I was in the Atlanta Airport recently. The Atlanta airport is a monster of an airport: it was the busiest airport in the world in 2005. There are good and bad things about such airports. It’s good that there’s stuff to do on a long layover (bookstores, restaurants, and duty-free perfume stores abound). It’s not so good if you have to catch a flight immediately after arriving, since it can take quite a bit of time to get across the airport.
I found a music store in the airport, the sort that sells lots and lots of CDs. I didn’t go in because I knew exactly what they had without walking in the door. I think this points to an interesting fact of modern American culture. In spite of what we think of as our cultural inclusiveness, very few stores (and virtually no chains) sell more than a few thousand different CDs.
Let’s say I want to get the latest Rolling Stones album, A Bigger Bang. I would probably head to Wal-Mart or Amazon.com, since those tend to have the lowest prices. But if I’m traveling through the Atlanta airport and I have a sudden urge for Mick Jagger, I can pop into the store there and get the exact same CD. If I go to Best Buy in Omaha, I can get the exact same CD. In fact, I would challenge you to find a music store anywhere in the country that doesn’t have that album stocked (excluding, of course, stores that deal only in secondhand CDs).
Perhaps worse than the selection is the price. With the exception of the aforementioned discount juggernauts, prices on CDs are almost equal everywhere. Whether I buy a CD in Tuscon or in Hartford, it will still set me back about $17-$20.
What does this mean? Well, the short answer is that I’m not entirely sure. I’m intriuged by the idea that everyone in the country can buy the exact same music easily. It contributes to a level of choice in music hitherto unmatched in Western civ. In the 1700s, if you wanted to hear Bach’s music, you had to visit Germany. There was no other possible way to hear it. If you wanted to hear a Beethoven symphony, you had to go hear Beethoven perform it. Now, everyone from New Delhi to Santiago and back can listen to, purchase, and enjoy the exact same music. We can all enjoy Bach’s motets and Chopin’s nocturnes.
The other thing it means is that our choices are increasingly homogenous. We can only choose (more or less) what everyone else is choosing. There’s a vicious cycle going in in all retail envirnments: they only stock what will sell, and the only stuff that can sell is what is in stock. A music store doesn’t really want to go out on a limb with that album you made in your basement. They want the next 50 Cent album well stocked, because that’s what sells.
Multiculturalists will cry that this is a horrible thing, that the limited choice given at a superstore is a bad thing, and that we ought to seek out oppurtunities to enjoy music beyond what we are used to. They’re right in that we ought to seek out music we don’t already know about. But I don’t see how the choices available to me at Wal-Mart diminishes what the rest of the world has to offer. Heck, I can actually get ahold of “native rhythms” that I would not have even known about a year ago.
I don’t think music itself even suffers from this arrangement. Let me use a food analogy (always fun to insert into music discussions). At pretty much any restaurant in America, you can order a hamburger or a Caesar salad. Does that detract from the overall quality of food being offered in the world? Of course not. You might choose not to frequent that particular restaurant because it doesn’t have the kind of good that you like, but you shouldn’t complain that the food world is suffering. We have more choices than we’ve ever had before. Do you think Benjamin Franklin could choose from the Indian restaurants in his neighborhood?
I’m glad that there are music stores, even if I find them mostly boring. Other than Barnes and Noble, home of the finest and most comprehensive sampling stations to be found in the music world, I don’t even bother. I know what’s in them. I know how much it costs. I don’t want to browse, because it’s a waste of my time.
Give me a good used CD store any day, as long as its name isn’t the tratiotorous Hastings.