In Defense of Record Stores

Very few music consumers, even self-proclaimed audiophiles bother with amassing a collection of records or CDs now. The various useful music players and the digitization of music mean that storing a great library takes literally no space at all. And yet, there is a reason to go to record stores and shop for music that is built inherently into each and every one of us. It's the hunt; that search followed with an exhilarating discovery at the end. Downloading an album, or simply a song one desires through iTunes or another service is easy, convenient and completely efficient, but there's no effort there, and additionally, no wonderful payout for the little successes. In a record store, especially when perusing the used albums and new arrivals one is thrust into the excitement of the hunt and there are more often than not some excellent surprises. On a recent trip I lucked into Junior Boys' Last Exit, Grizzly Bear's Yellow House, and Belle & Sebastian's Dear Catastrophe Waitress. All used. All by surprise. You will never stumble upon a gem like one of those by cruising through the iTunes store with a mouse. What's there is there, and it cannot be hidden behind an odd Beatles compilation reissue or a Grand Funk Railroad disc.

In the same way that libraries have lost random reference seekers and researchers to Wikipedia and other info-sites, record stores have lost patrons to online shopping and downloads. The great loss here is that the social aspect of trading and learning information or buying and learning about new music is dissipating. There was a time when going to the local record store to find out what new albums came out and to hear these new sounds for the first time was part of any audiophiles Saturday. One could know intimately the tastes and opinions of the clerks and even find a bit of friendship there. A new record would come out and friends would gather for nights and through entire weekends just to hang out and listen to it over and over (mind-altering substances optional, but encouraged). Listening parties are valuable beyond just the intoxication of sound and drink and smoke. They are remainders of a culture that only used to consume music live and most often en masse. It is vaguely reminiscent of the roots of blues and jazz and other music borne from groups of people collaborating to make beautiful new sounds.

Importantly, we did not historically keep music as a private thing, concerts were the only mode of consumption for the first symphonies, records could be shared and radio was something driven by requests and a community passion. Over time, record stores wain because music is something we hold more privately. If music need not be sought in person, by foot and by hand, to acquire, then it's all the easier to collect, devour and forget. Going out and searching, spending ones money and time in researching albums is just as important and can allow for a more complete appreciation of the work involved in creating the music. And though much of these ideas are hopelessly fucking nostalgic they do ring true. Music started as a social activity and now it seems we use it more to distance ourselves from where we are than to bond with those around us. Value in life often comes from hard work, whether in one's profession or in one's hobbies. It will always be more fulfilling to seek out greatness, or to create it yourself through hours of search and struggle and planning, than to have it fall from the sky into your lap. And finding used music in a place with live people is one form of that. As is writing your own music. As is simply taking the time to read about new bands to see what you may be missing in the mainstream.

Keep record stores alive. Keep book stores alive. We need each other, and we need these social bonding places to know how to live together. And I won't apologize for the preceding schmaltz. Independent Record Store Day for 2010 will be held on April 17. You can learn more at www.recordstoreday.com.

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