There is a record store on Ninth Street, a busy little road in the college district, near the diner I work at. As soon as you step in and the door jangles closed behind you, you are submerged in a cool dim corner of some past time. Dust motes mingle with incense, and an obscure 70s rock band plays on the turntable. There are shelves of bongs for sale in the back room, and if you go down to the basement, you will find more dust and old 99-cent records. I have spent over an hour in that basement, flipping through worn-down boxes of Chuck Berry and Frankie Avalon until I started coughing. Once on the top floor, I found the Stones’ Tattoo You for just eight bucks.
I love collecting and playing records; I will often buy a new favorite album on vinyl without ever purchasing the digital version. But it’s still hard for me to imagine a time when the only way to listen to music at home was on a record player. I grew up during the mp3 revolution and came of age with Spotify, in a world where songs live as zeroes and ones in the Cloud and single tracks leave the context of their albums to exist mainly on playlists. Music has become easier to access than ever; all you need is a WiFi connection. As a result, music – along with the culture and identity around it – has become increasingly fragmented.
Nowadays, you can buy a single song on iTunes or listen to it on Spotify without hearing anything else by that artist. This scattered, easily digestible format allows for much less commitment to a piece of music than vinyl, tapes, or CDs, which require that you buy an entire album, possibly without having heard any songs from it. On one hand, I’ve heard from adults that nothing can compare to discovering your new favorite band on an album cover in a record store, risking your money on the basis of blind faith and a recommendation from an indie music magazine. It seems like this commitment, combined with the experience of a physical copy to hold in your hand, would strengthen the intensity of your connection to the music; every note would seem like it belonged to you.
On the other hand, this new availability of music seems to reflect what my generation wants and needs from our culture: democratic fairness, diversity, and convenience. Everyone with a computer or phone has at their fingertips almost any piece of music ever made. This accessibility has created a greater variety of music tastes and provided digital safe havens for teenagers, who can’t find their niche offline. I probably wouldn’t have discovered my love for Mitski or Pulp if it weren’t for the Internet. There are many good things about the digitalization of music, but we have lost what we lost in every other facet of the technological revolution – the intimacy and imperfect warmth of doing things the old-fashioned way. Along with our groundbreaking speed and power, we have inherited a constant, collective nostalgia.
Maybe that’s why I’m obsessed with going to record stores. I missed out on the era of vinyl, on making mixtapes for my crush and going out to buy a CD when my favorite band drops a new album. Something about a teenager’s relationship to music is uniquely close and intense; this is the time when we start identifying ourselves with our tastes and building the soundtracks to our first loves. I think it’s easier to see and express that relationship with physical forms like records, but really, teenagers always have and always will live off music. Generations and innnovations can’t change that. Music is a part of our response to the human condition. No matter what form we consume it in, even if someday we hear all of our music from a chip in our brains, it will always be a necessary fact of our existence.