Where Music Gets Physical: A Boston Memoir

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The first time I set foot in Newbury Comics on Newbury Street in Boston, I was about 20 years old and still half a decade or so away from the digital music era. That made that two-room shop between Mass Ave. and Hereford Street something close to heaven.

Whether I drove up from New Jersey or took the Fung-Wah bus from Chinatown up to Boston for the weekend, Newbury was a mandatory stop. It had all the H2O, Sick of It All, Dropkick Murphys and Bad Religion CDs I was really into at the time, but also had early cuts of Letters To Cleo's first album, The Sheila Divine's latest screamer and steampunk album covers made by a strange little band called the Dresden Dolls. Most importantly, they had records -- bins and bins of records tucked off to the side where older heads could thumb through them in peace.

It was, above all else, a tactile experience. There was something comforting about flipping through all that tangible album art and coming across the one record you'd been hunting down for months. There were hours of pacing, flipping, stockpiling and thinning -- of walking up to a counter with a stack of 10, but whittling it down to about four just so you could eat later. The way that fluorescent light disappeared behind the counter, those new releases scrawled in multi-color chalk, the step up to the second room where you're just about always guaranteed to run into someone streaking toward you with a bag full of buttons, a box with a doll version of Bender from Futurama inside or a Black Flag shirt.

To me, that was Boston's epicenter. It was the meet-up point before heading out to house parties in Cambridge, strolls along the Esplanade and through the Common, bus rides out to Jamaica Plain for barbecues and not-so-quick T rides to Harvard Square to pop into Planet Records or for flat-patty burgers at Charlie's. I wouldn't say it was the reason I moved to Boston in 2007, but it made all the other reasons possible. It was a part of Boston I could own, take back down to Jersey in a smiley-face bag, play in the car for weeks on end and rave about to folks back home when they wondered why I suddenly wanted to hit Generation Records in the West Village each weekend.

Years later, it's different. I want to say weird or worse, but that's just not the case at all -- it's just different. I proposed at Jamaica Pond, got married, found a spot of earth near Portland, Ore., and settled in. The copy of Kathleen Edwards' "Failer" I bought at Newbury has a second life as the Kathleen Edwards channel on my Pandora ( P) account. I now get giddy when a Sheila Divine song pops up on a friend's Spotify update on Facebook ( FB). I'm exponentially more likely to find a new band on Sterogum, Rdio or a KEXP podcast than in the new-release or local favorites racks.

But there's a reason they sell Beats By Dre and SkullCandy ( SKUL) headphones at Newbury, Everyday Music and every other local music chain. There's a reason those stores are going to be packed on Record Store Day this Saturday and that people suddenly care about owning Jack White, Fiona Apple and Decemberists records on vinyl. There's a reason vinyl record sales grew 17.7% last year and by 2.1 million albums since 2009 while total album sales dropped by nearly 60 million copies during that same span.

As much as music listeners dig cloud-based music and having their MP3s and channels follow them wherever they go, there's still a desire for the physical, the ownable, the "real." CDs don't fit that mold anymore, as the digital files on them exist in far better form in far more accessible places.

Cassettes? They weren't a great format then and have sentimental value only to hip-hop heads and inner high schoolers who miss the mixed tape -- and maybe their Fine Young Cannibals cassingle.

Vinyl, however, makes the argument for music as a religious artifact -- an idol worthy of worshipping, rather than a ubiquitous score for life's most mundane tasks. Putting music everywhere makes it permanent Muzak and makes quality an unnecessary luxury. While there's little questioning the power of modern pop or the evolution that gave us Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, the technologically produced perfect pitch that makes the voice on Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble" sound much like that on Perry's "Part Of Me" seem interchangeable. Basically why spend a $18 on an LP that makes all the tech fun sound fuzzy when a 99-cent download gives you the digital format where it's most comfortable and the cloud-based freedom that their all-access sound is clamoring for.

Headphones and vinyl, each in their own way, put music back on the pedestal. By investing hundreds of dollars into headphones, you're making both a fashion statement and a statement about your priorities. You're saying that you care about the sounds that David Guetta and Skrillex are creating and that you value Jay-Z and Kanye's rhymes as more than just background noise. Maybe Rihanna does sound like a robot, but you want to hear the production that made that robot sound so sweet and the beats that keep her voice imbedded in your brain.

With vinyl, it's artists themselves that get the place on the pedestal. Buying records, like creating a library of books, isn't just about entertainment or passing time. It's about amassing knowledge and culture and putting them on display. Much as a bibliophile might reserve prime shelf space for classics or Pulitzer and Nobel winners, a record buyer reserves vinyl purchases for works of artistic, esoteric or sentimental value. Why does every reissued copy of John Coltrane's "Blue Train" come with a digital copy of every song on that album? Because it's recognized that while listeners really like the portable version of those songs, they love the rich tones of Coltrane's sax as it was originally laid down. Why do vinyl copies of Adele's album come with the same perk? Because it's accepted you bought the vinyl version as an actual record of a great vocalist's achievement rather than something to throw on during your commute.

Your smartphone and music apps are all filled with music you enjoy, but your vinyl collection is filled with the music you cherish and the albums you hold most dear. That could be an original version of the Rolling Stones' Some Girls or a childhood copy of Christmas In The Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album. It's the stuff you want to stick around long after your least-favorite online channels are deleted and your iTunes and Amazon impulse downloads are purged.

That's where the record store comes in handy, and that's where Newbury Comics and the other Boston record stores that contributed so heavily to my music education still thrive. Those shops, In Your Ear near Boston University, Nuggets in Kenmore Square, Cheapo Records in Central Square . . . they mattered little when Boston was on lockdown and its residents were waiting for the nightmare to end. But now that it has, and everybody can begin looking for a small, tangible piece of normal, they're not bad places to start.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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