It was 1985 when I discovered the holy trinity of record stores that sat throughout Montgomery County, Maryland. Five miles from my house was Phantasmagoria, located in Wheaton Triangle. Four miles to the north of Phantasmagoria was Joe’s Record Paradise in Aspen Hill, and seven miles Southwest of Joe’s in Rockville was Yesterday and Today. All had their strengths; Phantasmagoria was where I was turned on to Frank Zappa and John Coltrane. Joe’s was the place I bought Funkadelic records. Yesterday and Today had employees I’d hear some years later playing in Fugazi and Fire Party. That was how I discovered new music then, either new-new (with a copyright date of that current year), or “nused” ( It was a simple and effective way of discovery: Walk into a music store and ask questions.
I may not have known what “overproduced” meant when inquiring about The Bad Brains’ 1986 release “I Against I,” and I’m sure I was viewed as a total corn-dog by the punk rock and record store elite, but that method, along with looking at punk rock flyers stapled to bulletin boards on the campus of the University of Maryland, writing down the names of bands I’d heard while listening to WMUC, and reading Flipside Magazine or the music section of Thrasher magazine was my means of discovering new music.
We’ve all got our methods of music discovery. In many places in the world right now, a kid is digging through an older sibling’s or parent’s iPod or iTunes, CD, record or tape collection wondering what the hell Chicago is singing about, being completely baffled by The Mahavishnu Orchestra, or curious yet fearful of G.G. Allin. The family member’s collection has always been a gateway into music.
Record stores have and should always be the standard means of discovery, of brand new releases or stuff from the back of the rack. Dig around used record bins enough, wading through Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” and the entire Dan Fogelberg collection and you’re bound to zip across something that tantalizes you by cover or title. Make a friend with the person behind the counter and maybe they’ll tell you that if you like the used Byrds or Dick Dale record in your hand, then you may very well like the Sadies or Natural Child.
Radio, too, serves a music discovery purpose. Commercial stations fill a void much like restaurant chains fill a void for food filler, while college and public stations serve up something that tastes better and made with better ingredients.
The new-to-you music is a simple path. Discover a left-of-the-dial or digital radio show tailored to your taste in music. Listen closely for what you like and write down the names of who is making the music.
You then have the chance to further dig into those catalogs: Bands signed to the larger indie labels like Matador or Merge have a lot of their own catalog on larger streaming services or those left-of-the-dial radio stations. Request them. Smaller bands live on Soundcloud or Bandcamp, both large pools of music. Finally, and if you believe in the idea that art is something awesome and the way to keep getting new art is to shell out a little money for current art, buy a record. If that’s too much for you, go to a show, pay the ticket price, watch the opening band, and buy some merchandise.
Do you really need to hear “Stairway to Heaven” ever again? You don’t. The declaration that “there has been no good music made since ...” is something we’ve all heard, while remaining a claim that doesn’t exist except among the lazy. There’s always good music; find a combination that merges its discovery via the ease of the internet with old-fashioned record store face-time and everybody wins.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. firstname.lastname@example.org.