Discovering Music All Over Again

There is a record store in my local village. It’s a tiny little store – technically half a store as it shares a street number with the store next door – but still, it’s there. In search of one last holiday gift a few weeks ago, I popped in to explore. Two hours later, I emerged clutching a handful of records that I didn’t realize I needed, but that no one could pry from my hands. And only one was a gift; the rest are mine. Call it self-gifting if you need to put a label on the process; I just call them mine.

They were nothing you will have heard of. Rather, they were blasts from my rather diverse past, including one album that I thought only existed on a table at the back of the band’s small gigs. It is not something that you will find on Spotify, iTunes or any of the other digital services (I know, because I’ve looked over the years). What’s important is how I discovered the album: I didn’t go looking for it; rather I browsed, immersing myself in the tiny store, flicking through the records one at a time while The Sugar Cubes blasted from the store speakers. It was a journey of sorts; an escape from the outside world for a short time.

In other words, it was an experience that the digital era has failed to replicate. When I look for music online, it is a functional process. I typically know what I’m looking for and jump straight to it, or I may look to the recommendations that the somewhat clever algorithms calculate that I’ll like. And the result has been a narrowing of my musical taste over the years.

Now, I’m not arguing that we should all abandon digitized music; heck, I’m streaming The Black Keys via my phone while I’m writing this, and it is a far better experience than the Sony Walkman of yore. But we do need to consider how the browsing experience can be improved; and that’s hard without a physical medium to touch. True browsing is a tactile experience. It’s why many of us still browse book stores before then buying the e-book (and feeling a little guilty about it).

And this is hardly an issue that relates just to music; many of the retail categories are vexed with the issue to some extent. But the one I’m really thinking about is the video industry, and the (slow) migration from physical disk to digital. Heck, even before that really takes complete hold, the issue already exists as retailers continue to reduce the space allocated to DVDs. The result is that newer movies are easy to find both physically and digitally, but the older catalog of films is much harder to truly browse through. And remember, it’s not a “search” issue, but rather one of “discovery,” which is very different. Interestingly, the issue has to be solved in the digital world as we are unlikely to see a resurgence in video stores anytime soon (although I can still think of one or two that I plan to visit soon). It is, I believe, core to the successful migration to digital beyond just the top 50 movies.

As for my vinyl experience, well, now I’m on the lookout for a record player so I can actually listen to my new-found gems. Fortunately, here at CES there seem to be quite a few to check out.