Living in the Crates

The following essay was originally published in slightly different form in One More Robot no. 6 (Spring 2011).

I

The very words bristle with connotation. Crate-digging. You immediately see the records lined up on shelves, on tables, on bare concrete floors, packed tight (but not too tight) in hard plastic crates, the kind that are stamped in webbed patterns so you can just pick them up and move them without having to waste time finding handholds, rows of men (it’s always men, somehow) in parkas and grimy t-shirts and mussed hair flipping through intently, taking the barest sliver of a second to process the information the top third of the sleeve gives them before grubby fingers twitch the next sleeve into sight. The light is dim, or else harsh industrial fluorescence, and the proprietor is playing his (it’s always his, somehow) records very loudly, something abrasive and cool and old. Crate-digging. You can feel the very grime on your fingertips.

Or maybe you can’t. Especially if you’re younger, if you grew up part of the global exurban sprawl where retail is nothing but big box chains and giant superstores, where recorded music is vanishing anyway, squeezed out by the inexorable algorithms of Per Square Foot Profit Maximization, the words crate-digging may strike you as antique, irrelevant, like singing telegram or pinball machine, something that old people, or people in old cities, people far away and in another world—people, that is, in movies—do.

All of which is to say, there’s a mythology around crate-digging that there isn’t, necessarily, around other rituals of music consumption. (As evidenced most immediately by this very issue of One More Robot.) Like all mythologies, it exists for a reason—it tells us a story about ourselves, about our desires, our ideals, our destinies, it offers a reassuring explanation for the disquiet that seizes us on occasion, it orients us in a culture and gives us a place to belong.

For we are the Music Heads, scattered across the globe, differing widely in age and taste and areas of expertise but united in the belief that music matters, that our shared knowledge of soul and punk and folk and jazz and indie and rock ’n’ roll and obscure worldbeat psych and postpunk and 12-inch mixes and Japanese imports adds up to something more than nerdery—that we are, in fact, a community. Crate-digging is one of our sacraments, the means by which we renew our belief in ourselves and one another. There is always more music to discover; each fresh act of discovery gives purpose to all the hours spent listening to, talking about, organizing, and feeling along with music, in the same way that going to church reifies all previous goings to church.

And as with many modern religions, some of its believers may find the holy ritual of crate-digging impossible to live up to. Like medieval European Jews required by their faith to worship in the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, we are unable to accomplish it due to accidents of time and space, and create digital synagogues out of necessity.

II

In the summer of 2000, I watched the movie High Fidelity in the back of an airplane seat thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic. It struck an immediate chord with me; John Cusack’s obsessively selfish sad-sack felt like me, even if his compulsive list-making was much more creative than my own has ever been. (I don’t do top tens; I just do tens.) But more than any specifics of character—I hadn’t yet been in a serious relationship, and all that part felt opaque to me—what attracted me about the movie’s world were all the scenes in the record shop, where albums were totems of power with meanings far beyond the sounds in thr grooves and people argued about songs like they argued about friends, with intimacy and shared history.

In the years to come I would pattern much of my own Music Head life after High Fidelity—Cusack’s obsessive curation, Jack Black’s consumption-as-competition, Todd Louiso’s wounded retreat into records after romantic disappointment—but in 2000 I was still just feeling my way into music nerdery. I laughed knowingly at Jack Black’s insistence that a customer buy Blonde on Blonde, but it would be years before I heard it, and longer still before I could separate it from the rest of 60s Dylan. The degree to which my Music Head-dom had progressed can perhaps be judged best by the fact that once the movie was over I dug out my Discman and played my first-ever mix-CD compiled of songs downloaded from Napster. If memory serves, the tracklist ran:

  1. A Day in the Life
  2. Satisfaction
  3. Good Vibrations
  4. Like a Rolling Stone
  5. Purple Haze
  6. Light My Fire
  7. Stairway to Heaven
  8. Smoke on the Water
  9. Hotel California
  10. Where the Streets Have No Name
  11. Paradise City
  12. Smells Like Teen Spirit

It was, of course, my first attempt at canon-building (I may even have called it something embarrassing and horrifying like “The Greatest Rock Songs of All Time”), guided entirely by the canons I had access to—which were, at that time, turn-of-the-millennium RIAA lists, Rough Guide library books, and classic rock radio. I bought a tiny pair of speakers in an electronics shop in Rome and lay on my back on a green hill, my head between the speakers, the Discman whirring at my side. I’ve listened to a lot of music since, in a lot of different places and under a lot of different circumstances, but I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more satisfied with the results of the effort I had gone through to listen to the music I was falling in love with.

Yes—I was falling in love with those songs, for the first time, at the age of twenty-two. Because I did grow up in the endless suburban sprawl; aside from my parents’ old Christian-music albums stored in a cabinet and rarely played, I had never known vinyl. I was eighteen years old before I even owned a CD player—the patchy hiss and compression of radio, the clumsy clatter and spool of cassettes were music, as far as I knew. Raised in a sheltered evangelical home where Amy Grant was modern pop and Petra was too loud and dangerous, I didn’t hear secular pop until 1991, and I didn’t begin to wonder about its history until 1999, just in time for the first Golden Age of Downloading.

I perfectly fit the typical profile of a massive downloader—I also bought CDs, hundreds of them, trying desperately to catch up on all music history at once, 80s synthpop and 60s British Invasion and 20s Tin Pan Alley and on and on. I was shifting into adulthood—jobs meant money, which meant a car, which meant I could visit four used CD stores in an afternoon. I did, too many afternoons to count, and racked up thousands of dollars on old music, on new music, on music I’d never heard of but what the hell, it looked interesting. Meanwhile, I was online all day every day, toggling between a series of music sites (Allmusic, NME.com, Pitchfork Media) and a series of quickly-replaced file-sharing clients, filling in gaps, chasing credits lists down telescoping rabbit holes.

I’m not sure when I first noticed that those used CD stores had a small rack of used vinyl too. As with most things, it had to matter to me before I paid attention to it.

III

The first records I bought were off eBay in 2005. The Cake (1967) and A Slice of Cake (1968) were psychedelic girl-group pop for which I paid the Buy Now price in desperation and sheer agonized hunger at having to hear them. They weren’t on any of the file-sharing networks, they hadn’t yet been issued on CD (they would be in two years’ time, and I bought that too). And I didn’t even have a turntable.

That was soon mended—and much sooner than I thought it would be, as my entire generation seemingly caught up with vinyl at the precise moment I did. When I first started rooting through the vinyl sections in the local buy-sell-and-trade emporia in search of music to play on my newest, most delicate piece of furniture, the records were priced to move; I got a pristine Hey Jude for two dollars and a used Buckingham Nicks for three. Within three years vinyl sections would overflow the little racks, eating up the back walls of stores, and they’d be priced the same as the CD equivalents—and half of them would be new.

I continued to buy, though, and my range expanded. I discovered that, contrary to the deeply-held certainties of my suburban upbringing, there were actual record stores in my city. I began a foolhardy project to buy, listen to, and review every LP I could find from the year 1972. (Four hundred records and counting—I write these words in a café in a store where I just bought Ray Price’s The Lonesomest Lonesome and Sarah Vaughan’s Feelin’ Good, as well as assorted 45s.) The printed legend MCMLXXII began to take on totemic significance. The aging proprietor of my favorite record store took to complimenting me on the breadth of my taste. I now have more records than CDs, thanks to a couple of desperate rent-money purges and one extremely infuriating theft. But I have more digital albums than either vinyl or CD put together.

I don’t believe this makes me unsual—even if we are lucky enough to live in big cities where record stores flow like wine, where a turntable culture that never got wiped out in the great suburban migrations of the 80s and 90s continues to replenish itself so that if you spend enough time in the crates you can actually feel yourself digging through the layers of sediment (ah, we’ve reached the disco era; hello, a vein of shaggy country-rock; and underneath it all, at the base root, solid impenetrable middlebrow slabs of classical and jazz songbook compilations)—even, I say, if vinyl abounds regionally in both retail and swap-meet forms, none of us have enough wherewithal to actually purchase everything we want, no, need, to hear. Whether we tell ourselves that we’re making backups in case of catastrophe or that we’re pre-building our libraries and will delete the files once we manage to acquire a physical copy, we all have far more music than we will ever manage to do justice to listening to in our lifetimes.

Even the thrill of the hunt has waned—five years ago I could walk into a store and be certain of finding something I had had no idea existed but would immeasurably enrich my life, at least during the five-minute high between finding it and paying for it. Today it’s very hard to find something that I—or rather the databases to which I have near-permanent access—had no idea existed. And I’ll probably be able to find a cheaper copy too, on GEMM or Musicstack or Amazon or even good old eBay, right there in the aisle of the shop, tapping away on my smartphone.

But it’s even easier to just stay home, to search blogs and file-sharing sites for keywords and fill up a hard drive in an evening. The tactile experience is gone—or more accurately, it’s the same tactile experience as we have during 90% of the rest of our lives—and we shift from taking part in the ritual sacrament of crate-digging to the endless scholasticism of chapter, verse, and gloss. Some days being a Music Head, especially as experienced through online conversation, can feel like being a commentator on the Talmud, an endless circling around the holy texts—the actual records—without any actual experience of them.

But of course it’s still there. Just hit Play and turn it up. Whether the distortions you hear are due to surface noise, to tape hiss, to digital clipping, to lossy bitrates, or to the fact that you’re still using the white earbuds that came with your Apple product, let yourself drown in the noise. After all, the point of crate-digging isn’t the grimy fingers or the broken bank account or the tall tales of shows you were too young to have seen: it’s getting the records home and playing them. Not preserving them, not arranging them, not creating canonical histories. Playing them. Nudge the volume up, and move.

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