Here is how you started a music collection, if you were born sometime between 1940 and 1990: You bought an album, and for the time being, that album was all you had. You liked some tracks more than others at first, but as you only owned eight or 10 or 12 of them (maybe a few more, if it was a recently released CD), you couldn’t afford to play favorites, so you listened to your one album over and over again until you liked all the songs equally. A couple of weeks later, you bought another album. After a year, you owned 15 or 20, and after five years, a couple of hundred.
Here is how you started a music collection in the early years of the 21st century: You gave an iPod to a friend or an elder sibling or an uncle, and you said, “Fill this up for me.” And suddenly you would have a couple of thousand tracks, most of which you wouldn’t ever listen to. If you’re a teenager now, you wouldn’t even bother going to all that trouble, because all the music ever recorded in the history of the world is in your pocket, on your phone. We know, because that’s the way the world always works, that teenagers in 10 or 20 years time will be laughing and shaking their heads at the primitivism and inconvenience of Spotify — “You had to wait a few seconds to download?” “Not everywhere had the Internet?” “You had to touch a screen?” But at this point, it’s hard to imagine how music consumption of the future will be much easier or cheaper than it is now.
My first novel, High Fidelity, is about the lost but fiercely snobby people who used to sell us our music, back in the day when music was something you could touch and see and probably smell, as well as hear. (If I had been told, when I was writing it, that within a decade you’d be able to email a song, I’d have presumed that this meant you could also email a sandwich.) The book is now 20 years old, and the technological innovations of the last 15 years should by rights have made it look like a story about blacksmiths, or milkmen, or some other profession that has been murdered in cold blood by the modern world.
I have, from time to time, considered writing a sequel to the book. Rob and his long-suffering girlfriend Laura seemed emblematic of a certain kind of contemporary relationship — Rob confused and drifting, Laura focused and several years further on into adulthood. Maybe it would be interesting to see how they were getting on as they approached middle age. Did they have kids? Were they still together? What was Rob up to now? The answers to the first two questions were up to me (I reckon yes and no), but I could never come up with an answer to the third, or at least, not one that interested me enough to spend a couple of years of my life exploring. The owner of the independent store where I used to hang out is now a real estate agent; his former partner part-owns the lingerie shop that now occupies the same site. And when I asked Facebook friends from all over the world where their record-store guys had disappeared to, it was hard to see a pattern in the information they provided: postman, vintner, pornography writer, psychotherapist, drummer, bookstore assistant, waiter, tropical fish breeder … All one can say for sure is that selling scratched copies of Replacements albums didn’t help anyone lay down a conventional career path.
And yet readers, some of them young enough never to have owned one lonely album, still seem to find the book, and a way of relating to it. This might in part be because some of the old ways have proved remarkably, bafflingly durable — there are even a few signs that ownership and physical manifestations of music are making a comeback. There is an independent record store 400 yards from my desk; it has, in the last few months, opened a new branch, in Shoreditch, London’s equivalent of Brooklyn. Vinyl sales are increasing, and in the United Kingdom there are now more outlets for CDs and records than there have ever been. True, most of these are supermarkets, but not everyone, clearly, has decided that music is worthless. New vinyl is expensive, and yet Americans bought more than 9 million LPs in 2014.
And a surprising number of the old places simply never closed. They have seen off Borders, Tower and Virgin, and they have the place to themselves. They’re not getting rich, but those clerks are still there, still sneering at your bad choices, offering you an understated but supportive raise of the eyebrow for your good ones.
One of the great benefits of digital consumption is that it is democratic: In cyberspace, there’s nobody to judge you. If this 57-year-old wants to hear what Joey Badass sounds like, I don’t have to run the gauntlet of incredulous stares in cool record stores: There! I’m listening to Paper Trails as we speak! And yet part of the point of culture is that it allows us to demonstrate our tastes publicly — it helps us find our tribe. (Thanks, Joey, but I’m going back to the new Valentinos compilation.) The arts are the most elaborate and most precise social network ever invented, but if it’s going to work properly, you have to get out of the house sometimes and show who you are and what you love. You have to go to shows and galleries and bookstores, you have to ask for what you want out loud. And this expression of taste must involve an impulse that, at its heart, is anti-democratic: Somewhere you have to believe that what you like is better than what all those other losers like.
So maybe we need those record-store guys; maybe the reason so many of them are still around is that, without them, the whole system grinds to a halt. If you own all the music ever recorded in the entire history of the world, then who are you? Those people queuing outside their local independent on Record Store Day want to be known.
For more stories from Billboard’s vinyl revival package, check back on Billboard.com on Monday.