by Mark Armstrong
When I find myself in a new city, I head for the local record store as soon as I can. It's a practice I've held over from the pre-internet era. In addition to being a person who enjoys purchasing, owning and listening to music, record stores are a way for me to orient myself to local culture. If there's a show, an art event or something even crazier, chances are they've put up a poster in the record shop. When I was growing up, if you wanted to know what was happening in town, you had to visit the record store regularly in order to have a clue what was going on. A single flyer led to a few hundred people coming to an unadvertised show at an out of the way room.
I'm in Fayetteville, Arkansas for work. This morning, I find my way to Block Street Records. I'm not really a bicycler, but I've procured one to ride around town and I park it in front of the store. I swear that the air in record stores is different, somehow perfectly calibrated for the sort of person who still goes to record stores.
They've got some good stuff—The Minutemen, an old pressing of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, a new pressing of Husker Du's New Day Rising. It's not lost on me that the record stores of my youth were about new things and this one has an air of nostalgia about it. Record stores didn't used to feature old turntables like a Park Slope flea market. Still, being physically surrounded by recorded music says to me that I belong. Only a bowl of free Wal-Mart-branded blue kazoos reminds me that I'm in Arkansas. Other than that, I'm in Record Store, U.S.A. and I am home.
"You can tell when a junkie needs money," says the clerk to another customer, "because a whole bunch of really good punk records come in." It's a sad piece of wisdom that wouldn't have occurred to me outside of my trip to the store today. I think about how many other anecdotes I've picked up at record stores over the years.
There's a section of local music, which I'm happy to see, although I don't buy anything from it. I tell myself I'll return later in the week for this purpose, but I probably won't. There are a number of vinyl gems that would make a perfect surprise gift for someone or other from my past, but shipping vintage records from Arkansas would be a real hassle, plus I've long since lost touch with many of those people anyway.
When it's my turn at the counter, the clerk notices my eyes lingering on the button board. "We need to get some new buttons in," she says apologetically, somehow knowing that if they'd had a tiny metal way to tell the world that I like Public Image, Limited, she'd have made another sale. I've settled on a good condition copy of Elvis Costello's Almost Blue and we have a brief discussion about what sort of bag will be best for me, since I'll be carrying the album on my bike.
It is unfathomable to me that this culture is dying out. I'm not just talking about record stores—they've been basically extinct for a while now. (And, honestly, it's easier to figure out the record store at the center of a local scene without Virgin and Tower to confuse things.) I'm talking about the culture of owning recorded music at all. This month, the world's largest music retailer announced the launch of a music streaming service. It's a concession to the inevitable: people no longer want to own the music they listen to.
I'm not a Luddite. It's been years since I read hard copy newspapers and I do most of my reading on a screen. I don't feel like I need to own other digital content, like television shows or movies. Last month, I even accepted an offer to try Spotify Premium for three months. I like the way it lets me organize music—including a new habit I've developed, which is to use the internet to find set lists from concerts I've attended over the years and recreate them using Spotify. This works for old mixtapes too.
Still, I hang onto the idea that some of the money that I earn should go to pay for the music I enjoy. In addition to my record store purchases, I maintain a subscription to eMusic, where I buy and download two to three new albums each month. (I pay automatically, because I'm worried that if I don't, I'll stop doing it.) It's possible to preview the music before I purchase it, but often I don't. Instead, I use old strategies—recommendations from friends, artists who've been name-checked by other artists I like, albums with song titles that catch my attention for some reason or other, rare tracks from older artists (which are more widely-available now and I do appreciate that).
I'm aware that what I'm doing is basically an affectation at this point. That my money would go much further by succumbing to the streaming model. That it's no longer necessary for me to spend even $6—down from nearly $20—on an album only to find out that I don't like it. That no one really uses the word "album" anymore. The only way I can explain this is to say that I am participating in a culture that sustained me when I needed sustenance. That I can't imagine a world where someone walks into my home and sees only a Mac desktop, clothing and food. That giving a small portion of my income to musical artists (as directly as I can) feels like a requirement, something I signed up for when music granted me access to a life that's much richer than I possibly could have imagined.
As a teenager, Almost Blue was a deeply challenging work for me. I'd discovered Elvis Costello via a bargain basement greatest hits cassette. I brought it to my art class, because the teacher was a real music aficionado and I knew he'd appreciate my discovery. He did, but he also mused that "You know, Elvis Costello went down to Nashville and recorded a country album." "A country album?" I sputtered, spitting out the name of my enemy with contempt. I wanted to be the sort of person who listened to Elvis Costello, but country music? Maybe that was a bridge too far.
Some years later, a friend and I reflected that "What kind of music do you listen to?" is, in fact, a profoundly stupid, juvenile question. These days, I evaluate art of all kinds using Mary Gaitskill's criteria—"does it feel true?"
And Almost Blue feels true. I know, because when I get back from Block Records, I set the album on the kitchen table in my accommodations, propping it against the wall so I can see the artwork. I make myself some lunch and I listen to Almost Blue all the way through, on Spotify, with the blue and pink 1981 cover highlighted against the kitchen's light brown wall.