My first albums came from my (nine years) older brother, KISS Rock N Roll Over and AC/DC High Voltage to be specific. I was 5 when he switched me on and I remember clearly my mom bought me a “Mickey’s 50th” album for Christmas and I was bummed. I was hoping for KISS Alive. I was visibly disappointed and felt guilty for hurting my mom’s feelings, but I wanted some rock, not kids’ music.
I don’t remember buying them but I had an 8-track player at my dad’s house and a few tapes. Mostly I remember KISS’ Dressed To Kill and Double Platinum, but also the Harry Nilsson album with “Lime In The Coconut” on it. I remember fucking around forever trying to re-cue that song on the 8-track, it wasn’t easy and I didn’t like any of the other ones.
My parents had great records. My dad had every Dylan and Willie Nelson record, plus tons of great stuff that shaped my tastes like Sam & Dave, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Stevie Wonder, and Jimmy Reed. My mom was all about Emmylou but I do remember conning her into giving me her copy of Bat Out Of Hell when I was six; she was asleep and I told her I’d let her nap if she let me have it. I also remember falling asleep in my mom’s bed listening to Billy Joel’s The Stranger many many nights. My step-dad had a serious collection, well curated and cared-for since the mid to late 60s including Velvet Underground, Moby Grape, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Blue Cheer (blew my mind) plus all the staples like The Stones and Beatles, etc. He kept buying records through the 80s (Husker Du, REM, Talking Heads, etc) and had all the gear (dual cassette deck, CD player very early, etc). Then in the 90s he decided he was getting rid of most of the vinyl and I got my pick. I still have all those records.
My hometown (Goshen, Indiana, pop: 20K at the time) didn’t have a record store, except for a couple of years there was a place called World Records which had like 25 records for sale (and drugs, according to my brother). I only remember buying two things there: a Lucifer’s Friend cassette (sucked balls) and Judas Priest’s British Steel (ruled). World Records was right next door to the movie theater, which had a couple of live rock shows for a short time when the movie theater went out of business. I saw Blue Oyster Cult, Robin Trower, and Armored Saint there before that fun ended and it became a church.
I lived next door to Parkside Pharmacy and bought a little music there of all places. They had a slew of $3.99 cassettes and I was smart enough to know they mostly sucked but had enough crate-digging in my bones to find the things I liked, namely B.O.C.’s Some Enchanted Evening, Cultasaurus Erectus, and Agents of Fortune, and Judas Priest’s Made In Japan. I also bought little bubble gum shaped as vinyl for the year they made those and I remember the albums: Rush, Robert Palmer, and Pat Benetar (woah, check this out, the Internet is amazing, I not only verified their existence but found that there were a lot more than they ever sold at Parkside Pharmacy and you can BUY THEM STILL).
But I started a more serious, life-long record buying habit on the many trips my family took to Ann Arbor, Michigan to visit my step-aunt and uncle. First of all, they had *many* real record stores there and secondly, shopping for music was what my family did with their time. It’s funny to think about now but Saturday in Ann Arbor was usually spent with my step-dad and uncle out digging through bins at Schoolkids, Discount Den, and stop-offs at two or three other record stores that were within walking distance (what was the one at the corner right across from Discount Den? and what was the upstairs used joint called?). I bought countless records in Ann Arbor, but I remember specifically buying Blondie’s Autoamerican, a Plastmatics tape, and a local band whose name I can’t remember but they covered I Wanna Be Your Dog which ultimately pointed me toward The Stooges.
All the records to be bought in a 30 minute radius from where I grew up were in the Concord Mall in Dunlap (near Elkhart). Musicland was expensive and mega-lame but I remember when my sister’s friend Roger (I think maybe she worked for him at a pre-Taco Bell mexican fast food place called Zantigo’s — also the first place I ever played Space Invaders) started a “local” record store in the mall called Super Sounds. It was in a mall in Elkhart so of course he couldn’t stock anything too crazy, but he would special order for me all the time. I remember my mom buying me Big Black’s Songs About Fucking via special order from Super Sounds, which said a lot about not only my record buying leanings but also the lengths my mom would go to supporting my habit. Thanks, mom.
In my teens I smelled a disconnect. I’d spent countless hours in record stores and knew the canon of “available” music inside and out, but when I’d open Thrasher or Transworld Skateboarding I’d see ads for TSOL and Agent Orange (which I could special order) but also things that were just plain unavailable in Northern Indiana, such as The Misfits, Doggy Style, Drunk Injuns, Skate Rock Vol 4, etc. Even if you knew about it (I did) you couldn’t order it (I tried). I knew there was a music universe beyond my reach but wasn’t sure how to get at it.
A further drive to South Bend opened the possibilities a bit more. Just For The Record in the 100 Center, Mishawaka, was a real AOR-loving audiophile store where they sold their own branded, static-free vinyl inserts. My copy of The Wall came from there (part of a $95 shopping spree my mom won on WAOR) as well as REO Speedwagon’s 9 Lives (back when I was seven and that was my first concert). Camelot Records in the University Park Mall had a little more selection (I remember buying Bad Brains I Against I there in my teens as well as the Sly and The Family Stone Anthology and Beastie Boys Polly Wog Stew, too) but the motherlode was Trax Records, an honest-to-goodness college town (Notre Dame) record store with clerks who liked “college rock” and everything. When CDs came on the scene I bought my first there (MDC, Dead Kennedys, and Rapeman all put out some early CDs which I bought here) but the real life-changer was their selling Maximum Rock N Roll magazine. Via Maximum RnR I got access to the world of mail ordering music from the aforementioned alternate universe, records made by people not too different from me who lacked access to national distribution the same way I lacked access to specialty stores. I ordered from Lookout, Mordam, Alternative Tentacles, Dischord, SST, Revelation, and very regularly from individuals, where you’d get cassettes with hand-written track listings and personal notes from the artists shipping their own tapes and vinyl. One of the early Lookout 7″s, Bedtime for Isocracy, featured Isocracy’s phone number in one of the songs (415-222-5099 if I recall correctly). I called it and talked to the “artist”, and called him back when I wanted some advice on screening shirts for my band (sound familiar? this “direct to fan” thing isn’t anything new, just a different set of technology making it simpler and more scalable than ever).
Near Chicago in Merrilville, Indiana there was a store whose name escapes me but where I bought Megadeth Peace Sells… when I was younger and the first Fugazi record on a trip with Vince Koser a few years later. I also bought some amazing zines there that led to other things so even though I can’t remember the store’s name it was an important one for me.
In the early 90s I went to college at Indiana University and one of the best parts of living in Bloomington was a real music scene with two all ages clubs and countless CD stores within two blocks of one another. There was a Trax there, plus a mega-store thing (Streetsounds? can’t remember), a stupid chain that sold more Hendrix t-shirts than music whose name I can’t recall, a drug store which sold used CDs and had midnight sales on new music, a high-end CD store where you could listen to everything, and eventually both Roscoe’s and CD Exchange, the best low-end used joints stocking all the indie rock at cheap prices everyone in a college town needs. Even though I had a toddler and was living on financial aid I spent countless dollars supporting my music habit, a CD or two every week, from Steel Pole Bath Tub and Neurosis to James Brown and all the Ryko Bowie reissues.
Once Paranorm got me into hip hop, I had to find another place to buy 12″ vinyl, though. It was back to mail order again, or trips to Chicago to buy vinyl off the wall at places whose names escape me now.
In the early 90s I had my first online ecommerce experiences buying music from a place you’d telnet to. I think it was called CD Connection and there was a special version of it you went to for imports. It was from there that I first managed to get my hands on all the Can records, at $29 each. Ouch. But worth it.
In 1995 I left college and went on tour with grade A crate-diggers Beastie Boys. Beastie Boys spent 1992-1993 on the road and (as far as I could tell) mostly shopping for records, so they knew where to go in literally every town. Mark Thompson and I carried a lot of vinyl home from that tour. Not all rare groove by any means, I picked up a lot of hip hop and punk rock and Mark a ton of good punk rock, too. In those days there was a lot of great Amphetamine Reptile stuff happening as well as good hip hop of the Boogiemonsters variety. It was a fun time to buy records and maybe the best way to see some of the best record stores in the country. Blood and Fire was doing incredible dub reissues at the time, too, and I bought them all. Best dub haul ever was a store in Berkeley on tour where I bought as many records as I could afford from “The Wall Of Dub”. Yabby U, Peace Pipe Dub, African Dub Almighty, Twinkle Brothers — they’re still some of my favorite albums today.
After tour Mark and I landed in Los Angeles, Venice to be specific, in a house with a turntable and no TV. That meant trips to Aron’s Records every weekend, where I remember buying countless CDs and vinyl both. I remember picking up Elliott Smith’s Either/Or off the new release wall along with things like Blonde Redhead and Karp.
For a short time Mike D had a record store called Top Shelf above the X-Large store. Good idea but not a great selection, and it didn’t last long. I did get my hands on some classic Lee Perry records there, though.
Fat Beats popped up on Vermont and I was there nearly every weekend buying 12″s. I remember getting the first Mos Def 12″ there and nearly losing my mind over how good those two tracks were.
For my walking-distance fix I would hit Moby Disc, even though they almost always sucked and their vinyl was overpriced, but I did get tricked into buying some of the import vinyl (Pulp, Radiohead) there for way too much money. For vinyl I’d hit the now-defunct joint on Pico near the GRAMMY building or if you really needed something special you’d go to Atomic in Burbank (which is maybe one of the finest vinyl stores I’ve ever been to).
But I also remember when it stopped being fun. I lived in Topanga Canyon so the store was a drive again, but now I had the Internet and Amazon. I would find out about music from friends or SHOUTcast stations online, make a list, drive to Aron’s to do my shopping, and literally find NOTHING on my list. A couple trips like that and you are fine paying the shipping (this was before the days of free shipping) staying home and getting exactly what you’re looking for delivered directly to your house at a reasonable price. Yeah I missed the digging through the stacks but the fact was, after years of flipping through the same titles there wasn’t a whole lot to miss. I’d spend hours on my computer reading about music on newsgroups or sampling music from places like Sonicnet instead of staring at album covers in stores. Lets face it, it was an improvement, a better way to spend your music-focused time.
Right around this time is when I found Sandbox Automatic, the best hip hop resource on the Web in the 1990s. Mail order vinyl, CDs, mix tapes, everything. It was from here that I first bought the first Eminem EP long after hearing him on The Wake Up Show, long before he had a deal with Dre.
When I first stumbled on Aquarius Records in SF I wanted to love it. Talk about knowledge and personal touch — you could walk around all day and read the little vignettes they’ve written on the front of countless CDs or peruse tons of staff picks you’ve never heard of. But repeatedly I’d buy music based on these cards and walk out having spent $70 on music that was novel but not really my thing. There came a point where it just seemed crazy to buy something you had only read about and hadn’t had a chance to hear any of.
I haven’t had a P2P program on my computer since Audiogalaxy, but I did love Audiogalaxy when it was around. Great community, implementation, etc. The last great thing I found on Audiogalaxy was Brendan Benson’s Lapalco. It’s still one of my favorite albums ever and I can’t count how many times I’ve turned someone else on to that record or given the CD as a gift.
A few years back LA was blessed with the best record store in the world, Amoeba. It’s truly the ultimate record-buying experience. But I’ve probably spent a total of $200 there in the past eight years because it came just as my need for the record store ran out. I consume and spend more money on music today than ever, but virtually none of what I spend is in a store (like most of my non-music purchases, to be honest). I discover music from friends, online blogs like Aquarium Drunkard or Pitchfork, and offline in Mojo Magazine‘s monthly reviews section. My sizable monthly music budget includes a Rhapsody subscription, an Emusic subscription, a fair amount of downloading from Amazon, and buying direct from artists whenever possible (not just Topspin artists but any artist who goes this route, I’ve bought books and music from Mark Kozelek recently, for example). Maybe I’ve just already had my fill, but the idea of driving across town to maybe not find what I’m looking for and probably pay more for it isn’t really very appealing. I’d rather hear about something, preview it, and get it at a reasonable price in about 30 seconds over my FIOS, throw it on my iPod and listen to it while running to the beach. Friday my two year-old daughter Lucinda and I were talking to my mom in Tuscon via Skype. Lucinda asked my mom (I swear), “Do you like Neko Case?” My mom said yes. I asked mom if she had the new Neko Case record yet. She said no. 30 seconds later I had a copy shipped to her house from Amazon for $7.99, no tax, no shipping (thanks to Amazon Prime, just as I sent her the Phosphorescent and Vetiver records a couple weeks back). No question the Internet has made discussing, sharing, and yes, buying music easier than ever before, for everyone, from everywhere.
I’ve heard talk around Record Store Day that sounds like we should all be lamenting the death of these bastions of culture that have fueled the music business. First of all, the stores that are left claim to be doing well, Newberry Comics is expanding and evolving their business, for example. There are some GREAT fucking record stores, Amoeba, Newberry, Waterloo, etc, but they have always been few and far between and during the heyday of the CD business they didn’t contribute to the growth of the business nearly as much as Best Buy and Wal-Mart. So while I’m happy to celebrate these great stores and glad to see people like Sonic Youth making rad 7″s to do so, lets not slag the Internet as the enemy of culture in the process. Lets celebrate rather than curse the Internet for bringing music sources like Mojo and Pitchfork to people in places similar to the one I grew up in, which btw is most of the world, and for having a true impact on both culture and the way people who make music connect with the people who love music.
Happy Record Store Day. I’d still like to get out to get the Jesus Lizard and Magnolia Electric Company 7″s, but I’m not sure when that’ll happen. The sun is shining and my daughter is sleeping and when she wakes up I think we’ll go to the park. Wish I could buy them online. But then I guess that’s the point.
As Zappa said, “Music Is The Best”. The best thing you could do today is to throw your TV in the trash, turn off your cable, and spend that money on music instead. Seriously.