Sometime in the mid 1990s, I saw it for the first time—the bumper sticker reading “Ear X-Tacy,” on a car in my school parking lot. That “X” had the mystique of the forbidden, at a time when deep, reflective narratives about Gen-X were widespread, and possibly when Elon Musk was already running the original X.com1. “X” still signified coolness and mystery.

The reality behind this “X” was straightforward but thrilling—Ear-X-Tacy was a vast, single-location record store in Louisville, KY, predominantly stocked with CDs2 that by the time I visited it with my mom a few years later had also gone big into a little new hotness called DVDs. It even carried vinyl, at a time when that format was at its nadir, right before its mid-2000s revival.

Shopping in the physical world

Shopping for music in physical stores like that one is an alien experience for most people under 30. It required immense time and literal energy—i.e., the gas to drive miles away—to go to Ear-X-Tacy, and as such couldn’t come close to the current efficiency of just searching a title in Apple Music and clicking the “+” button.

There’s no space for its mass comeback, and I doubt I’d trade the status quo for it. It’s easy to romanticize it now (and I will in a bit), but the requisite effort is what Don DeLillo might call a “collapsible fact”—something painful (in this case, the inconvenience and expense of CD shopping) that nevertheless gets tucked away as a form of self-defense, only to be recalled (uncollapsed, as it were) later when your nostalgia and/or idealism eventually wears off.

But hunting for CDs did feel challenging and visceral, because you had so much music (more than you could ever get through if you listened nonstop for a month3) at your fingertips as real physical objects, and yet simultaneously you had to work within the sharp physical constraints of the store itself. The experience was unique, such that, even now as a little treat to my nostalgia, I like to go to the Tower Records in Shibuya almost every winter to hunt through its massive rows of special edition Japan CDs4. It’s almost like going back to the mid 2000s again, the twilight of my frequent record-buying experience.

Though it was “only” ~15 years ago, those times seem even more distant than events from much earlier, I suppose because they were so thoroughly physical in away that no longer remotely resembles modern music consumption:

  • I’d look up record reviews on Web 1.0 sites such as Imagine—reading the opinions of professional critics!
  • I’d write down the ones I wanted I to look for on a piece of printer paper. Paper! With pencils and maybe even pens!
  • I’d either go with my mom on the drive to Ear-X-Tacy or, if I was in college, walk a ways to the Newbury Comics at a mall near campus. I had to leave the house!
  • I’d finger through the CD rows, sometimes but often not finding what I’d been looking for, but also finding things I hadn’t thought of but seemed appealing. Not everything was available on-demand!
  • I’d take the discs back to my room (or dorm) and use my desktop PC to rip them into iTunes and then load them onto my iPod. There was no “cloud”!

It took effort, and as painful as it often was, finding something rewarding and having it in your hands was exhilarating—a tangible win in a well-defined game with clear boundaries.

The Zappa conundrum

The artist who dominated those peak CD buying years was one who had at best a contentious and at worst a hostile relationship to the format—Frank Zappa. Record stores almost always organized their collections alphabetically by artist’s surname, so I built muscle memory5 to go to the end of the line and find the day’s almost always massive sample of Zappa’s endless discography.

They’d often have his most popular work—We’re Only In It For The Money, Apostrophe, Freak Out!—alongside some daunting (and expensive) multi-disc works such as Läther and Shut Up N’ Play Your Guitar, and lots of releases you’d probably never even heard of despite your preliminary research, such as Wazoo, a live album containing some but not all material from the much better-known The Grand Wazoo studio album.

Finding a worthwhile6 Zappa release took even more work, but had an even greater reward, than any artist I can recall, not just because there’s a huge gap between his best and worst work, or because he released seemingly 459 albums, but also because in the pre-digital panopticon, pre-smartphone era, it wasn’t always easy to know you’d got the right version of any given album.

Here’s where Zappa’s aforementioned contentious relationship toward the CD comes back in play. When CDs became commercially available in the 1980s. Zappa—like all other major artists of the album era—began remastering many of his LPs. But he went further: He actually re-edited and heavily remixed the recordings, making many of them sound drastically different from the vinyl originals:

  • We’re Only In It For The Money had all of its original drum and bass tracks replaced with new recordings that sound badly out of step with the other instrumentation. It also has its censored obscenities restored. The initial CD was different from both the stereo and mono vinyl releases, which were also substantially different from one another.
  • Hot Rats had one of this tracks, “The Gumbo Variations,” lengthened by 4 minutes, and its most famous piece, “Willie the Pimp,” re-edited with what sounds like a totally different guitar solo.
  • Unless you’d snatched up and held into the original 8-track cartridge of Lumpy Gravy in 1967 when it got recalled, every version thereafter until 2009 was the vastly inferior 1968 re-edit with lots of irritating dialogue added. There was also another version that “punched up” that 1968 mix with re-recorded bass and drums!

There’s way more along those lines. Indeed, the endless possibilities opened up by the CD format—longer run times and greater dynamic range 6, mainly—seemed to overwhelm Zappa, giving him pretext to indulge his tendency to fiddle. Sometimes, limits are good!

I was lucky to walk out of Ear-X-Tacy in spring 2005 with a good mix (the 1995 CD) of We’re Only In It For The Money, I slipped it into a CD player while riding through a hilly stretch between Nelson and Washington Counties in Kentucky, and added it to my iPod later that day. But I also got a “bad” (to some people) mix (the 1987 CD) of Hot Rats and wouldn’t hear the “good” vinyl mix for years (FWIW, I think the CD sounds better).

Physical memories

Those two discs were the soundtrack to my 2005 summer—the drums of “Mom and Dad” echoing in my head while I assembled cars door panels in a factory, the squawking saxophone of “The Gumbo Variations” playing from the car stereo on our road-trips to Rhode Island. I was so careful with them because even then they seemed to embody, in their physical form, a time and place I could literally touch.

Sadly, I lost my Hot Rats disc in a flood this year and only barely saved the We’re Only In It For The Money one and have had to clean it; I think it may still be usable. Either one’s tracks—and all their alternate Zappa remixes, too—are of course still available on every streaming service, but not those exact tracks, on those exact discs, as physical links to distinct memories, and as manifestations of what versions of those albums were deemed the “right” ones at that historical juncture. That’s something that feels like a unique product of the “music store” era, and one that’s literally being washed away.

  1. The old X dot com was an online bank that merged with Confinity to make PayPal. ↩︎

  2. They even had a Super Audio CD (SACD) section. SACD was a format that required special playback equipment and offered only modest improvements over regular CDs, most importantly the ability to carry up to 6 channels of audio instead of just stereo. But basically nothing except the PlayStation 3 and some Blu-ray players offered a practical way to play them over a good sound system. ↩︎

  3. I told a doctor that I had a month plus of music on my iPod in 2008 and I’m pretty sure that even now I haven’t listened to some of the songs in that batch. ↩︎

  4. In Japan, CDs often have extra tracks or even extra discs exclusive to the country. ↩︎

  5. I typo’d this as “music memory,” and almost left it. ↩︎

  6. It’s not an exaggeration to say that with some of Zappa’s worst work, like the 1968 mix of Lumpy Gravy most people couldn’t endure even a single playthrough. ↩︎