There is a lot of nostalgia for the way in which consumers interacted with music in the past. Music writers like Greg Kot and Jim Derogatis are constantly lamenting the death of record store culture on their excellent Sound Opinions radio program. They often discuss the fact that there are fewer and fewer places where kids can walk in and chat with an older more knowledgeable clerk and leave with records they never would have found on their own and go home and be blown away.
This used to fuel the music industry, which is now defined by instant access to nearly everything you’d ever want to listen to without ever leaving your house. As a musician, there is no doubt that this is an invaluable resource that has allowed me to discover hundreds more records that I might not have found just hanging out in stores like Other Music (for the record I do still hang out there and buy things based on the recommendations of their very knowledgeable staff.) But even still, the record companies large and small cannot move as fast as the music bloggers who link us up with lost records by people like Jesse Ed Davis
For me, what is lost in this process of discovery is the period between when you read about something and when you actually hear it. When someone writes about a piece of music on a prominent music blog like Pitchfork, there is either an audio player or a link that can deliver the music in question immediately, and for me, as much as I enjoy this, it might prevent me from liking things as much as I could were there space for me to process what I’ve read before approaching the record.
When I was a teenager I remember the process going something like this:
1.) Someone older and trustworthy tells you about a band in one form or another; this was often a record store clerk.
2.) Through books, magazines and friends you begin collecting information about the band over a period of time to the point that absolutely have to hear what it sounds like.
3.) You end up in a cool record store and see the album on the shelf you've been thinking about and buy it.
This could all take anywhere from a week to a year, depending on the artist. Between when my Mother’s high school friend’s 30-year-old musician son told me at 17 to listen to Big Star’s 'Third', and when I actually found a copy of it was a year and a half. At 16, I read an article about the Faces and the next day while searching for them in my local record store, a Warner exec happened to be there and had extra promos of the new compilation they had put out in his car. He gave me one for free.
Something happens between the moment when you hear about something and when you actually hear it and in my case, I would develop a fantasy about what the music sounded like based on what I had read. When I heard the actual music, my fantasy of what it sounded like and the music itself would engage in a dialog that heightened the music listening experience. More importantly, this allowed me to write my own music based not only on the records themselves, but what I believed they might sound like. This dialog between my own vision of the music that inspires me, and the vision of the artist who created it is perhaps the most integral force in my aesthetic decisions as a songwriter and musician.
Just as there is a difference between the music composed by hearing something in your head and writing it down and music composed with a synthesizer with which you can hear the arrangement right away, modern technology has changed the way we interact with music and as a result, the way we create it. I don’t know if we can put this paradigm shift in a dichotomy of “good or bad” but I do think that some imagination has been lost with the absence of a period of gestation between hearing the rumble of the train, and then watching it go by. Even if we are disappointed by the drab freight cars that all look the same, without the announcement of its existence, we never would have imagined the magnificent silver stream-line in our minds.
That said, although there maybe fewer kids hanging around record stores hoping to discover "Smile" bootlegs or hearing the Gun Club for the first time, I can say with confidence that record store culture is not dead. Yesterday I spent my afternoon at the listening station of 3 different stores. I listened to some new music that had just come out as well as to some old records I had been searching out for a while. And on a Wednesday afternoon, I was not alone.
Perhaps there will be a difference between musicians who experience the journey from word of mouth to listening station - if for no other reason than the music they are looking for is even too obscure for the internet and perhaps this will have an influence on the future sounds of tomorrow. I'm sure it will fit nicely along side the aesthetic choices of those who are listening to anything and everything all at once on shuffle on their ipods.
Jump Back Jake - Terrible Mistakes (Mp3)