The Purchase

Missing the music store experience.

by John D

The soundtrack for this month’s column: Heaven, the new album released in May by The Walkmen. It’s a solid album, its tempo rising and falling from song to song like the swell of the ocean. It is hard to classify the music The Walkmen produce, but I call it — and some will take exception to this — poppy-garage rock with thoughtful lyrics. Sure they have the organ in there, but the jangly and ever so slightly muddy guitar just says garage to me.

So now that you understand my mindset, let me ask you a question: When was the last time you bought a CD? Surely those of you that are 30 or older remember doing this (maybe slightly younger than that, but doubtful). Do you remember wrestling with that impenetrable shrink–wrap armor? Defeat that and you were faced with the sticker that sealed the case, which invariably shredded and left a tacky residue on the case that attracted dirt, other CD cases and small woodland animals. Don’t even get me started on the original anti-theft “case,” the two-foot-tall plastic truss that was hard to remove if you had the right tools (The Jaws of Life, a blowtorch and infinite patience) and downright impossible with something pedestrian like a pair of scissors.

Even with all of that, I still miss purchasing a CD. Why? I miss the music store. You browsed through the CDs one by one (and don’t pretend that you didn’t “judge a book by its cover”; great-looking artwork caught your eye). You went from genre to genre. You picked up the must-have CDs as you made your way through the store. The must-have pile would quickly outstrip the available capital for purchases and necessitate an agonizing process of elimination. After 15 of the 18 CDs had been eliminated (which you put back exactly where you had found them lest you be considered a savage) you would walk over to the cashier.

What do I miss more than the music store? The employees. These wondrous creatures, often odd but in a good way, could be your spirit guides. I say “could” because the music store employee could also be your worst nightmare. They might look at your selections and give a subtle, disapproving, yet full of haughty contempt glance. They might congratulate you on your choice in quality music. If you are lucky they might say “Hey, if you like X and Y you should really check out Z.” If you are were lucky, their suggestion would be dead on.

I can remember buying several jazz imports, and the employee (who had never steered me wrong) talked me into purchasing a rare John Coltrane double live CD. His fervor and excitement had me shaking with anticipation. One might even say my 17-year -old self was giddy. I still own that CD. Once every two or three years I listen to it… and still have NO idea what is going on. To call this “acid jazz” is to draw the analogy that a fighter jet taking off is comparable to a leaf blower.

So what if he steered me wrong once? He also turned me on to people I would have never discovered on my own. The person behind the counter could be invaluable. More often than not, someone who is passionate, truly passionate, about music could not care less that what you listen to is something they don’t care for. They just want you to enjoy some sort of music the same way that they do. They saw patterns when people purchased music. They could give you suggestions based on that anecdotal evidence. They could be, and more often were, an invaluable resource when it came to discovering new music.

The physical music store is largely a thing of the past. The few that have held on specialize in vinyl, and even they are few and far between (Birmingham has two left). The ease of the online music store has usurped them; it has changed the paradigm, and the business model that calls for an actual building with tangible products is a thing of the past. And with that change we have lost the personal connection with fellow music lovers.

Sure, Amazon and the iTunes store have their “Customers who bought this also bought” listings, but that is too scientific an approach to purchasing music. I am sure it works. I would also be lying if I said I haven’t used iTunes and Amazon to purchase music. It is easy, and the path of least resistance is the path most followed. The advent of digital purchasing killed the music store star, but it does not mean I do not sorely miss the guy behind the counter.

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