The Lost Art…

of Browsing

A major nor’easter has just hit the east coast. This morning has brought the first low tide, and the full moon is due to rise. I’m out at the wrack line, searching for treasure: large, rounded pieces of beach glass, weathered by the salt and tumbled by the waves, unearthed from the sand of decades past: milk of magnesia bottles, antique flasks, wine bottle rings. I may find nothing this day; I may find teal, aquamarine, the elusive crimson (one in every 10,000 pieces). The joy is in the search: the wondering, the anticipation, the hope.

I’ve lived at the beach for twenty years, but only became interested in beach glass a few years ago. Until then, I was content to swim, bodysurf, play volleyball. I still do all of these things. But walking the shore centers me, filling a void that didn’t exist until a few years ago. Something happened to create that void. But what?

Ten years ago, I was a record store geek. This statement is probably true of many of you as well. Every Tuesday I travelled to Manhattan to check out the latest releases. My friends’ eyes would glaze over when I tried to explain to them that I had to be there on Tuesdays when each store opened. Sometimes a store would receive only one copy of a white label, and if I wasn’t there to hear it, I might never get to hear it, and I might never be able to buy it again. (Oh no!) At least I knew what to ask for, as I read 14 music magazines a month, most of which seemed to begin with M (Musik, Ministry, Mixmag).

Aside from the panic attacks induced by seeking exclusives (should I have started at Breakbeat Science instead of Satellite Records?  Was the only copy in America being sold that minute at the other store?), I took avid pleasure in the art of browsing. Put simply, I never knew what I’d find. I’d pick up a CD at Other Music and ask, “What is this?”, and hear an educated staff member explain the music, or play a store copy, or sheepishly admit, “Duane would know, but he’s not in today.” Sometimes I’d take the chance and bring the disc home anyway. Sure, I bought a few clunkers. But I also found some of my favorite music in this fashion: BJ Nilsen’s Fade to White, Rachel’s The Sea and the Bells, Low’s Christmas. The rewards were worth the mistakes, and it would have taken years to discover these had I not been browsing.

The same was true in other arenas: the small press chapbooks lodged in the nooks and crannies of Shakespeare Books; the strange stuffed animals that somehow found their way to the Virgin Megastore; the Gama-Go t-shirts that seemed to travel from place to place on consignment. Often I’d return home with books instead of records, t-shirts instead of books, magazines instead of t-shirts or just a newspaper and a box of donuts. Apart from one bad Tuesday in 2001, I never had a bad day – and that was a bad day for everyone.

Many of these places have since closed. Some continue to soldier on with smaller stock. Some have retreated to the internet. Their absence created a void.

In many ways, internet browsing is better than live browsing. Many albums can be played in full, many books can be read in part, rarities are commonplace for a price, and international orders can be made at the click of a button. Last year a friend of mine recorded and uploaded a song in Japan and only a few minutes later, I was listening to it in New York. I still find this amazing.

But the internet is also the great leveler. Without the tactile experience and the physical motion from one object to another, everything becomes an item on a screen: an album, a poster, even a potential date. For every successful online romance, there are hundreds of unfair, instant rejections, as well as the opposite: attraction in two dimensions that doesn’t translate to three. Many hearts have been broken by mistaking online chemistry for physical chemistry. As the old chestnut goes, there’s nothing like the real thing, baby.

In terms of music, internet browsing can be a frustrating experience. For one, the search engines are skewed. Amazon once told me that since I had enjoyed a Hauschka disc, I’d also enjoy a Britney Spears disc and a French cookbook. (They may have been right, but I’ll never know.) Many of our favorite retailers (who will remain unnamed, because we really do like them) do a poor job at separating the good from the great; if we followed their recommendations, we’d be buying everything, which is the point. The job of the reviewer has never been more important, but now that everyone can be a reviewer, the average score often trumps insightful individual analysis. Add to this an ADD culture in which site visits are often measured in seconds; the longer the review, the greater chance it has of being skimmed.

In one sense, it’s a great time to be a recording artist, as a contract is no longer necessary. In another, it’s a terrible time to be a recording artist, because even the loveliest voice can be lost in a cacophony. Last year, Antonymes made headlines with a single-copy print run that didn’t fetch as much as he’d hoped; this year, we’ve seen print runs of decent discs, 5 and 10 copies each, fail to sell out. The problem may be that there are so many options that people have stopped looking. It’s a reflection of the old experiment in which more jam is sold at the booth offering 3 choices than at the booth offering 20.

Treasure is all around us, but maps are becoming extinct. This is certainly true of music (Fluid Radio being one of the last reliable maps), but it is also true in a literal sense. An acquaintance recently told me, “I don’t need directions; I have a GPS.” Fair enough, but what if the GPS is unreliable? And is the point of travel simply to get from Point A to Point B without getting lost? What about the pleasure of taking a different route, just to see what’s there, or to eat in a restaurant one has only passed by without looking up the comments? Browsing opens up a world of possibilities, allowing random encounters to take place, good and bad, replacing “the devil we know” with chance.

When we are young, we want a life like this. Toddlers are eager for new experiences – everything gets touched, gazed at, put in the mouth. Teenagers prefer to date many people instead of settling on just one. College students are open to a wide variety of music, literature and ideas. Young adults yearn to travel the world, to experience different cultures. We are made to be browsers, just as the hunter-gatherers before us: to go out into the wilderness, the forest, the jungle, in search of something to eat – to find it, capture it, bring it home. But then something happens. We get set in our ways. We start liking the same restaurants, the same vacation spots, the same music. We close our horizons. We stop browsing.

But what if the best experiences - the best people, the best places, the best music - were still out there waiting to be discovered? What if this were not all there is? And what if the answer is simply a question of browsing?

This is a plea of behalf of all the artists waiting to be discovered: artists lowering microphones into glaciers and volcanos, artists penning tributes to disaster victims and newborn children, artists recording in bedrooms with homemade instruments, artists punching holes in music box strips, artists capturing the creaks of childhood homes as the bulldozers move in, artists whose music has kept them alive, whose very melodies walk the tightrope between life and death. Their voices are crying in the wilderness, waiting to be heard: millions of notes and words, each with the potential to soothe, to inspire, to save.

Imagine the message you’ve always needed, the words you’ve longed to hear but could never articulate, the melody that could crack the armor and bring forth the healing tears. Imagine it now, somewhere just out of reach, calling your name, entreating your attention. Seek and ye shall find.

The water is receding as the tide goes down, each wave exposing a larger swath of beach debris: stones, shells, glass. As I search, I may have to get my feet wet. I don’t know what I’ll find. Maybe nothing. Maybe the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

– Richard Allen for Fluid Radio

Late last year, Richard Allen left the site The Silent Ballet in order to start a new site, A Closer Listen, based on the principles of kindness, communication and partnership. He’s since been joined by a bunch of other positive people. Richard still writes a music review every day.

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