

And though I know I will continue on my current path and will never really recapture the old feeling for more than brief moments, I'll still miss the days when I did participate. It wasn't just about the music or the collection. It was part of a lifestyle and something I shared with some very specific friends. That's the stuff that has really changed. The way of life that was so well represented by High Fidelity just doesn't exist in the same way it did before, at least for me. There are certainly people who are keeping it alive in small ways. There are still good record stores out there, and I encourage anyone with an interest to check them out. The biggest loss the closing stores represent is the shared community. Online message boards and blogs just can't replace the experiences of actually being there and participating. I miss it and at the same time know I'll never really go back to it in the same way. That probably makes me a hypocrite in some ways.

But while I appreciate what went before, and miss it, I also recognize that the tides of progress will continue, and every new technology creates casualties. Appreciating the old is very different than the inability to adapt to the new.

That's what creates antiques.

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