"When was the last time you bought a CD? Do you remember what it was?"
There was a playful pause amongst the few of us that had found ourselves in this quiet corner as the party dwindled. The mock thoughtfulness, a nod to the rhetorical tone of the question, soon gave way to something different. There was a deeper silence, a total halt as all minds turned inwards upon themselves to tackle what was a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Had it really been so long?
Surely it couldn't have been that album, that ill-advised indulgence of a younger self sorely in need of some better taste. But it was...
I was slightly unsettled by this realization, so today I decided to buy a CD, to cash in a gift card for a record store chain purchased for me by well meaning relatives as a Christmas gift in what I hope was only as long ago as the last year. After about twenty minutes of staring dumbfounded at the computer screen, I admitted defeat. The act of buying music seemed to foreign to me, so uncanny, that I did not know where to start. What do I like? All sorts of music. How do I know I like it? Well, because I listen to it of course: I have it already. Do you really expect me to spend money, even someone else's money -the ghost of someone else's money- on the exact duplicate of something I have? The search form returned no answer to this query, nor could I find it addressed in the list of Frequently Asked Questions. This is strange because I certainly cannot be the first person to find himself in this predicament, entrusted with the phantom remains of twenty five dollars entombed in a magnetic swipe card and not the faintest clue of how to buy music.
I soon realized that one could not actually even buy any of the CD's online, that the entire website merely served to hawk the wares of a struggling chain of retail outlets, as if online commerce would be the final nail in an already well-sealed coffin. I have no desire to venture to my local outlet to try and resolve this sense of obligation. I imagine that things have changed since I last visited such a place, surreptitiously placing flyers between albums on the racks to condemn the atrocious practices of the corrupt major recording labels. Back then the CD was still king, albeit an ageing one, and in this Edwardian era of retail music there was a righteous battle to be fought. Our foe was the Industry, those corporate cretins who terrorized working families with preposterous lawsuits, exploited the fruits of creative genius, and churned out an endless stream of music that was lousy, popular, brutish, and short. I remember learning statistics, legalities, technological precedents. We championed piracy as a political act, a human right, among the most sacred forms of civil disobedience. We put up posters and handed out flyers. The futility of consumer politics became apparent, and we moved on to other things.
What are the record chains like now? I have visions of a post-apocalyptic waste. Garbage blows down the aisles. The lights are bare fluorescent tubes, humming and flickering, dotted with flies. The listening booths are guarded by a man in a stained undershirt with hairy forearms and a crushed straw hat. In the corner, a stray dog gnaws on the triple-platinum greatest hits re-release of someone long dead.
Perhaps I will have to pay through an iron grate, timidly offering my flimsy plastic card in exchange for whatever album I can grab quickly enough. The young woman behind the counter will eye me suspiciously, call her manager over to inspect the card. They will hold it to the light and mutter. He will take it in his hands and flex it a little, tap it on the counter, rub it briskly on the front of his shirt next to a row of speckled mustard stains, raise it to his lips, and bite down appraisingly.
I will leave the store with my newly purchased relic, in a bag obviously recycled from somewhere else. I'll be careful not to get too close to the dog or to stare overly long at the guy in the undershirt. I'll forget that the automatic door jams halfway and feel the blood rise to my face as I stumble sideways into the afternoon sun.