SEPTEMBER 5, 2005
SINCE THE DAWN OF ROCK, there have been individuals, usually young men, of argumentative tendencies who have lorded their encyclopedic musical knowledge over others." So states the introduction of the recent Rock Snob's Dictionary, compiled by David Kamp and Steven Daly. I like to believe I'm not the insufferable dweeb suggested by this definition. Certainly, much of the dictionary's obscure trivia (former Television bassist Richard Hell is now a novelist; Norwegian death metal stars actually murder one another) is news to me. But I do place an unusual, perhaps irrational, value on rock music. I take considerable pride in my huge collection and carefully refined taste. And I consider bad rock taste-- or, worse, no rock taste at all--clear evidence of a fallow soul. I am, in other words, a certified Rock Snob. But I fear that Rock Snobs are in grave danger. We are being ruined by the iPod.
WHILE THE TERM "ROCK SNOB" HAS A pejorative ring, the label also implies real social advantages. The Rock Snob presides as a musical wise man to whom friends and relatives turn for opinions and recommendations; he can judiciously distribute access to various rare and exotic prizes in his collection. "Oh my God, where did you find this?" are a Rock Snob's favorite words to hear. His highest calling is the creation of lovingly compiled mix CDs designed to dazzle their recipients with a blend of erudition, obscurity, and pure melodic dolomite. Recently, I unearthed a little-known cover of the gentle Gram Parsons country classic "Hickory Wind," bellowed out by Bob Mould and Vic Chestnutt, which moved two different friends to tears. It was Rock Snob bliss.
IN SOME WAYS, THEN, THE IPOD REVOLUTION is a Rock Snob's dream. Now, nearly all rock music is easily and almost instantly attainable, either via our friends' computers or through online file-sharing networks. "Music swapping" on a mass scale allows my music collection to grow larger and faster than I'd ever imagined. And I can now summon any rare track from the online ether.
BUT THERE'S A DARK SIDE TO THE IPOD era. Snobbery subsists on exclusivity. And the ownership of a huge and eclectic music collection has become ordinary. Thanks to the iPod, and digital music generally, anyone can milk various friends, acquaintances, and the Internet to quickly build a glorious 10,000-song collection. Adding insult to injury, this process often comes directly at the Rock Snob's expense. We are suddenly plagued by musical parasites. For instance, a friend of middling taste recently leeched 700 songs from my computer. He offered his own library in return, but it wasn't much. Never mind my vague sense that he should pay me some money. In Rock Snob terms, I was a Boston Brahmin and he was a Beverly Hillbilly--one who certainly hadn't earned that highly obscure album of AC/DC songs performed as tender acoustic ballads but was sure to go bragging to all his friends about it. Even worse was the girlfriend to whom I gave an iPod. She promptly plugged it into my computer and was soon holding in her hand a duplicate version of my 5,000-song library--a library that had taken some 20 years, thousands of dollars, and about as many hours to accumulate. She'd downloaded it all within five minutes. And, a few months later, she was gone, taking my intimate musical DNA with her.
I'M NOT ALONE IN THESE FRUSTRATIONS. "Even for a recovering Rock Snob, such as myself," Steven Daly told me, "it's a little disturbing to hear a civilian music fan boast that he has the complete set of Trojan reggae box-sets on his iPod sitting alongside 9,000 other tracks that he probably neither needs nor deserves." It's true: Even if music leeches don't fully appreciate, or even listen to, some of the gems they so effortlessly acquire, we resent them anyway. One friend even confessed to me in an e-mail that "I have been known to strip the iTunes song information off mix CDs just to keep the Knowledge secret."
BUT RESISTANCE IS FUTILE. EVEN THE Rock Snob's habitat, the record shop, is under siege. Say farewell to places like Championship Vinyl, the archetypal record store featured in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. "The shop smells of stale smoke, damp, and plastic dust-covers, and it's narrow and dingy and overcrowded, partly because that's what I wanted--this is what record shops should look like," explains Hornby's proprietor, Rob. Like great used bookstores, the Championship Vinyls of the world are destinations where the browsing and people-watching is half the fun. (A certain kind of young man will forever cling to the fantasy of meeting his soul mate as they simultaneously reach for the same early-era Superchunk disc.) Equally gratifying is the hunt for elusive albums in a store's musty bins, a quest that demands time, persistence, and cunning, and whose serendipitous payoffs are nearly as rewarding as the music itself. Speaking of book-collecting, the philosopher Walter Benjamin spoke of "the thrill of acquisition." But, when everything's instantly available online, the thrill is gone.
BENJAMIN ALSO SAVORED THE PHYSICAL element of building a collection--gazing at his trophies, reminiscing about where he acquired them, unfurling memories from his ownership. "The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed," he said. But there's nothing magic about a formless digital file. I even find myself nostalgic for the tape-trading culture of Grateful Dead fans--generally scorned in the Rock Snob world--who used to drive for hours in their VW vans to swap bootleg concert tapes. My older brother still has a set of bootleg tapes he copied from a friend some 20 years ago during a California bike trip. Having survived global travels from Thailand to Mexico, the tapes have acquired an almost totemic quality in his mind. I feel the same way about certain old CDs, whose cases have become pleasantly scuffed and weathered during travels through multiple dorm rooms and city apartments but still smile out at me from their shelves like old friends. Soon our collections will be all ones and zeroes stored deep in hard drives, instantly transferable and completely unsatisfying as possessions. And we Rock Snobs will have become as obsolete as CDs themselves.