In the age of streaming, new songs appear and disappear every minute, with independent artists flooding platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. The barriers to entry are historically low, with tools for music creation easily accessible. Hardware emulators, virtual instruments, and relatively cheap equipment allow for an effective ‘surplus’ of music. This is not to say that the music itself is cheap, or to imply that it is soulless, but that the business of streaming is generally matched to that of the current music industry. Algorithms automate the process of music suggestion in an adaptation to the digital space. However, the industry was once a much different place.
Relative to today, professional recordings were once incredibly costly. Artists would spend thousands to get time in a studio, hire studio musicians, and complete their recordings. They would also need professionals assigned to each and every task involved. Recording engineers manage the production, mixing engineers would make the parts flow, and mastering engineers would round everything off into a finished product. Furthermore, the music itself was expensive to produce. Vinyl records, though cheaper than previous options, required specialized production methods and were difficult to distribute. Record players were also an investment, with price scaling quickly with quality. Even today, they are expensive. The last one that I bought was a good $160 (and that’s for an entry-level device). So with all of this in mind, I would like to address a problem I’ve been recently puzzling over.
Most good record stores have a bin or two tucked into a quiet back corner with the cheapest physical music you’ll find. Each record is a dollar. A looney gets you an entire album… It takes years of experience for the parties involved to make that stuff. This is even without mentioning the cover art, and the articles written on the back, each requiring specialized knowledge and skills of their own. Yet somehow, this little record bin is probably the only place you’ll find it. I understand that demand drives supply and that these records are in the back for a reason, but to me, it still does not quite compute. After picking up a number of records from these bins, I’ve found some really cool, rare stuff.
These are bands that you won’t find anywhere else, making really weird beats. There is so much music available out there from the ’60s and ’70s that went completely undiscovered. Not all of it is necessarily fantastic, but it’s very interesting to listen to. There is an abundance of music that is slightly off in one area or another but leaves many lessons to be learned. For example, a record might have been poorly recorded but full of amazing ideas. The dollar bin also has comedy albums, book readings, and really cool art to repurpose or just hang up. In the process of exploring these cheap records, I’ve gotten myself into a whole new world of media that I didn’t know existed. As a musician, I’ve managed to escape some of the creative ruts I’ve been stuck in recently as well. Record stores, and the cheaper ones specifically, allow one to escape the shadowy pitfalls of music streaming. You have complete freedom to look around and find new music organically, sifting through bins, reading, and talking with whoever else is there. This process is significantly different from the way one uses a streaming platform. Spotify encourages the user to rely on suggestions, giving people a front page and automated playlist creation. They create an illusion of choice, but really, the user is guided by algorithms towards the options that will keep them listening longest, making the platform the most money. These algorithms take many forms, exploiting the listener by using any information it has available about them. To a degree, this removes some freedom, as our choices are guided by the platform, which recommends similar music to that which we already listen to. The quality of the songs themselves is analyzed and categorized by feeling, sorting them into radio playlists and front-page suggestions. Granted, record stores also adjust their strategies to maximize income, but it is significantly different.
Real people with their own tastes put shops together, the geography of the storefront allowing people to find a wide variety of picks. They are not biased in the same way as Spotify or Apple music. Instead, record stores are shaped by more personal factors, resulting in an organic browsing experience. As much as algorithms try to emulate human choice, they are still very limited. Despite offering a wide selection, they still leave something to be desired, a necessary human element.
I made a playlist linked below with a number of songs I’ve found on one dollar records I’ve bought recently. It was surprisingly difficult to put together, as much of this music is obscure and not found on streaming platforms. I hope you’re inspired to go to the dollar bin sometime soon!