Sold on the Street

“Do you want to help save homeless children?”

“Do you care about our nation’s forests?”

“Do you have a minute to talk about making this world a better place?”

You would think that any decent person would have a hard time saying “no” to any of these questions. Yet I find myself doing just that whenever I’m confronted with a cause-hound asking for time or money — a regular occurrence on the streets outside my office. At first, I feel bad about passing them by, knowing how I’d feel if the situation were reversed and I were the one holding the clipboard. But now I almost take pride in my ability to decline, to avoid being guilt-tripped (even if there is a lot to feel guilty about). It’s not that I don’t care about homeless children — whoever came up with that phrasing deserves some kind of award — I just can’t afford to be donating to every known cause simply because I’m asked to. Still, despite my best efforts to keep my wallet shut, there’s one question that usually makes me stop in my tracks and turn around:

“Do you like conscious hip-hop?”

I don’t have a chance. Before I’m even able to answer yes — as they know I will — they’ve got the CD-R halfway into my hand. “Just five bucks, man. We’re kind of like Common mixed with the Beastie Boys, with some live instrumentation like the Roots. On track seven, my girl — she’s kind of like the love child of Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott — does a slam-poetry guest spot. Then there’s this craaazy beatboxing dude I met at a party — shit’s wild. But mostly it’s just me and my crew telling it like it is; none of that radio crap. This is like our passion, you know?”

I’m sold.

These guys know exactly where to locate their prey: outside the independent record store, in and around shows of like-minded artists. If you’re in the mood to find new music, they’ll find you. But what makes them so hard to resist?

First, there’s the chance to be ahead of the trend. Though the Internet has made it possible to discover a lot of new music, it’s also made it more difficult to find stuff that a substantial population isn’t already listening to. And that bums a lot of people out, since every serious music fan secretly thinks he’d be an awesome A&R man. The only way to make good on that belief is to champion an artist who hasn’t already been championed by all the blogs. That way, when he does blow up, you can say you knew him when. That you gave him a chance when he was just coming up. That you shook his hand and wished him luck.

That’s the other reason I think these street-sellers manage to unload their stock — the transaction itself. It’s just a cool way to buy music, much cooler than downloading an album or even buying it in a small mom ‘n’ pop shop. You’ll remember where you were when you got it. I can remember a friend once playing me a CD and telling me she’d bought it from a guy on the train (after first listening to it on the Discman she had with her — this was several years ago, obviously). She was going on and on about how good it was, but really, I think she was more in love with the story than anything else. In a world where there’s not much incentive to pay for music, this is one purchase that feels justifiable. You’re not giving your cash to some middle-man website or retailer; you’re giving it straight to the source, to the artist who created the stuff. It’s like joining the localvore movement for music.

Problem is, the stuff you get is rarely the equivalent of fresh produce bought at the farmers market. More often, it carries the disappointment of a mealy peach (seriously, is there anything more frustrating?). Of the many CDs I’ve bought on the street over the years, only a few have warranted more than a single listen. One didn’t even work when I popped it into my computer; I considered contacting the seller through his MySpace page (he’d kindly Sharpied the link onto the disc), but decided the hassle wouldn’t be worth it after I heard a few songs online.

Despite its impersonal nature, such sampling is probably the way to go. If I could hear a few songs and then go out and buy from the artist on the street, then that would be much more ideal, even if it meant risking someone else getting to it first. Making a purchase without anything to go on but the artist’s word is really just a bad idea. I know this, intrinsically. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I can stop myself from making the same mistake.

Really, I should do myself a favor and treat these rappers like I do all those on-the-grind Greenpeace guys: cross to the other side of the street until I trust myself to say no. It may mean that much less support for struggling local artists, but hey, the rainforests are still here, right? Wait, don’t answer that.