Editor’s Notebook: Record Store Day — memories only

record store day 638wRecord Store Day might seem to be an anachronism to some, but the annual event (held this past Saturday) is fun, well-attended, good for the stores, and nice promotion for many musicians and bands. For me, it’s all about the memories.

For many years I lived in Princeton, NJ, where one of the largest and most fun independent music stores was (and is) tucked into an alley off Nassau Street — Princeton Record Exchange (Prex). This bin-intensive shop provides a holistic experience, comprising two-way transactions (you bring in your old discs for store credit, hence “exchange”), community (the wonderful meetings with other browsers flipping through the bins), and product (extraordinary finds in all genres).

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Princeton Record Exchange

For many pre-streaming years I habitually visited Princeton Record Exchange for the pleasure of browsing. The low prices encouraged impulse buying, and the exchange policy reduced the risk of experimenting. I spent countless happy hours immersed in the bins and shelves, sharing notes with those around me, soaking in the aura of shared passion for music. When CDs developed a second-hand market, Prex expanded to include them. I still have many CDs with Prex labels on them.

But those CDs are stored in a wall unit, unused. This is how far the streaming-music revolution has moved me away from records: I don’t own a turntable, and the only CD player I have is in an old and rarely-used Windows XP computer. (My current machines are ultrabooks, which don’t have spinning drives of any sort.) My car has a CD unit, but I’ve got a smartphone holder jammed into the disc space … so I can listen to and control phone-streamed music while driving.

That confession, more than anything, represents one person’s migration from the buying model to the access model.

Despite my personal evolution as a music consumer, Record Store Day is not an anachronism. It is a celebration of community and product — 450 records were released especially for the event, and distributed to participating stores. Lines formed to get a whack at those records. I’m using the word “records” deliberately, because most of the items were wax records, both 7-inch and 12-inch. As such, the 2014 edition of Record Store Day might have been called Vinyl Day — and it celebrated both local business and the growing niche of vinyl-record collection. According to the RIAA’s 2013 review, vinyl LPs were the only growth category in the physical product breakout of music revenue.

The question for people like me is this: does streaming music do a good job replacing the local record shop, when it’s a great local record shop?

The general answer for me is that the vast celestial song catalog is a dream come true. When I joined Rhapsody and eMusic in about 2000, when “music subscription” was a new concept, I felt as if I had waited my entire life for it. And those early catalogs were tiny. But it was clearly going to grow into something bigger, better, more secure, and more legitimate than Napster.

But more specific answers are less absolute. With my various subscriptions I probably spend more on music than I did in my Princeton Record Exchange days, and I certainly know more music.  That’s all good. But music collecting has become more solitary.

I can spend hours alone with my devices, lost in music discovery. Then, I enjoy my discoveries out in the world, wearing noise-cancelling earbuds that isolate me from an airplane seatmate, and lots of other incoming real-world things. That’s a lot of aloneness — just me and a glowing screen and aural stimulation. Chatting with a person at the next bin has been replaced by noticing that a Facebook friend is listening to a certain song, and perhaps listening in.

So hooray for Record Store Day, even though I didn’t participate. Perhaps it should be called Friends Through Music Day.

Brad Hill