An infinite number of undergrounds

Diane,

One of the best things about my (computer-bound, not usually very taxing) job is that it affords me an hour or two a day to surf the internet.  And once I’ve read through my favorite sites and updated this blog with more nonsense, I always find myself exploring one or another of the many musical undergrounds.

We live in a golden age for this particular hobby.  The internet has finally become so ubiquitous that 1. every band and genre has at least one major site dedicated to it, where you can at least listen to the music, and possibly also buy some of it; 2. the majority of the record stores that are still in business have put up their own site to sell their wares nationally or internationally, and/or turn to Amazon or eBay or GEMM to do the same.  In the not-so-distant past, there was a zero percent chance I’d be listening to early 90s death metal demos from Sweden, or rap CDs from Cuba, or dancehall singles from Jamaica or the Virgin Islands.  You had to already, somehow, be in the know to even seek this stuff out – and even if you were in the know, if you didn’t live in the country the music came from, obtaining the music was about as difficult as trying to assemble a nuclear warhead with just some sheet metal, radioactive materials, and a manual written in Swahili.  But now, in this glorious time of wonderment, being in the know is as easy as typing “Cuban rap” into a search engine and clicking on the most promising links for a couple hours; and obtaining the music is only a few degrees more difficult.

The few obstacles that remain only make the search that much sweeter.  I tried to buy a great Puerto Rican album this morning (see “Listening List” sidebar) only to find that none of my usual resources had it for sale.  It’s probable that it saw only a very small pressing and never wandered outside of its country of origin.  But I did find (and gladly paid for) a digital download, in a high bitrate, with .pdf files of the entire CD layout if I feel like burning a copy with complete artwork.  I’ve been rebuffed on a lot of out-of-print albums at various times, but if you’re willing to search eBay periodically or go to foreign sites (amazon.co.uk and amazon.de have been friendly to me, as well as various overseas, independent distros), you can eventually find almost anything.  My girlfriend can attest to the high number of packages that flow into our house bearing return addresses in Europe, South America, and Asia.  It takes a few weeks and costs a little more, but it makes the end result so rewarding.  I highly recommend doing it at least once just to feel the sugar high of finally opening that padded mailer when it arrives.

The sad part is, in a decade or maybe just a few years, those last layers of difficulty will be gone, because digital distribution will be the primary method of consuming music, except for hobbyists and purists like myself.  We’re seeing a steep rise right now in music that is bought and transferred only as digital information (and mind you, Diane, I am also a heavy consumer, as my emusic account can attest to).  Major albums (Radiohead, NIN) are selling as many virtual copies as real ones.  The iTunes store and Amazon’s mp3 service are thriving while CD shops are shutting down, and Best Buy and Borders are cutting back their inventory.  The writing’s on the wall: music on physical media may stop being produced for the most part, except for specialty releases aimed at the same guys who still buy vinyl today (yes, I’m guilty here also).  The new way is easier, user-friendlier.

What will hit the dustbin with the CD is the prospect of having to really seek something out.  Things are easier now than ever before, but when most albums are only available as files on a web server somewhere, it goes from “easy” to “click that button and have your credit card number ready.”  It’s a short hop from where we are now to where we most likely will be.  I’m just enjoying the transition period, I guess.

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