Recycle Bin Culture
he pile. The precarious stack. The high shelf, its planks bowing against the weight of the cultural product it holds. The whole ritual of music listening—scan over a shelf or shuffle through a crate, remove the disc from its protective sheath, lay it down on a tray, and start at the beginning (but only if you really mean it)—is in mortal jeopardy. These kids today, they don't know. They just don't know the pure joy of having your very own real copy of some record that you'll really love, or really hate, or feel really indifferent toward. You artifact-hounds will have fits at the notion, but the commonly-accepted practice of real-CD buying (to clarify, by “real,” I mean “has shape and mass”) doesn't leave much room for error or quality control, now does it?
Let's face it, a shit CD might as well just be a shiny coaster. A so-called-friend recommends something after hearing some tween-age skate rat rant on about how “authentic” it is. You fall for it, and now you've got a compact mirror that sounds like a line of cats being run over by Green Day's tour bus. That's $15 that you could have used to start a college fund for your potential children, but now they shall go without. You could always sell the thing to a used bin, but the pittance you'll inevitably receive wouldn't even be worth the labor involved to get it there. You could throw the thing out, but most of the stuff of CDs is not biodegradable, and some municipalities won't even accept the CDs themselves for recycling, so you're destroying the planet on top of financially supporting horrible music. Best case scenario: you've got a cousin or something with no taste who will take it off your hands. But fuck that brat. His band sucks too.
I know where you come from and feel your pain, object-fondler; I was once just like you. I remember that heady day in 1997, upon the release of OK Computer, when I sat facing my woefully-inadequate boombox absorbing as much of the album's jittery imagery and OTT soundscapes as possible, while fawning over Stanley Donwood's art, scanning it for clues like a greenhorn miner with a hand-drawn map of California. When I needed to put it down, I had a handy plastic CD rack. At a certain point, it filled up, and a pile was created, as a haven for those blah-to-awful records that I picked up just because Alternative Press or NME told me to (shut up). After nearly breaking my neck on that pile one day, I invested in one of those gigantic CaseLogic CD books. So what to do with all that packaging?
The real question, that I didn't think to ask at the time, was what was I expecting to find in Donwood's—admittedly fantastic—art? Some key to the record that wasn't somewhere in the music? The lyrics were in there, but within a week I'd memorized them all anyway, and while I've since come to visually associate that particular collection of impasto paint-scrapes and iconic signage-effluvia with that particular watershed album, what more was I really expecting to get? I bought the album just for the album—for the music—and the art, as much as my visual-artist self felt no small twinge of guilt, had to go. I spent some hours over some days separating the inserts from the jewel cases, tearing open the tray to remove the paper underneath, breaking a few and chopping my hands up pretty good in the process—I'm nothing if not a klutz—and dismantling some 200 CD cases all told. Just like that, my own weight in useless consumer-grade crap was purged. There's a certain exhilarating rush, followed by a peaceful Zen calm, in not only alleviating one's self of what one didn't even realize until then was just garbage, but in additionally realizing that you've been spending money paying for that garbage by way of manufacturing costs passed on to you. But what to do in future? I was, at that time, the music director at my college radio station, so I was rarely paying for music anymore, but I was accumulating just as much trash. And then Napster saved my life.
Suddenly it was easy: I would hear a record through the station and not need the CD. It felt like crate-digger heaven. I was suddenly finding stuff the station wasn't getting. Sometimes I would harass the appropriate marketing person to get the CDs sent over; sometimes, knowing I'd be the only one interested, I'd keep the bounty for myself. But then all the unwieldy stuff, the artifacts, were safely ensconced in wall-to-wall shelving, elsewhere. Then Napster shut down, and there was Audiogalaxy. Then they shut down, and there was Soulseek, and user lists, and friends lists (omg hai guyz :) ), with their own built-in recommendations system and a seemingly-never-ending supply of micro-genres, non-genres, ancient forms, arcana, that otherwise would have gone well under my radar, and were now right there for the taking, with new stuff practically on-the-hour. I became an addict before I knew it, an addiction that, to this day, seems like it will never be sated.
This was just before portable hard-drive MP3 players, so for traveling I still needed to either buy or burn a CD, and keep a small book with me. Now I've got everything on hard drives, a 20GB portable and whatever I can fit on my PC drive. As I write this, I just finished off a massive dump-job, carving off some 15GB of stuff I'd never listened to, or didn't like, or simply didn't need anymore. While the rush isn't quite so great, the freedom to make such decisions, to be critical with what I want or don't want taking up space, is so much better when that space is so much smaller, and when that stuff is right there, 24/7, 365. So, ok: Do I need five Pelt albums? No, three will do nicely. I mean, Keiji Haino is great, but eight records great? Why do I still have that new Junior Senior album on here, when it kind of made the yak a little. And where'd their first one go? Do I need a 15-disc box of Thelonious Monk? Of course I do! Wait a minute, when did I download that? “Stromba?” “Secret Mommy?” What the fuck are those?
I know I'm making decisions when choosing to download and give something a listen, and when I simply don't need it around anymore, but when I take the time to rifle through my ever-expanding and contracting list, it sometimes doesn't feel like that. My obsessions, over the years, have spanned over years, then months, to now weeks—keep score in the Stypod!—a pattern which, a decade ago, would've seemed untenable. We've grown so used to the idea that music, and culture in general, is packaged, “fully realized,” into some sort of permanence. But it's not permanent, nor should it be; it starts, it stops, then it's over, and no amount of replaying will change the fact that this stuff seems ephemeral, not because so much of it is mediocre, but because it should be. A real package serves no purpose; it simply ties its owner—now nothing more than a subject—to the object, regardless of your feelings for its content; and whatever its real worth to you, a $15 box will always seem to be worth more than a free data-stream, even if it really isn't.
No more. For the first time, I look at my music collection, and it feels alive. It's in constant flux; it feeds, it gorges, it rests and it purges; it has feelings and politics. For that, it has a presence that feels more “real” than any other collection of cultural product I've ever known. I named my MP3 player—Roadkill, because it's fucking punk like that. I never gave a name to that case or that pile. Now, my music breathes; it heaves, it moves, it's unencumbered by so much stuff. It's alive. And I like it like that.