This past Christmas I bought my oldest son a few books of the non-digital variety. One was a Johnny Carson biography, another was about a topless cellist I once saw perform in a Philadelphia park, and the third was Amanda Petrusich’s latest, “Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records”.
Although he thanked me, when I saw him slightly push Amanda’s book to the edge of the table I suspected he had already read it. And he had. Which was fine with me, since I was going to borrow it anyway. I loved her previous book, a road trip journal which obviously laid the groundwork for the author’s long- title fetish, “It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways and the Search for American Music”. It’s a great read for any roots music fan, and they are both available from Amazon, along with her first inappropriately short-titled Nick Drake book “Pink Moon”.
Yesterday I read the first chapter of Do Not Sell, and I’m already hooked on the storyline and her observations. A veteran music writer with an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia and currently a teacher at NYU’s Gallatin University, Amanda has a way of articulating feelings and thoughts on music that resonate with my own connection to consumption.
Like many people in the business of music, my own background in distribution, retail, working with labels and as a serial-blogger has allowed me virtually unlimited free music for most of my adult life. It’s been great to have access. But it also messes with your head. These days, with just a little skill in technology and web-surfing, everyone can find a song or album that can be “acquired and judged in the time it takes to eat a cheese sandwich”.
Amanda speaks to the acquisition of free music, in terms of the perception and value of it, like this:
“It’s reductive to suggest that the availability of free or nearly free music-and the concurrent switch, for most of the population, from music as object to music as code-has inexorably altered our relationship with sound, and I don’t actually believe that the emotional circuitry that allows us to love and require a bit of music is dependent on what it feels like in our hands. But I do think that the ways in which we attain art at least partially dictate the ways in which we ultimately allow ourselves to own it.”
With such unlimited and easy access to music, and especially with new releases flooding the marketplace (if you can still call it that) to the tune of well over 120,000 albums per year, I’ve experienced my own listening habits change from when I was a kid who visited ten record stores every Saturday and came home juggling bags of 45’s and albums. For the next week I’d sit alone in my bedroom and listen to everything, staring at the cover art and reading the liner notes…a term soon to be as extinct as a tyrannosaurus rex. And it took me someplace that I have long ago left. It was that obsessive compulsion to seek out and discover the new and unknown that gave me the passion to want more. Once I could just have it, I became a little bored, and jaded. Fast forward to 2015.
In describing her own transition from consumer-collector to critic, Amanda nails it:
“Unless I was being paid to professionally render my opinion, I listened to everything for three or seven or nine minutes and moved on. I was overwhelmed and underinvested. Some days, music itself seemed like a nasty postmodern experiment in which public discussion eclipsed everything else, and art was measured only by the amount of chatter it incited. Writing and publishing felt futile, like tossing a meticulously prepared pork chop to a bulldog, then watching him devour it, throw it up and start eating something else.”
Overwhelmed and underinvested. And this, my friends, is only page three. What follows is the story of those who still hunt, stalk and collect…in this case, the most elusive 78 rpm recordings ever released. Leafing through the pages, I can’t wait to read this book. And so I won’t.
Visit Amanda’s website for some great music and links to other writing.