July 16, 2014
by Bryne Yancey

By the time I was twelve years old—old enough to go and experience select things on my own, without parental supervision, but far too young to be out after 9 p.m. without it—I started getting a weekly allowance. At first, it was $5 every Friday, awarded between the time I got home from school and the time my mom and I went and grabbed fast food for dinner for us and the rest of the family. We did this every Friday night, as I’m sure a lot of families did and still do. As a kid who, like most my age loved greasy chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, french fries, fountain sodas and getting money from their parents for minimal effort, it was by far my favorite time of the week. For most parents, giving their kids an allowance is a tool to educate feeble minds about managing money, assigning value to things and rewarding hard work. Me? I rarely kept my room clean, occasionally took out the trash, and maybe walked our dogs a couple of times. I suppose my grades were pretty good, and that was enough. Or perhaps they just wanted to get me out of their hair for a few hours, and buying me off was the only way to accomplish that.

Even in the mid-‘90s, $5 didn’t buy very much, but then again my bar for amusement was much lower than it is now. I’d usually ride my BMX bike to the mall after dinner, belly full of processed meats and breads and potatoes, faint stars and pinkish skies above my head, dirt hitting my eyeballs, the intense early evening Florida humidity drawing beads of sweat from my brow, the lower right leg of my JNCO jeans ripped and lined with greasy, black residue from getting caught in my bike chain at some point due to their comically excessive bagginess. My friends and I would convene at the mall, usually just outside or just inside Spencer Gifts. We’d laugh at the profane t-shirts, giggle at the sex toys even though some of us surely had no idea what they were actually for, make middle fingers out of 3D pin art, and just generally act like little shitheads with nothing better to do. I would usually spend my allowance on another soda, a candy bar, maybe a pretzel. Eventually, though, we’d sometimes make our way to Camelot Music—before it became f.y.e.—to browse the latest releases. I was still very much a child of the radio at this point of my life; my mom and dad pretty much always had the local classic rock station on in the car, and I’d begun listening to the local modern rock station on my own. That itself was a small step in personal discovery, and I’d known for a short period that punk rock—which at the time, was represented on the radio by Green Day, the Offspring, Rancid and Bad Religion—was my preferred “modern rock” subgenre; I just didn’t quite know how to articulate it yet. I was drawn to the guitar tones, the aggressiveness, the brevity, the perceived spontaneity, the attitude. It seems crass to say it now, but punk was, and is, the perfect music for a pre-teen unsure of themselves to hear and with which to identify. I was of the right age and frame of mind for discovery, and perhaps a bit of mild rebellion.

And, because I only had $5 to spend every week on whatever I wanted, my attention inside Camelot was often drawn to low-priced compilation CDs, usually in the punk section (Yeah, the mall record store had a dedicated punk section. Seems odd now.) Epitaph’s Punk-O-Rama series, which at that point was just two volumes deep (and only Vol. 2 was in my budget), was one of my earliest targets. That was the first time I’d heard Descendents, NOFX, a Rancid song that wasn’t “Ruby Soho” or a Bad Religion song that wasn’t the Stranger Than Fiction version of “21st Century Digital Boy.” Fat Wreck Chords’ Fat Music For Fat People, Survival Of The Fattest, and Physical Fatness, where Tilt’s “Weave and Unravel” exposed me to the first punk I’d heard that wasn’t fronted by a snotty dude, No Use For A Name’s “Justified Black Eye” painted a stark picture of domestic abuse I was barely old enough to comprehend, and Lagwagon repurposed lyrics from Metallica’s “Battery” in “Raise a Family” and made an instant fan by doing so. From there, I floated between Nitro Records’ Go Ahead Punk… Make My Day and Deep Thoughts, where I learned that the Offspring had records older than Smash and that AFI seemed more aggressively goth than any punk band I’d ever heard at that point, and Hopeless Records’ Hopelessly Devoted To You series, which exposed me to midwestern punk bands like Dillinger Four and the Bollweevils. I bought a new one every Friday until I had all of them, and when my allowance was increased to $10, I’d buy two. Through these compilations, and others from Vagrant (Another Year on the Streets), Asian Man (Mailorder is Fun) and Victory (Victory Style) I quickly became an insatiable consumer of underground music. It afforded me, and surely many others, the luxury of easy, inexpensive discovery at an extremely formative time. Once my allowance was increased to $20 in middle school, I would immediately spend it on new, full-length CDs from the bands I’d discovered through these comps, or, if there were more comps available I would just buy those. My curiosity never deflated. Those comps were my gateway into punk.

Of course, things are very different now. Music, as a physical product, exists in a context few could have predicted back then. Unless something is rare, or a pretty color, or a first press, it is often implicitly deemed disposable. Digital files, even more so. Streaming, even more than that. Right this moment, I can open Spotify and with my premium account, stream just about any record I could ever think of or would ever want to hear, constantly, forever, largely uninterrupted. It is a wonderful technology that has never made music discovery and consumption so simple, yet has also made music consumption and discovery an afterthought, a thing we just click play on to drown out the hum of the fluorescent lights hanging above us. Samplers still exist, usually in the form of Bandcamp-hosted streams and downloads. They’re easier and cheaper to compile in this fashion, but a folder of mp3s just doesn’t carry the same cache as a CD with liner notes, release info, or even those little catalogs that sometimes came with the comps. It’s ironic, considering that these comps seemed to be compiled and marketed to be disposable. They ended up indispensable instead.

How can we recreate that feeling, that gushing discovery better earned through sitting, not moving or twiddling thumbs on a keyboard or touch screen, and listening? We probably can’t, but someone should try. With the correct lineup, context and presentation, the format can still work; in 2011, Run For Cover released Mixed Signals, a compilation of unreleased music from bands on and off their label that was warmly received, and at $5 for a CD or download, reasonably priced. Surely, some other labels who have figured out how to get kids to buy things could follow suit? It would require a lot of ingenuity, but ultimately would reap valuable promotional rewards and just as importantly, aid discovery for the next generation of music fans who, much like I did, require a package as the vessel that navigates through the noise. Without that vessel, what is all of this but a bunch of context-free files floating nebulously, just begging to be forgotten the moment a kid moves on to the next thing?

Maybe it’s limited-edition CDs, beautifully-colored vinyl, pre-order packages, or expansive packaging with liner notes. Maybe it’s hastily put-together cassettes (No, it’s not.) Music is both art and commodity, after all; the latter needs to be emphasized in order to garner interest in the former from those fans on the fence. Turn the compilation into an event that demands attention. Have the bands record new material for it; Hell, have them record said new material at the same studio and center the comp around that. Just make it matter. Separate it from the endless sea of free digital samplers because, at least at first, there must be an incentive beyond discovery. That much is apparent. Because, all of the technological advances that were intended to make discovery easier than ever have instead rendered music more expendable than ever to a too-large section of impressionable fans.