One of the things that is missing from the music experience is a certain level of commitment. To be sure, there are still people who are engaged and perhaps even obsessively loyal to performers. But there is a large number who most certainly are fans of particular performers but this is more about attentiveness than it is engagement.
This all goes to the primary means by which media is now consumed: a few taps on a screen and voila! When Steve Jobs introduced the first iPod in 2001 he made what then seemed to be an unimaginable claim: the device, which was about the size of a pack of cigarettes (yes, in 2001 even people who didn’t imagine themselves to be ironic or gloomy smoked), would put “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Now it isn’t a matter of containing songs on a hard drive as 1,000x are available, as it were, through the digital ether.
To be sure, this situation is one that was created by technological determinism. Its give way to bits.
Whereas it once was a commitment to owning artifacts—as in physical objects that house recordings, be it polyvinyl chloride discs or magnetic tape—it is now essentially about rental of the content without the container.
And the container once had resonance in a way that seeing an image on a screen simply doesn’t. Album jackets, sleeves, labels, and even the vinyl itself (there were sometimes easter eggs found in the space between the last groove and the paper label). Musical artists collaborated with graphic artists: one thinks of Frank Kozik, who died a couple weeks back: he worked with bands including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Offspring, and more. There was an exponential increase in the experience, the physical art working to enhance or even explicate the audio art.
What’s more, purchasing albums in person at record stores led to a sense of community of like-minded people who you could meet flipping through the stacks next to you. There is oft heard the importance of “curation” on sites today. It once was there were people who worked at independent record stores who were truly curators of what could become something that had a profound impact on you. These were people who’d get to know you and provide suggestions about something that had just arrived or about records that they were expecting in the near future. They could tell you about shows that you otherwise might not have been aware of that would be something you’d like to attend.
Now the people with whom we interact and who have gotten to know us put in the double shot of espresso without our having to ask.
And when you bought a physical object there was more of an obvious commitment to the act: you participated in an exchange that was of a particular moment. This is a far different situation than putting in your credit card number to subscribe to something that you don’t even think about until you get a notification that you need to re-up. Otherwise, it is not even a consideration.
While this may seem to be an argument of the ilk “things were better in the olden days,” again, going back to the inevitability of the aforementioned technological determinism that is not the case because there is still the opportunity to participate in the musical commitment culture as well as the one that is simply there, available without any engagement beyond the fleeting. Jack White’s Third Man Records produces, well, records. Last month Metallica, the original Napster’s bete noire*, bought controlling interest in Furnace Record Pressing, an operation that can produce some 25,000 records per day in a factory in Virginia.
Last month there was the annual Record Store Day**, an event that’s been happening since 2007. According to the organizers of RSD, for a store to be included it must be “a brick and mortar retailer” that is independently owned and has “a major commitment to music retail.” Or, as it says “In other words, we’re dealing with real, live, physical indie record stores—not online retailers or corporate behemoths.” Sadly, there are just some 1,400 in the U.S. that qualify. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 806 municipalities in the U.S. with a population of >50,000, ranging from New York City (2022 estimated population: 8,335,897) to Azusa City, California (48,824). If each of those places were to have an independent record store, that would be 1.7 each. Or, to put that 1,400 into a different context: there are approximately 16,000 Starbucks in the U.S.
This recent RSD did well. Luminate, the data research firm formerly known as SoundScan, reports that during the week of RSD (their metric is seven days), there were 1.7-million physical units—LPs, CDs and cassettes—sold at independent record stores, of which 1.4 million were LPs. To put that into context, however, according to Spotify’s Q1 2023 financials, it has 103-million monthly active users in North America. Globally, about 40% of those users pay; if that holds for North America, as well, that would be 41-million subscribers. Far more than the number of units moved during RSD week.
Luminate also reports that the distribution of record players—let’s face it, while the objects, as previously argued, might be special in themselves (i.e., the artwork of the jacket or simply impressive things, like Brian Eno’s FOREVERVOICELESS on clear vinyl), having the means by which they can be listened to is important—is generationally different: 43% of Gen Z have a record player, 48% of Millennials; 65% of Gen X, and 84% of Boomers.
Perhaps there is some momentum, as RSD special releases included a wide range of artists, from Bjork to Duran Duran to the Grateful Dead to John Lennon to Miles Davis to Pearl Jam to The Doors to the Rolling Stones to The Ramones Tori Amos to Wilco.
Records get scratched. Records warp. Records are things you live with.
But with their own aura of magic.
*Lars Ulrich on Reddit, 2014: “I don’t regret taking on Napster, but I do find it odd how big of a part of our legacy it has become to so many people, because to me it’s more like a footnote. I was also stunned that people thought it was about money. People used the word, “greed” all the time, which was so bizarre. The whole thing was about one thing and one thing only – control. Not about the internet, not about money, not about file sharing, not about giving shit away for free or not, but about whose choice it was. If I wanna give my shit away for free, I’ll give it away for free. That choice was taken away from me.”
**From the Record Store Day site: “On the first Record Store Day, Metallica spent hours at Rasputin Music in San Francisco meeting their fans and now each year hundreds of artists—both internationally famous and from the block–flock to record stores around the world for performances, signings, meet and greets and to fill their own shopping bags with music. In 2009, Jesse “Boots Electric” Hughes (Eagles of Death Metal) declared himself the “Record Store Day Ambassador” as a way of shouting out how important the stores were to artists and since then Joshua Homme (Eagles of Death Metal, Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age), Ozzy Osbourne, Iggy Pop, Jack White, Chuck D, Dave Grohl, Metallica, St. Vincent, Run The Jewels, Pearl Jam, Brandi Carlile, Fred Armisen and Taylor Swift have worn the annual ceremonial sash.” This year the ambassadors were Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires.
Featured image is from the Melvins’ Houdini album art by Frank Kozik.
3 thoughts on “Casual or Committed”
Great article. Really telling about the state of record stores and communing within them. I know it was not a piece of things were better back in the day. And I know that play is as tired or cliche as a tattoo these days. However, in some small ways, they were. One such way is the promotion of the music. The hype sticker on albums, CDs, and cassettes were really cool and added their own special piece of art to the whole thing. Sure, there still is hype stickers on the products, but it’s becoming less and less so.
Not to mention what is on there can be tiny and not as wondrous as they once were. And don’t forget the anticipation of waiting for that new release. Not having access to the new single 24/7 and only being able to listen to it on the radio, if you can catch it. Or seeing the music video, IF you can catch it. Also, and maybe the most important thing, walking into a store and seeing that new release on display in all its full glory. Every time I go in my local record shop to pick up new releases, I always take pictures of the new releases I’m purchasing as they are displayed in the new release section.
In fact, I just did that Friday when I went in to pick up the new Paul Simon, the new Dave Matthews Band, and the new reissue from The Lemonheads. Again, I understand this not about lamenting the past, but it does serve as a wake up call to help keep record stores alive as they are very vital to our existence in this ever changing, soul crushing world. I only hope my little post helped add more context and perhaps got someone in a record store. I know your article makes we want to run out to a record store and just take it all in.
Thanks, Mike. Not only is the physical object important in its own way to the overall experience, but finding that object in a record store, as you suggest, is really a valuable part of the commitment.
Back in the day, your record collection said something about you. We can joke about judging people by their record (or book) collections, but it was true. It was constrained not only by your budget available to spend $10+ on the new album, but the storage space back home for it. So the choices were deliberate, often very deliberate. A Spotify playlist of saved records will ever compare. Limitless storage space and a marginal cost of zero on clicking “add to collection” means streaming libraries are the opposite of considered and deliberate.
That said, probably every new artist I’ve discovered over the last several years came from a website sharing a YouTube video of somebody I had never head of, and instantly loved. That didn’t happen as often with physical media.