The Real World Is Overrated

Recently, I went shopping for a birthday present for my brother's girlfriend. This is a pretty rare thing. I get my music from friends, from allofmp3 ("now slightly less illegal!"), and when I'm really stuck the big guns of invite-only hubs on DC++ (god bless Sweden). I get my music online, and this is pretty much the only way I've ever got my music: growing up in Trinidad, CDs cost close to six weeks' worth of pocket money assuming I didn't buy any food in that time, so they were out of the question, and even after I started earning money independently I had better things to blow it on than over-priced music when I could -- after lots of tedious waiting -- get it for free via my dialup connection. So having done it only about a dozen times, buying physical music is still a bit of a novelty for me. And I was very disappointed at the experience.

I knew what CDs I wanted: I'd downloaded them weeks ago, and have been listening to them solidly, so I knew I could recommend them. So I went to the Virgin store in Camden: it's big, it's mainstream, it'll have what I want, right? We're talking Annie* and Kelly Clarkson** here, stuff you've heard of, not Gabi and the Whoremoans***. So I got there, through tedious crowds, and painstakingly walked up and down crowded aisles looking for my discs. Annie could only be under A, but Kelly was under Clarkson, which was actually a surprise to me, though I guess it should have been obvious. But no luck: they had no Annie, and Clarkson's second album was apparently never released in the UK.

And then I was... stuck. I could find another store -- wasting yet more hours of travel -- or I could try buying something else. But what else to buy? There were no reviews posted anywhere, there were no "customers who bought this also liked..." recommendations. My only guide to buying music was a bewildering assortment of printed CD cases, as if something visual could give a realistic impression of the audio contained. There was a listening station -- but only one in the whole store, and I would have had to sample at random until I found something that seemed good.

All in all, I have to say that offline shopping for audio totally sucks in every way I can think of. How did people do it before? I'm sure I remember anecdotal evidence of people who went into record stores at random and "browsed"... how were they doing this? Were they really basing their decisions on album art, which is at best ambiguous and at worst deliberately misleading?

I'm so glad I live now, and not 20 years ago. Quite apart from having no career, I would also have no music to listen to.

* Thoroughly excellent pop, can't recommend it enough. Once again thanks to the ubiquitous Housemate T.

** My guilty pleasure (though I was pleased to discover that Kottke likes it too. As ever, I aspire to sit at the grown-ups table, blog-wise). The songs aren't amazing, but she has one hell of a voice.

*** Although they are only not famous yet because the rest of you are fools.