Negotiating the Dense and Boorish Clots, Or Shopping for Music

[22 December 2004]

By Zeth Lundy

A number of years ago, I became cognizant of long-forgotten ‘70s power-poppers the Scruffs and their sole release Wanna Meet the Scruffs? Hailed as an unfairly neglected cousin to other seminal works by the Raspberries, Cheap Trick, and Big Star, that Scruffs album became my white whale. Its status as an underdog classic-that-never-was, its cover art that aped A Hard Day’s Night in blindingly flamboyant orange, the thought that I could possibly uncover something rarely heard in these days of easy access and overexposure—I had to track it down. It had been issued on CD in the late ‘90s by a small record label (Northern Heights, which now appears to be defunct), which made tracking it down about as easy as locating a copy of Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue. Store after store I searched, but Wanna Meet the Scruffs? escaped my clutches at every dusty bin, every clearance shelf, every used shop and über-chain store. When I heard that fellow tiny label Rev-Ola was reissuing the album in 2002, my hopes lifted; finally I could get my hands on that which I seemed incapable of obtaining. Well, to quote the album title of another underrated ‘70s power pop band, no dice. I scoured the racks of all the independent record stores in Los Angeles, even betting on randomly sighting a lone copy in one of the ginormous corporate stores, but apparently Rev-Ola’s distribution was as expansive as George W. Bush’s vocabulary. Did I mention that I was able to find this elusive disc hiding like Harry Lime in the cavernous sewer systems of the online retail world? has it, has it, has it; but buying the object of my quest in the quick flick of a mouse button would be like the Red Sox defeating the Yankees in the ALCS due to a forced eighth-inning rainout. Success would be granted, but it would feel cheap and anti-climatic, an unearned victory, a hush-money payoff to curb future trips to the “Misc. S” section. I staunchly refuse to cave in so easily. Why so stubborn, so stupid? Easy: if music is my religion, then record stores are my places of worship. Shopping for music is as absorbing an exercise as listening to music, one that requires more than sitting in a chair and staring at a computer screen. Record-searching and record-buying is a visceral, obsessive thing, an activity that demands physical contact. There’s a calming comfort in being surrounded by row upon row of discs and vinyl, a sense of solidarity imbibed by standing among decades of recorded music. You can’t help but feel a part of it all. Moving from “A” to “B” to “C”, the hunt for specific albums begets the surprise of unexpected bargains begets the discovery of releases you didn’t even know existed. Shopping in record stores means bumping into fellow obsessives pawing through the row adjacent to you, “Street Fighting Man” scissor-kicking its way through the overhead stereo, fingers flirting meticulously through the myriad of possibilities. The plasticine aroma of history. Online stores, in contrast, are intrinsically sterile. Their emergence as a legitimate shopping outlet has come thanks to our culture’s appetite for convenience and immediacy. It only makes sense that painless armchair access to music be available at the same machine where a public gets its news, pays its bills, and communicates with the world. The attraction is bolstered by the kinds of shopping bargains reserved for cutout bins; person-to-person online transactions are the new yard sale dickering war. To the neophyte, it’s the ideal way to shop for music. But to the dedicated haunter of in-store racks, it renders a ritual invisible. Because, I believe, music-shopping/disc-digging is a ritualistic engagement, a meditative practice that can only be experienced by immersing yourself in the thick of it all. (Not to mention the extended ritual of stopping for coffee on the way home to peruse liner notes, admire the packaging, read the lyrics, and prepare for that maiden listen at home.) Online stores bore the living daylights out of me; even though I can call up any given disc on-screen, it doesn’t physically sit in my hands at that moment of pre-sale contemplation. I can’t vouch for its existence. My affinity for record store hopping isn’t merely a Captain Ahab fetish by any means; it’s more a willingness to stay in touch with the aura of a place that feeds my habit. Resigning oneself to a life of online record shopping is like claiming to be a movie buff, but simultaneously refusing to watch films that are letterboxed, subtitled, or in black and white. Sometimes you’ve got to work to obtain that which you desire—sometimes effort is demanded from you—and frankly, if you can’t stomach it, then you don’t deserve it. Some will undoubtedly cite the existence of the hipper-than-thou record store clerk as a prime reason to stay at home and shop online. The record store clerk knows about everything you know about, but he knows it better. The record store clerk fronts a band and, therefore, is so over the Unicorns disc you hold in your hand. The record store clerk dresses more ironically than you, feigns indifference at your selections, and recommends oblique alternatives because he can. But you can beat the record store clerk at his own game, and this is one of the most satisfying aspects of the entire process: passive-aggressively flaunting great finds in their horn-rimmed faces. Some of my greatest steals have occurred at used record stores, where the unsuspecting clerk rings up impossibly good bargains: the Grays’ Ro Sham Bo for $2.99 (out of print and later spotted at same store for $30); the Kinks’ self-titled debut—the import remaster—for $1.99; the old Rykodisc remaster of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust for $4.99 (out of print and subsequently seen for $35). Fads come and go, but good taste will always prevail when matched against the shoddy judgment of the used record store stocker. Even worse than bland online shopping? Digital downloading. iTunes. iShudder at the thought. iTunes is not only the record labels’ restitution for illegal downloading; it is designed to single-handedly demolish the concept of the LP. iTunes disfigures all recognition of album sequencing, turns songs into invisible digital encryptions, and cements the relationship between consumer and song as anesthetically cold, a bald transaction. Pardon the implied offense, but digital downloading of piecemeal tracks is for the fly-by-night music consumer. It’s non-committal and non-implicating, a cop-out to dip toes in the wading pool of a few tracks rather than diving into the album entire. And to those who download full albums on services like iTunes: who are you? Are you the ones who instantly toss an album’s packaging and jewel case aside upon purchase, the ones who unflinchingly toss CDs to the floor of your moving car in rush hour, the ones who mistake CDs for coffee table coasters? Let’s get one thing straight: the MP3, while a terrific format for the websites of independent artists and for portable players, should not be interpreted as an acceptable replacement for bona fide hi-fi. It’s not nearly as dynamic. It distorts; it compresses. It’s a bastardization of a truer sound that unfortunately carries the persuasive heft of convenience. What CDs were to vinyl freaks, MP3s are now to CD freaks. The greater danger here—one that I have not yet addressed—is that megastores like Wal-Mart, combined with the ubiquity of online services, will ultimately lead to the death of the local record store and, in the case of the former, the homogenization of available “alternatives”. For example, if Target’s success forces your local music shop to close, physically shopping for music will become unbelievably abbreviated. (Let It Be ... Naked, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and 1 does not a Beatles section make.) Online shopping would then provide the only way to find albums beyond the mass consumption mainstream, a devastating reality to those of us who live for the independent stores. Outlets like Wal-Mart and, say, may offer bargain-bin prices and breezy convenience, but they begrudgingly lack the soul of the independently owned shop. Nevertheless, I’ll be contributing to the Sisyphean task of ensuring that record stores don’t go the way of the 8-track (which, conversely, did deserve to go bye-bye with quadraphonic sound). Whether or not I ever add the Scruffs’ Wanna Meet the Scruffs? to my library is really left to the hands of fate. But one thing is for sure: I’ll have the time of my life hunting it down.

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