October 17, 2011 will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most important encounters in rock-and-roll history. It was on that day in 1961 when two English teenagers recognized each other while waiting on a Dartford Station train platform. One had a guitar, the other, some Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry records. A conversation was struck about the records, and continued on the train as the guitarist was recruited to join the singer’s group. Five decades later, the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world, the Rolling Stones are still rolling. To think it started when Keith Richards saw Mick Jagger holding some albums.
One could say that the fateful meeting was exactly that, but I may argue a different point. Without records, and by extension record stores, there would have been no Rolling Stones.
The medium by which music has been delivered from the artist to the audience has changed a lot in the last 50 years. From the 45 to the LP, 8-track to cassette to CD, one thing remained fairly consistent- the neighborhood record store. Thanks to the digital age of music, however, the record store is about as relevant to today’s society as the CD or any of its predecessors, themselves. If you still have a brick-and-mortar record store in your town, consider yourself lucky, and rare.
Major record labels still issue the chart-topper’s new releases on compact disc, but more and more the place to purchase the latest hits are the megastores like Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy. Don’t want to leave the house? Amazon.com will ship it to arrive at your home the day it’s released. Your neighborhood record shop likely has been reduced to a thrift store for music buyers- trash-to-treasure for the avid collector seeking a used copy of Adrian Belew’s (as of this date) out-of-print gem Mr. Music Head, or Phish’s debut Junta, initially only available on cassette (!).
This is, of course, assuming you even want an actual piece of plastic, that to be heard, spins inside a bulky machine cluttering the cabinet space in your living room, or sits on a shelf in its case awaiting the same fate as the books you won’t ever read again. Most people, at least the young people, don’t. They want a file, compressed and cataloged neatly enough to fit on their cellular phone or in their computer’s hard drive, obtained from an Internet site like Itunes, or from a “friend” generously sharing from a database as of yet undiscovered by the FBI. Just as some artists continue to issue special edition vinyl of their current offerings, so, too will the CD exist, though likely as an increasingly niche product for audiophiles and the middle-age demographic. Regardless, the plummeting annual sales numbers are there for all to see and with them the end of the compact disc as the medium of choice for music consumers.
So what? Think of the advantages of music as a file. You can store nearly 2,000 songs on something as small as a cigarette lighter. Sound quality? To the average person, very little in the way of detectable fidelity is lost by squeezing the information to function as an mp3. It doesn’t scratch, warp, skip or break. Plus, and this is a big one, it’s available instantly, cheaply, and perpetually. Maybe I can’t download the aforementioned Belew album because he or his label hasn’t reached an agreement with Apple or its ilk just yet, but that’s his loss. In the meantime, there are hundreds of millions of songs in the digital universe on which I can spend my 99 cents. A music buyer’s dream come true.
Except that something is missing. It starts with being part of a community, part of a music appreciation society. The record store was a clubhouse, with open membership, no dues, and high rates of return on your investment of time and money. Shopping for music may have been inspired by the desire to purchase a specific product, but often it became something much more. It became a chance to discover something playing over the house sound system that you’d never heard before. It became a chance to meet fellow fans of an artist as you rubbed elbows perusing the racks and stacks. It became a chance to appreciate the artistry of the album cover, the pictures and track listing on the back, to hold that cardboard square long enough to know if you were ready to take it home today. It was a relationship, a commitment as you parted with your $8.99 in exchange for a musical experience, and it wasn’t to be taken lightly.
One story from my life comes to mind. When I was 12, I loved a Led Zeppelin tune titled Hey, Hey, What Can I Do. Occasionally I would have the fortune of hearing it on the radio, but being the Zep fan I was, I knew that the radio was the only place to hear it, as it was not on any of their albums. To me, there was a disconnection. How could the radio stations have it, if it wasn’t on an album?
On one of my many trip to Sam’s Records, I asked the guy behind the counter the same question. His answer was that it existed as the B-side on the 45 of Immigrant Song and was available as a Japanese import. I had to have it, and a few weeks later, straight from Japan, it was mine. I couldn’t decipher the Japanese characters on the cover, and Immigrant Song sounded slightly sped up, but I didn’t care. I would never again have to wait for the radio to deliver the goods; just crank up my turntable and drop the needle. The car ride to and from Sam’s was 20 of the longest anticipatory minutes of my life.
That tiny moment is significant of things much greater; the social interaction with the store employee, the delayed gratification of obtaining my goal, the knowledge, perhaps trivial by nature, of where it came from and how to get it, and the simple joy of the phone call that my record was waiting to be picked up. I learned a lot; things I didn’t even realize until much later.
Log on to Itunes and it will take all of about 25 seconds to buy the same song, and truthfully, at a fraction of what the Japanese import cost me. Some may say that’s a better way to do business, but it isn’t a better memory. It isn’t a better story. It isn’t a better experience. Doubtful that with the click of a mouse, one would learn nearly as much, or anything for that matter, about the song, the band, or themselves.
Back to the Dartford train station, where today a couple of teenage boys are probably waiting for the 5:15 into London. One’s got earbuds tucked into his ears, the other likely checking the text messages on his phone. It’s a fair guess that neither will even look at the other, let alone interrupt their solitary information consumption. Too bad. They may have been the next Mick and Keith.
Recommended listening: Adrian Belew- Mr. Music Head
Picture By Brian Gimmel