It only took a couple of minutes in the record shop to realize that I didn't belong there. A quick flip through a small section marked “Punk/New Wave” revealed records that were too pricey and too common to be must-haves.
I made my exit and walked down Melrose Avenue feeling as cold and empty as a heartbroken film heroine. I had fallen out of love with record shopping.
Yes, Melrose has long been known for high-priced record shops. But this store was just one in a string of retailers across the city that have been testing my long-held passion for vinyl.
Memories of past record-shopping fails came flooding like a bad relationship flashback sequence. There was the store that listed Blur's Parklife at $40 after a higher-quality reissue had already hit the market. There was the record fair vendor who quoted me the equivalent of a nice dinner for two in exchange for a small collection of not-so-rare '80s alternative records.
I'm not cheap and have been known to shell out for records that are worth the cost. But I'm not a sucker, either, and I'm starting to think that record vendors are looking at all of us like suckers.
I started amassing a record collection during my first semester of college in the fall of 1995, at a time when vinyl was far from hip. The reason for buying vinyl instead of CDs was simply a matter of budget; I couldn't afford to buy everything I wanted to hear on CD, but I could afford to spend $20 on a stack of '80s records.
At first I dug for Kate Bush, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Human League. It wasn't a difficult search; those artists had become used-bin staples.
The current obsession with “curating” stores instead of just stocking whatever's available has made record shopping boring.
But then I went deeper. I started buying 12-inch singles and imports so that I could have the extended versions, remixes and B-sides. I started picking up albums I hadn't heard, solely because I recognized the name of a producer or musician from something that I did like, or recognized a song title because I knew a cover version. I bought albums based on release dates; If it came out in 1982, there was a good chance I would like it. When you're only paying a couple bucks for the record, you can make snap choices like that. It becomes part of the fun and part of the way you find the records and songs that will stick with you for the rest of your life.
Record shopping helped me bond with other music nerds. I worked at my college's radio station and DJed at a few local clubs, so crate digging was our mutually beloved hobby. We rummaged through stores together, shouting across the bins if we found something the other would like. We would run into the radio station ready to play our latest scores.
When my now-husband and I first started dating, we spent our weekends combing stores from the Valley to Long Beach. I knew he was the one because he didn't get visibly embarrassed whenever I loudly nerded out over a newly discovered Coil or Psychic TV record that actually fell within budget.
Records weren't always cheap. Even in the 1990s and early 2000s, there were shops that charged more than we wanted to pay and releases that were high-priced, often for a number of good reasons.
But last week, I saw a copy of David Bowie's album Heroes with a scuffed cover and a $24.99 price tag. That doesn't make sense to me. It made even less sense when I checked eBay and found the same album in an auction that ended at $20.50. That might not seem like that big of a difference, but it may be key to understanding the state of record stores right now. Many stores are essentially charging the perceived eBay rate. But there's a reason that I stopped buying on eBay years ago: It's a competition and I know I'm often going to overpay just so I don't lose out to another bidder. I'm not going to do that in a record store in Los Angeles, a city where there is no shortage of people selling vinyl.
But it's not just the over-inflated price of records that has become so disheartening. The current obsession with “curating” stores instead of just stocking whatever's available has made record shopping boring. The dust and chaos of the old stores has been replaced with neat bins that carefully organize records into genres and sub-genres, some with handy recommendations on the front. Instead of crate digging, I feel like I just stepped inside Pandora.
Add that to the eBay-mimicking prices and it's like the world of Internet music consumption has spilled over into the real one. It's music for people who are used to algorithm-based recommendations and who want the prestige of vinyl at any cost, except the cost of dedication. I'm starting to feel like people are selling me cool points instead of music. But I would rather be the dork who buys $3.99 used CDs. (Hey, it's a better deal than iTunes!)
When I see the records I once bought for less than $10 — often less than $5 — now marked at $20 or more, I roll my eyes. I've never bought anything because I thought it would increase in value. It doesn't matter to me whether they're rare or not. The only reason I bought them is because I wanted to listen to them and maybe play them for other people. Later on, they became pieces of different stories, bringing back memories of friendships, travel and other special moments. My collection has become incredibly personal, and for that, I have to thank the old-school record stores that let broke college kids sift for hours through boxes of cheap surprises.
To the few shops left that have kept that old model, I say thank you. I just wish more of your competitors would follow suit.
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