I had a nightmare last night that Music Millennium, the oldest independent record store in Portland, closed its doors, and I wandered around the store weeping while the employees packed everything into boxes. It was a terrible, suffocating dream, vivid, emotionally as real as they come. You know the kind, one of those night time visions from which it takes a few moments to recover and about which you have to convince yourself: it was only a bad dream.
I was wondering about the origin of this night terror, hence, an inquiry that began a blog entry.
There are a few independent record stores in Portland but you have to go downtown or into city neighborhoods. I grew up in the suburbs, in Milwaukie, Oregon, and as a child and all the way through my teens there were two decent record stores within walking distance of my house. The first one went under about the time I started high school, is now the office of a used car lot, and the other lasted almost all the way through my teens, finally failed, and became in short order an adult video and sex-toy shop. That porno establishment is still going after more than 25 years, but there’s no music to be had anywhere in my old neighborhood (once again my neighborhood of residence), save for the electronics section of Fred Meyer’s Grocery or the few titles available at the local Starbucks. So, I make the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, sometimes weekly trek to Music Millennium, a twenty-five minute drive from my home, to shop for music. It’s food. It must be done. And while I order something on-line from time to time and download a bit every month, I always feel a little bit lazy and stupid when I do–unless I’m buying directly from the artist or from an independent label. So I have to work harder for new music. I have to travel.
I know that Music Millennium has had a rough time of it. There used to be two stores, one of which had a great stage for live music. Now there’s only one, the original, and it’s been in business for nearly 40 years, and it’s had to diversify, I understand, to make it. They do compact discs and record albums of course, and they have a massive selection, but they also sell dvds and books and classic toys and candy and games and t-shirts and you can even buy a turntable there. Whatever, I say, it’s all good, and it all has this power of recapturing the heyday of the vinyl record album, replete with incense aroma record store smell and great rock art everywhere; it’s a music fan paradise. Music Millennium is still in business and shows no signs of going under. I hope it lasts forever. But I worry, still, not just about this incredible store, but others like it in my town, all over the nation and the world. And I worry not only about these great businesses, but maybe more so about the experience of music listening itself losing much of its vitality and richness.
It seems obvious that the artifact of the record album, despite its medium, digital or analog, is an endangered species and will ultimately become extinct and maybe soon. This revolutionary fact that you can hold 40,000 songs on a device that fits in the palm of your hand makes compact discs and even more so the vinyl record album unwieldy, clumsy, inefficient things. And the quality of the digital download has the potential to outshine the compact disc. So who’s complaining? What’s wrong with any of that?
First, the record album, the long-play record album, is a work of art worthy of preserving, and is at risk altogether when the practice of most music consumers nowadays is to download one song at a time, to pick and choose, to shuffle, rarely if ever to listen to a unified grouping of songs. The record albums I loved growing up, and still love, are ones conceived, or at least understood, as one continuous whole–rather than a random collection of songs. Think of The White Album, or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, or The Wall, or Skylarking. These albums gave the listener a sustained experience, told a story, required our full attention, and the brevity of one side of a vinyl record in particular prevented us from mindless multi-tasking.
There’s a tactile experience, too, that goes missing without the music artifact. Vinyl records and their covers had a smell, all that cardboard and ink. And you had to manipulate them physically, wrestling them out of their 12×12 houses, delicately pulling the record out of its sleeve with the tips of your fingers, careful not to muck up the first track, holding it gingerly between the two palms of your hands, gently setting it down on the turntable, selecting the correct speed, setting the platter into motion, admiring the shape of the individual tracks as they spun–yes, you could see this music! And finally you set the needle down in the lovely and generous black space before the first song. The pop of the landing. The anticipation of the first note, beat, chord, word. The reward. Only some of this is maintained by the compact disc, a decisively inferior tactile experience–but we initially forgave that as we fell in love with this flashy new medium and believed at least we were getting superior audio quality even if we weren’t really. But CD sales are way down and vinyl sales, even though there’s a whole bucket-load more of it than there was, say, a decade ago, belongs to a decidedly niche market, a niche market that seems to be stubbornly holding on, as I notice that most new music I care about today is being released on vinyl. It’s a tactile experience that true music fans are loathe to let go–and it’s not just nostalgia, truly. The physical experience was part of the whole–an integral part, I think, that completely disappears with your iPod.
Next, the new portability of music allows us unrestricted, almost continuous, if we so choose, usage–which, in my mind anyway, devalues it, depreciates it. We can, after all, listen to our favorite song while using a public restroom. We used to have to make time for music. One of my colleagues and I recently discussed how, as kids, we’d get up early so that we could listen to music before school. After school listening parties were daily rituals, even if they were parties of one. And unless you were lucky enough to have a stereo in your room, you also had to time your listening around the schedules of mom and dad. When you could get it, the time to listen was precious. Today we are surrounded by it as often as we can stand it, and most of us stand it or desire it at least so much of the time that we really don’t know what it’s like often NOT to be listening, or watching, or looking at a screen. We develop a love and true appreciation for music, perhaps, only when we know what NOT having it is like. I’m just throwing that out there.
This blog entry has become tiresome and long. Let me conclude.
I don’t think there’s anything prescient about my nightmare: I am optimistic about the survival of Music Millennium. It may, however, in a decade or less, be the only survivor in my town. I feel bad for young people who claim to be music lovers who have never set foot in a real record store–either because they don’t know what such animals are, or because they can’t drive 25 minutes or an hour down the road to find one. I’ve taught my son the joys and responsibilities of the record album. I’ve started buying vinyl again when I can afford it, not out of nostalgia, but in order to recapture the full experience of music listening. I give myself permission to sit in a chair through the length of an entire record or two. It’s rewarding. It’s replenishing. It provides a momentary continuity in the midst of all of the other noise in our daily battle with a thousand and one distractions.