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A New Age in Music

March 7, 2018

A message to everyone: utter disaster has struck

Effective July 1, you’ll no longer be able to buy CDs from Best Buy. You may now all engage in a collective shrug and go back to Spotify.

It wouldn’t surprise me if you missed this tiny piece of news that rolled out somewhere between the Grammys and the Super Bowl, since all music-related coverage last week was full of Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, and non-Minnesota celebs tweeting about how gosh darn cold it is here. (And Prince. Always Prince.) Even if you did catch this news, I also wouldn’t be surprised if you simply didn’t care, because I didn’t, and writing about music is my job.

Best Buy isn’t a place I ever bought music. Nor have I purchased much music at Target, who recently announced that they would only be consigning CDs going forward, rather than assuming the risk of purchasing stacks of unsellable pop music coasters to collect dust. So it’s hard for me to not feel indifferent, although that doesn’t mean I’m 100% on board with the digital music revolution. In fact, I was in the midst of blowing the deadline for this column when the news popped up in my Twitter feed. Ironically, my topic for this month? Record stores, and how people get music.

Once upon a time, getting music was a complicated process, especially if you grew up in a small town, as I did. You found new music on the radio, or on Music Television (which is what MTV used to be, kids), or in a movie, or sometimes in the back of a magazine you flipped through while your mom did the grocery shopping. I remember always having a blank cassette tape loaded in a tape recorder which I positioned next to the radio speaker or the TV screen to record songs I liked. I remember the disappointment I felt when my parents explained to me that the 20 albums for a penny deal that came in magazines was a total scam.

My town, although small, had record stores. Two, in fact: one was exclusively R&B, rap, and blues; the other was a mix of rock, metal, punk and “college rock,” which was everything weird that didn’t fit the other categories. But those places seemed strangely adult until my early teens, and daunting to enter. (I’m fairly certain the adults in my life assumed they were places where people sold drugs.) So I had to settle for my older brother’s record collection until I was old enough to bike into town and sneak into these hotbeds of moral turpitude.

In these record stores — and yes, actual records and tapes, not just CDs — I discovered whole new worlds of music simply by asking the hippie behind the counter what he was playing on the stereo, or staring at giant posters on the wall of bands like The Clash or Public Enemy or Soundgarden.

Music was, in a sense, a gamble: blowing your allowance because you liked one song you heard or thought the poster was intriguing/scary/cool meant not always knowing what you were getting into, and not always liking it once you were there. Some things took repeat listens, and some things never clicked at all. I can’t tell you how many people I offered to sell a Smiths tape to just to recoup some of my losses, for example, only to have to stick it in a drawer and bug my dad to pay me to mow the lawn again.

So what does this have to do with Best Buy? Why don’t I care about its demise? Because buying things from Best Buy, or Target, or any other big chain, isn’t shopping at your local record store. It’s one link in an algorithmic chain, same as getting a recommendation of something you’ll like online. There’s no hippie behind the counter. There’s no giant posters of bands you’ve never heard of. Until July 1, there’s just racks of CDs where you pick exactly what you want, nothing more and nothing less, with no reason to gamble. How’s that different than the internet telling you what you should listen to next?

By comparison, I can still create an approximation of that dirty record-store experience listening to music online. Rather than pay strict attention to recommendations — which always, always fail, because at the end of the day what separates great music from mediocre imitations is something that can’t be broken down into data points — I start with a song I’ve heard or some artist that caught my attention reading about them, and I follow it down the rabbit hole, all without needing to bug Pops for some lawn mowing money.

It’s close, but it isn’t the same. I still walk into small, local record stores to check out what they have, even as many have moved to stocking collector items like high-priced reissues when I just want to catch something new. I flip through used boxes and dollar bins trying to get that rush of getting lucky. (True story: the other day I bought a record by a band called Lester Freamon just because it was named after a character from The Wire. I haven’t listened to it yet.)

There’s something to be said for this experience, and if you have a record store like this available to you, you should never forget that. Sure, you could recreate the authentic record store experience, burn some incense and ask Alexa to play you something new. I do it all the time, less the incense. But as music increasingly becomes a labor of love for all involved, supporting artists by buying their stuff when you’re at shows and wearing out the carpet in your local record store is the only way to keep it going.

I’d legitimately be sad if my local record stores shuttered their doors, and as a Twin Cities-ite, I’m lucky to have so many at my disposal. But Best Buy? Nah. Nothing to see here. Move along.

 

By Tigger Lunney

SouthernMinn Scene | editor@southernminnscene.com |
115 5th Street West Northfield, MN 55057