In my hometown, just on the other side of a floodwall that runs perpendicular to the Ohio River, lies a small, run-down store that occupied much of my time and thoughts as a teenager.
It’s called the Sound Xchange. In it lie treasures untold: racks upon racks of CDs, from Billy Ray Cyrus to Prince to Guns n’ Roses.
In the late 90s, a new CD would set you back $16.99. It was a sizable investment, all things considered: 50 bucks net you just three albums. One had to choose carefully.
Looking back, that was kind of the point. Buying a new CD was a process that required considerable time and effort, and one that began long before the trip to the record store.
First, I had to save the money. In the meantime, I’d listen to the radio (103.1 The Bear, the only rock station in town) incessantly. Each song was an audition: could this artist prove worthy of occupying my precious CD collection? Could I listen to it over and over and not grow bored?
Then there were the artists I couldn’t listen to on the radio: the Ice Cubes and the Eminems. These became a sort of social currency amongst teens and pre-teens: who had heard the new Dre song? Who has a new song to share with the group? And where did you come across it? Those who had new songs to share got the temporary admiration of the rest of us. Anyone with an older sibling had a leg up; the rest of us had to work harder, dig deeper.
Eventually, we’d compile our lists, save our money, and head off to the Sound Xchange. We always had something in mind, and sometimes we stuck to the script: Pearl Jam’s Ten, Live’s Throwing Copper and Eminem’s debut album all created a singular purpose in me. I had to have those albums, and when I went to the record store to get them, I went straight to what I wanted, found my prize, and played the album in question on a portable CD player for the next six months straight. At least.
Other times, it was more like a trip to Wonka’s factory. There were so many choices, and I wanted to taste/ hear all of them. Here’s the new Metallica, and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony is my jam, and isn’t STP supposed to release something this month?
Some purchases were a sure thing, others were hit-and-miss. There’s that new song from ____, and it is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard and I have to have that album and omg it’s never going to leave my CD player!
On those days, I’d rush home, rip the plastic (and those damn stickers!) off the CD, throw it into the CD player and just listen, eyes wide with excitement.
Hmm. Track 1 kinda sucks. Skip.
Okay. Track 2 might be okay... well, no, not really. Skip.
Eventually, I’d realize the entire album sucks, save that one song that the radio played. But I’d spent 17 bucks on this thing, so god damn it, I was gonna play the hell outta that song.
And I did. And still, it was worth it.
When an album was a hit, though, man, was it a hit. Alice in Chains’ Dirt was a revelation, an experience. A close-my-eyes-and-take-me-away kind of experience. Those were few and far between, but they made up for all the misses.
That’s the way things used to be. Now, I fire up Spotify and turn on a playlist. Sometimes, I know what I want, and I can go straight to an album. Rarely do I listen all the way, through, but still, the option exists. It’s always there.
More often, I let a pre-configured playlist or a personalized “radio station” do the work for me, based on my mood. Fire it up and forget about it.
As I write this, I’ve been listening to a playlist for an hour and fifteen minutes. I have no idea what’s been playing. Looking at my phone, I see that I’m listening to Sylvan Esso’s Coffee.
Huh. Never heard of it.
At the height of my CD-collecting days, I had just over 400 CDs. The collection, of course, was a prized possession, and even the case I put them had to be considered carefully before it was purchased.
Now, I have access to millions of songs. There’s very little deliberation involved, and almost no effort. I pull something out of my pocket, tap a couple of buttons, and let the music play, fading into the background of my day and becoming a soundtrack for my waking hours.
And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I mean, come on- unlimited music at my fingertips for ten bucks a month? It’s a musical utopia.
But the wonder of being human lies in this strange paradox: the more effort we put into something, the more enjoyment we extract from that thing. It’s true for music, for food, for enjoyment itself.
I’m not going to give up my Spotify account anytime soon, nor would I want to go back to paying 17 bucks a pop for CDs. But I am going to be more mindful about what music is and what it means to me.
It means only as much as the effort I put into it.