On a Wednesday afternoon, having spent the last three days packing up my apartment in Chicago, I decided to take a quick break and bike over to Reckless Records. I was only there for a few minutes, because I knew what I wanted: Repercussion, the sophomore album by '80s rock band The dB's. I bought it on the strength of their first album, Stands for Decibels, which has become one of my favorite things over the last six months. When I listened to it at home, and over many subsequent listens, it proved to be only alright.
I went to Reckless Records to buy that album solely because it had proven impossible to find online. That Wednesday was the first time in years that I'd bought an album without already having heard it. And, good album or not, it brought back something I had forgotten: the thrill of buying, not simply acquiring, new music.
The obvious perk to downloading is that you don't have to pay for it. But there is an intangible difference that going to the store, hunting through the racks, paying for the album, and having to wait until you get home to hear it bring to the whole experience. I admired the jewel case (I'd always rather fondle a vinyl sleeve, but my turntable was already packed at that point) before putting the disc in my computer. I looked at the cover art, which I've done with many an album before, but most of them were albums I'd already listened to through downloads. With Repercussion, I started imagining what the sound would be like. I had forgotten that album covers could do that.
And, probably because I had a fiscal stake in the proceedings, I found myself listening more intently. Whether or not Repercussion was terribly good as an album, it served as a reminder of what the album experience is meant to be.
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I have had Tom Waits' entire discography for close to a year. I've listened to two or three of his albums in that time (There are about 20). I have had Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti for three years. Halfway through "Kashmir" one time is about it. Live in London by Leonard Cohen has sat in my collection, virtually untouched, since it came out two years ago. There are countless other examples of neglected music sitting in my iTunes library, and yet I could not name for you even one physical album I own which I have not listened to once or twice.
While the digital age has flattened the playing field, allowing everyone access to an endless library of music, I think it has also helped foster, subconsciously, a mentality of quantity over quality. As an audio major at Columbia College in Chicago, I regularly heard peers mention having several terabytes worth of music. I have a library of about 90 GB, less than a tenth of a terabyte, and, speaking as a voracious consumer of music, I can tell you that a collection in the terabytes is not practical. Music will sit abandoned, unheard, for eternity.
I've been vaguely aware of this downside of mp3s for two years, ever since the first time I was relieved to find that I didn't like an artist because it meant I could delete their discography from my computer. There is simply so much old music to try to take in, along with the ever-increasing stream of new music, that you start to feel like keeping up is a burden. And, as with any passion, it should never feel that way.
The other downside to such an influx of material is that you burn through an infatuation with an artist quickly. I got into and over Elvis Costello in only four or five months, because I acquired his discography in one day. My infatuation with Blur lasted years, because I bought their albums as I found them, over a seven or eight month period. The initial kick of the Blur phase and the Costello phase were equally as thrilling, but the Costello phase feels like a distraction. The Blur phase still feels like a distinct and important period in my life.
When getting into a new artist slowly, or buying a new album in a physical form, it generates its own excitement. Because you have to put effort into finding the physical object, the album builds an aura around itself, which pulls you in. Downloading an album off the web can build excitement, but it's not the same, it is cut with too much ease, and too often it just becomes another part of the library, as anonymous in that list as any other track from any other album by any other artist.
* * *
I am done downloading music. And not because I'm worried about legal troubles, or about the fiscal well-being of the artists, but because I want to go back to music being an exciting commodity. I want to feel the thrill of buying an album without knowing what it's going to sound like. And I want getting to know an artist to feel like a decision, not an afterthought.