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Consumer choice is one of the great virtues of capitalism, yet for music fans, choosing is one of the principal dilemmas of the current economic boom. There is more new music available than ever before, as well as—theoretically—more ways to investigate it. Yet there’s also a burgeoning concentration of power—in both the media and retail—that has the practical effect of limiting choices. To put it simply, if this is a golden age of possibilities, why is everybody listening to 98°?

Everybody isn’t, of course, but it sometimes seems that way. There are more interesting options, but they have to be sought out; the day of the fortuitous musical discovery seems to be gone.

That’s why I headed to the new Borders Books & Music in Hamilton Square (longtime Washingtonians know this structure as the old Garfinkel’s building) a few days after it opened. I don’t spend a lot of time at Borders—or Barnes & Noble, for that matter—because cookie-cutter retail is one of the things that has taken the serendipity out of ingesting music (and books). In my experience, “superstores” offer enormous quantity but fewer interesting choices than stores with individual personalities.

This Borders, however, features a cutting-edge preview system that is the potential prototype for all the chain’s outlets. “B-Listening” allows you to scan a CD’s bar code with a red laser at a listening post, which accesses a massive digital archive to play samples of music from that album. According to the Washington Business Journal, the system makes it possible for “customers to preview any CD in the store.”

Well, not quite—as quickly became clear when I descended into the store’s music department and began scanning. I started, for no particular reason, in the classical section, where the second CD I scanned—an Erik Satie import—was apologetically “not available.” Imports, it turns out, are a problem, as are releases on small labels and by obscure acts of various kinds. On the shelves at Borders but not in its musical overmind: albums by Super Furry Animals, State of Bengal, Lesley Gore, the Sea and Cake, Dave Ralph, the Church, Samia Farah, Superchunk, Thomas Mapfumo, Amy Rigby, Joy Division, Bally Sagoo, and XTC, as well as a half-dozen discs of traditional music from Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Albums released by small, anti-commercial labels were not necessarily excluded, however. Fugazi, Bikini Kill, and Ani DiFranco were all on tap. And some of the unlistenable ones were clearly just a matter of timing: The new PJ Harvey wasn’t in the archive, but it probably soon will be.

Other quirks: Sometimes it’s impossible to line up the bar code so that the scanner will read it. (This problem can usually be solved by moving to a different listening post or selecting another copy of the CD.) Some albums—mostly older ones—are represented by only a few tracks. (Imagine reducing All Things Must Pass to a mere three tracks! Well, actually, it’s easy if you try.) Sometimes the devices are slow and balky. And cuts from albums stickered with parental advisories—major-label hiphop and rap-metal, mostly—are preceded by a recorded warning.

It was an interesting exercise. At least I now know what Papa Roach sounds like—although my conjecture was pretty accurate—and have heard the opening bleeps of Madonna’s “Music” (I was sent only the Deep Dish remix). And I’m much more conscious of the fact that most Fugazi songs don’t really get going in the first 30 seconds. These tiny revelations suggest that B-Listening may someday even be useful to me.

Like me, most people probably will employ the system to check out music that they already know something about. B-Listening expands the browsing experience beyond those heavily hyped albums that are available in most stores with listening stations, but it’s still limited by an American mass-media system that relegates most music to cult status. And B-Listening is a breakthrough only for people who prefer the physical experience of walking a store’s aisles. Consumers who buy music online can already preview snippets of music at various e-tailers—some of which may actually be in business for the long term.

Whether you’re standing headphoned at a listening station or sitting at your home computer, previewing is a solitary activity. It’s not exactly AM radio, as extolled in the recent Everclear song (which I’ve never heard on the radio): “There isn’t any other place that I need to go/There isn’t anything that I need to know/That I did not learn from the radio.”

Those days are gone, of course, fragmented into a dozen different demographic shards. (In fact, I’d argue that they were already over by 1970, the earliest date in “AM Radio”‘s lyric.) These days, encountering somebody else’s music is entirely possible, but it’s hard work. And finding something you don’t even know you’re looking for has virtually been ruled out by the mainstream music media in all their minutely subdivided forms.

Perhaps B-Listening, however, could reinvigorate some old dadaist and Situationist tactics. You could wander the aisles blindfolded, seize a CD at random, and stick it under the laser. Of course, the odds are pretty good it would be 98°. —Mark Jenkins

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