[28 March 2010]
With the arrival of the MP3 and the subsequent ascent of digital music in the marketplace it became obvious that most brick-and-mortar record stores were not going to be able to compete with über-convenient download services such as iTunes, eMusic, and Amazon. This loss was sad for anyone who remembers waiting with anticipation for a chance to take the bus to the other side of town, climb a set of rickety stairs, and flip through worn bins of vinyl on a Saturday afternoon in hopes of finding a pristine, used copy of The Modern Lovers or anything else touted by The Trouser Press Record Guide.
For almost 40 years, independent record stores were the bastion of all that was musically holy, selling not just music, but t-shirts, concert tickets, and a sense of what was cool. Many stores have closed their doors, but the temple ruins, as it were, are not forgotten. Record Store Day now sentimentalizes the stores annually as indie rockers come forth in droves offering split 7-inches as acts of supplication.
As record stores faded away and digital downloading began to replace the ritualized record store visit, a peculiar side effect emerged. Despite slumping music industry sales, there are some listeners, let’s call them Closet Hipsters, who are hearing and purchasing more music than ever before, thanks to the convenience and portability of the MP3. Since challenging music is confined no longer to only the large urban areas that can support such famed record stores as Amoeba Music or Other Music, anyone with an MP3 player and an Internet connection can now be as in-the-know as most of those stores’ regular customers.
While there will always be people who find shopping at these celebrated stores far superior to the sterile process of downloading a file straight to a hard drive, many others, particularly those who live outside major metropolitan areas, actually have access to more music now than at any other point in their lives. Many of these newly minted enthusiasts might have stopped listening to and purchasing music all together, and had to rely solely on LPs, cassette tapes, or CDs, improved access has fed these listeners’ now nearly insatiable appetite for music. The ability to preview MP3s before purchase, buy music online, and store an entire record collection on a pocket-sized device — attributes that make the MP3 seem so intangible to diehard record store shoppers — is exactly what attracts the new listeners.
What does a Closet Hipster look like, you might ask? Don’t expect to see one sporting thick-framed eyeglasses or any sort of vintage apparel. A Closet Hipster doesn’t have an opinion about skinny jeans. You won’t even be able to spot one based on their concert t-shirt collections or sneaker selection. You really won’t know until you get your hands on her iPod. I’m fortunate enough to know one or two.
My mother, for instance, is within the age demographic that suggests she embrace Susan Boyle, yet she has recently been listening to new releases by Broken Bells and Freelance Whales. She spends her free time tweaking her Fever Ray station on Pandora. She introduced me to Santigold and the Ting Tings. My mother would be much less likely to try new music if the only way to access it required her to drive half an hour to a physical store that did not allow her to preview every track before she bought it. However, there’s more than just a geographic barrier for my mom because even though she is still pretty adventurous — we went to see Of Montreal together — it is difficult to picture her rubbing shoulders with sunken-eyed college kids in the aisles of a record store or asking the indifferent clerk if he knew when they’d have more copies of tUnE-yArDs’ BiRd-BrAiNs in stock.
Back when Mom bought her first iPod, she had no intention of expanding her musical tastes; she just wanted to listen to audio books. Everything changed once she discovered All Songs Considered’s Best of 2005 podcast. Mom swears, “I must have listened to that one program about ten times.” Paste Magazine introduced her to Andrew Bird, while KEXP’s Song of the Day podcast turned her on to the Shout Out Louds.
With her sonic palate well seasoned, Mom now craves more challenging music, so she has turned to One Track Mind, a site that offers one freely distributable MP3 per day from a wide variety of up-and-coming musicians. One Track Mind’s penchant for Swedish bands such as the Mary Onettes and Friska Viljor allows Mom to even indulge in a little armchair travel. She likes to queue up an all-Swedish playlist while reading books by her favorite Swedish authors Asa Larsson, Åke Edwardson, and Stieg Larsson. While such extreme personalization of the listening experience had always been possible, it has never before been this simple.
While Mom had always been a music fan, she and commercial music parted ways in 1977 after she moved away from Madison, WI, and its eclectic, freeform radio station. Without the radio to inform and entertain her, she became subject — vulnerable even — to listening trends. Something specific would catch her ear — Mozart! Celtic! Cuban! — only to be replaced by a completely new interest within a year or two. Today, on the other hand, she listens to a broad spectrum of music that she chooses from a variety of sources. It’s just her music now, and she spends most of her day with her ear buds in place. As she says, “It’s changed my life. I can’t even imagine not having this available anymore. I can’t imagine having to drive somewhere to get music. I download a new release at six o’ clock in the morning.”
Once he discovered New Zealand’s Flying Nun label as a teenager, my friend Jeff Klein began a life-long interest in uncovering quirky, off-kilter music. This was not always easy for Jeff because he had never been much of a record store shopper. As he says, “There’s just a bunch of square CDs with pictures on the front of them. How do I have any clue what’s inside of them?” He was, however, a quintessential MP3 early adopter. He purchased a 128 mb Intel Pocket Concert (a discontinued but well-loved device that one might still find on eBay) years ago and filled it with songs he’d found through Splendid E-Zine, a now defunct music blog that strived to review every title it received.
Jeff is now a lawyer for the U.S. Department of State who spends almost as much time travelling as he does with his wife and two young daughters. Even though Jeff lives just outside Washington, D.C., his demanding job and young family make it impossible for him to attend live concerts any more. The portability of the iPod, however, makes it possible for Jeff to take his music with him whenever he travels, like when he hit the climate change talks in Copenhagen last December.
When browsing for new music Jeff follows the same path that many other listeners do, using Lala or MySpace to preview tracks once a band piques his interest. He then purchases many of them through his subscription to eMusic. The circuitous nature of the Internet never boxes him in to a particular subgenre; he is the tastemaker. His two favorite releases from last year were the critically lauded Hospice by the Antlers and Get Color by the edgy noise rock group Health, two albums that could not be more different from one another.
Both Jeff and Mom agreed they buy more music now than at any other point in their lives. At a time when the music industry is struggling there are still some music fans who are happily spending. Jeff estimates he buys seven times the number of albums on MP3 than he did when he was purchasing CDs alone. Mom’s numbers are even more staggering. She might have purchased three or four physical CDs in her pre-iPod years total, but in 2009 alone she purchased 65 digital downloads from Amazon.com.
Were it not for MP3s portability, Jeff probably wouldn’t listen at all: “Most of my listening takes place in odd moments. I’m a treaty negotiator. I travel around the world. I listen on the plane ride, in the hotel room when I’ve come back from a meeting.” You don’t have to be an international lawyer to relate to Jeff’s fractured approach to appreciating music. In Jeff’s house, his young daughter is the only one who uses the family’s stereo, listening to her beloved Seussical: The Musical.
Who besides a preschooler can spare that kind of time? Gone are the days where we gathered around the radio as a hearth. We can yearn for their return or we can be grateful that music can still fill the odd gaps created in our disjointed modern lives. And while squinting at album cover art on the tiny screen of an iPod Nano can never compare to the satisfaction of the leisurely perusal of a double gatefold LP’s liner notes, Jeff can now take an entire music library with him on his next pan-oceanic jaunt, a feat that would have been impossible if the music was stored in any other format.
I often ask Mom a question to which I already know the answer: “Do you have any friends that you discuss music with?” Her reply is a resounding “nope”. Mom refers back to the days where stereo consoles dominated music listening saying, “for years I didn’t listen to music very much because Dad didn’t like it, and he wouldn’t listen, so I didn’t listen. Now he doesn’t have to hear it.” But, she is quick to add, “Now, I am always on the lookout for something new.” Jeff’s wife is tolerant of his interest, but views the hobby as “his”.
These are the quintessential Closet Hipsters; independent listener who don’t rely on a group of taste-making friends to tell them what to like. Fed only by their own appetite for new music, the Closet Hipsters explore the Internet in isolation where they can take in the enormous breadth of music now available on their own terms. Though many independent music sellers may now be gone, there are still independent listeners who are eager to give musicians what they need most: an audience.