In a 2012 New Yorker essay, Mike Spies considered what’s lost when we have so much music so freely available online.
Music isn’t as treasured as it used to be, because it’s no longer an endeavor of effort and luck to get our hands on it, he argued. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, over the last half decade, very few new albums have stuck with me — I just don’t spend the time with them anymore.”
I sympathize. When buying physical CDs and records, the randomness of something being there helps me savor the discoveries, partly by limiting the input. But it only works with a handful of items. Whenever I come out of a store with, say, a dozen CDs under my arm, I find half of them unlistened-to months later.
It’s as if the seeking and digging, and the time spent in the store considering, creates a well of potential energy that’s infused into the music.
On the other hand, Internet delivery creates the option of instant experimenting. I once saw an ad in Gramophone for a solo album and solo Carnegie Hall concert by Bjarke Mogensen, an accordionist. Solo classical accordion! What could that possibly be like, and would it even be bearable? In the past, I’d stare at that gorgeously stark album cover, and I would wonder, and that would be the end of it. But now … I sought out the album, Winter Sketches, on eMusic and gave it a listen. And ended up buying the whole thing. (It’s quite enjoyable, by the way.)
I revel in that speedier process of discovery, too. And yes, the fact that it’s cheaper helps.
But I’ll always love record stores, and bookstores, and the tactile experience of searching and learning. I’m grateful to live in an area with substantial record stores — Amoeba, Streetlight, Rasputin — and I savor what little browsing time I can get.
Every generation sees some of its greatest loves obsoleted — processes, objects, skills, artistry. Things that transcend tradition and habit. Maybe record stores aren’t any different. But given how many people share my sadness about what’s being lost, it’s clear that the love of records runs especially deep. The disappearance of record stores is like a piece of our souls being taken away. There are benefits. But we’ll mourn for what’s lost.
P.S. Regarding eMusic — note that I’m talking about music being inexpensive, not free. Big difference, as Ben Allison articulates here.
P.P.S. Turns out Bjarke Mogensen has a new album coming out next month.