Some Memories of Media

From LPs through the arrival of the CD

I heard a song on the radio, turned off the radio, walked downstairs, put on my sneakers, and walked to town, a little over half a mile. The record store didn’t have the record. The owner of the store had never heard of the record even though I’d just heard it on the radio. Then I walked home.

I heard a record had come out. I walked to the bus, and then got on the bus, and three and a half miles later got off the bus, and went through the mall to find the record store, and then found the record. I brought the record home, pulled off the thin cellophane wrapper, pulled the sleeve out, cupped the vinyl’s edge in my hand, tipped the LP onto the record player, lowered the needle, and turned up the volume. Other than the single, which wasn’t particularly good, it wasn’t good at all. In another week or two I could afford another record.

My parents dropped me off at the train station, where my friend was waiting. It was the weekend, and we took the train into the city, the two of us, and then walked a mile and a half or so downtown and wandered amid the shops, looking for record stores whose addresses we half remembered. With no small amount of anxiety, we went into the stores, braving the withering indifference of the clerks, and flipped through bins looking not so much for something to buy as for the one or two things we’d choose to buy out of all the things that were of interest. We’d then carry those LPs with us for the remainder of the day, cushioning them while eating falafel or hot dogs, stowing them carefully on the train ride home, and the next day actually getting to listen to them. I’d keep the receipts for the totems they were.

Sometimes I would tape a record for a friend, and vice versa. One friend taped over something else, and I fretted, perhaps too aggressively, about the reduction in quality due to reuse. Tapes weren’t cheap, but they were cheaper than LPs. It felt odd to have a collection split among two media, but that’s the way it was. One band in particular sounded much better on dubbed tapes than when I finally bought the vinyl. I realized it was because my friend’s tape deck taped a little fast. I’ve always preferred the quicker take, and have tried to emulate it with MP3s and other digital recordings.

College arrived, and there were two record stores very close to my dorm for two out of the four years. One, on the second floor, had new arrivals of used records seemingly every day. Someone without much taste or sense was receiving remarkable records from record companies and immediately selling them to the store. I would buy many of these records. I wondered if this person was one of my professors. Eventually I, too, would trade in records in exchange for other records, but for the time being this was one-way transaction. The idea that records were (in addition to being a repository of sound) a form of currency, or perhaps even an asset, was still new to me. I’d never become a collector, in the sense I understood the word, but the records certainly accumulated.

CDs arrived and were, immediately, in a different league, and time passed before many were available used. These cost real money. They came inside plastic boxes that were, for a time, put inside long cardboard boxes, called longboxes, that were when put side by side the width, essentially, of an LP. The geometry facilitated slotting them into bins in record stores. Over time the amount of space for LPs shrunk, and CDs filled their place. But that took several years. CDs were both more reliable (they didn’t scratch or decay through regular usage like LPs and cassettes did) and yet more precious (due to their price, their shiny materials, and the way their cases had a tendency to break).

At first, I bought a new CD like it was a piece of jewelry or furniture, even though I didn’t own any jewelry or furniture. A few CDs sat side by side on the shelf above my desk. Their plastic spines caught the reflection of the sun at certain times of the day. When I bought my first CD, I didn’t even own a CD player. I had to go to the room of someone I didn’t even know very well and listen to it there. Eventually I got a CD player at a ridiculously low price (crazy, you might say) at a store that liked to have what it called “Christmas in August” sales. The owner would eventually serve time for financial crimes. With the exception of that first CD I bought, which was available only on CD, all the others I initially purchased were of records I already owned on LP or tape. They had qualities that made me want to hear them in the pristine vacuum of digital sound. I was not disappointed.

We lived in the city now. College had come and gone. We knew where the record stores were, every one of them. Halfway down this block, around the corner from that train stop, up above that shop. We would flip through the bins and buy records other people had discarded. We bought used records. New records were another tax bracket entirely. There was a filter on our available purchases: We bought what others no longer wanted. Some of these records were stamped with little bits of legalese claiming the record label could, at any point, come take the album back. Many had little slits in the covers that reduced their value, though for whom I did not know, because the slits meant nothing to me. Some actually were used, rather than promotional copies someone had exchanged. The worn ones had to be inspected carefully. Some were past their sell-by date. I learned to ascertain with a glance what was and wasn’t playable. Sometimes I messed up, but the records were pretty cheap used, so it rarely mattered. Again, I wasn’t collecting records; I was accessing music. Those actions weren’t unrelated, but they weren’t the same thing, either.

The first holiday season after college ended, my bosses at my first job, a graphic design company, gave me a tiny little cassette player as a year-end bonus even though I’d only worked there for a few months. It was barely larger than the case in which a cassette came, excepting the slot reserved for battery power. It was made of metal. It wasn’t the most expensive thing I owned at the time, but it was the most expensive thing I owned pound for pound. I carried it everywhere, and treated it carefully. For the first time, I had reason to tape my own records for myself, rather than to exchange with someone else. The change in size of the cassette player that rendered it portable thus utterly altered my sense of what a cassette tape was, what it was for. Now it was for me in a more personal way. The portable player, which some friends had had versions of for years, was no longer theoretical to me; it transformed music (almost certainly triggering my interest, ever since, in what many would term background music) by transforming the utility of the tape cassette. I would record a record I liked a lot, and then listen to it while wandering the city, while waiting for the train, while concentrating at work. The metal was cool to the touch, its edges were sharp, and I’d feel the tape rotating as it played, the gears and other parts vibrating, emanating a rhythm entirely apart from that of the music.

Note: This was published on October 25, but some edits were implemented early on October 26.

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