The Tower Records in my small hometown was heaven to me. Centered right downtown, by my adolescent estimation of things it was a massive space with tall ceilings that had to be supported by columns, rows and rows of display cases glinting with plastic-wrapped mysteries waiting to be tomorrow’s obsessions. The back wall was lined with listening stations where you could peruse a collection of some dozen new releases. Another wall was filled with magazines that offered the first glimpses of soon-to-be-favorite bands and splashy ads announcing release dates for highly anticipated albums. Like I said: heaven.
Spending my high school lunch hour there was a favorite pastime—and spending my lunch money, too. It was ground zero for the most important thing in my teen life: my music collection, which required so much time, effort, money, and intention to amass. And while back then record stores like Tower were simply how we all created our prized collections, in hindsight, that one brick-and-mortar represents something deeper about how we used to listen to music, something that perhaps the majority of us have lost.
My adolescent memories of music are physical ones. I don't just mean in the way music made me feel, though certainly a teen in love with a song is home to all kinds of feelings. What I mean is the physicality of a record store, a magazine, a CD. Obtaining music required moving my entire body through space. Listening to it meant handling some kind of material disc. Absorbing it fully involved flipping through the liner notes in my hands, reading its secrets and decoding its lyrics. The touch of that slippery square of pages, the scratch of carpet on my elbows as I sprawled on my stomach to listen and read—these physical sensations heighten the memory of my favorite albums spilling from my boombox, which had to be turned up loud enough to mask the hiss of spinning CDs.
Now, of course, things are different. Seemingly every piece of music ever created is available to us at the press of a button, and my epic Tower Records (R.I.P.) pales in comparison. Now, we tap our keyboards and go about our days. Album art has been reduced to inch-by-inch squares that shrink when you scroll past, liner notes have become Wikipedia, and instant downloads have done away with the inkling of effort once required to get your hands on a new album. And while there’s an element of magic to this mass of musical matter to which we now have constant access, we’ve also lost something in the turn towards convenience and ease: those physical touches that trigger our deeper connections to music.
I stream music now, of course, and what few dozen CDs I have left are currently getting scratched up in the dirty pockets of my car doors. But the memories of those albums are stored elsewhere. They’re in CD towers, jewel cases, and colored sharpies for marking burned discs. In those special razors for splitting the impossible-to-open shrink-wrapped plastic. Those big booklets for storing and transporting collections, the crack of the spine and satisfying thwack of the disc-stuffed leaflet as the pages turned. It’s cleaning the delicate blue back of a CD, a hot breath and soft t-shirt wiping away fingerprints and dust, the material minutiae that gathers on physical things. It’s pressing the buttons on players until their little icons are rubbed off, the plastic shiny beneath the muscle memory of play and next and repeat, repeat, repeat.
Tessa Love is a freelance writer in Oakland.