I saw my first concert in 2008, when I was ten years old. Juno had just come out—one of the first “grownup” movies my parents ever let me see—and I quickly became obsessed. I liked the plot, but what really drew me in to Juno was the soundtrack, a collection of mesmerizingly weird, folky songs that I downloaded and played on repeat for months.
My parents and I lived in Los Angeles, not far from Amoeba Music Hollywood, a two-story music superstore selling used CDs and hosting free concerts. I was vaguely aware of the store’s existence because my dad had been selling old CDs to Amoeba for years, but I never paid the building much attention until I noticed the store marquee announcing an upcoming Kimya Dawson show. I knew that name: Kimya Dawson’s gravelly voice and storytelling lyrics dominated the Juno soundtrack. I told my dad I really wanted to go, and he said we could. I marked the date on my bedroom wall calendar and began counting down.
We got to the concert early and waited outside in a long line of tattooed punks. I was easily the youngest one there; my dad easily the oldest. When the doors opened, we filed into the store in neat lines, squeezing into the aisles between the used CD racks around the stage. I couldn’t see Kimya Dawson or her band very well above the heads of the people around me, so I spent most of the show staring up at audience members singing along from the second floor balcony of the store. I pointed them out to my dad, proudly: “they know all the words,” I said, “but I do too.” I sang along with the rest of the crowd, quietly at first, then louder and louder. Everything around me felt big and important, but not in a scary way. Shout-singing into the shoulders of strangers, I felt like a real part of something. It was exhilarating, and I wanted the feeling to last forever. When I got home, I bookmarked the Amoeba concerts website on the family computer so I could see more shows.
I began going to Amoeba shows regularly, even for bands I’d never heard of. There were no stakes; tickets were free and the store was even close to my house. Soon I was spending almost every weekend in the used CD stacks, craning my neck to see bands I barely knew. My dad would come along with me as a chaperone, but he’d stand towards the back as I made my way closer to the stage. I appreciated the space—going to shows felt personal, like something I maybe didn’t need to share with anyone else.
Seeing so many bands made me want to start forming my own collection of music. I’d purchased songs through my dad’s iTunes account before, but I soon figured out that I could buy whole CDs at Amoeba for less than the iTunes price if I dug though the aisles searching for the best deals. I began amassing piles of CDs tagged with orange bargain-stickers. Sometimes I’d browse the alphabetized Amoeba stacks looking for cool cover art or band names, but mostly I went into the store with mental lists of musicians I wanted to hear more of. I started with the Juno soundtrack—my first few ventures ended in purchases of a Belle and Sebastian CD, and a couple weeks later I was going back for the Kinks and the Velvet Underground. I fell in love with the jangly guitars and tongue-in-cheek lyrics that filled these albums—the songs were like the summer camp anthems of misfits, and they conjured up a specific, sunny world that I felt like I could be a part of.
My dad recognized my budding interest in music and started recommending bands he thought I’d like, and soon I had stacks of used Elliott Smith and Rilo Kiley CDs piling up in my parents’ cars. Those angsty early-2000s musicians led me to Bright Eyes, who took me to the indie pop of Beirut and the Shins. More discoveries quickly followed: I scoured music blogs I’d found by googling “Cool Music Blogs” and began tracking the Upcoming Shows lists of local concert venues, looking anywhere for new sounds. Soon I found the album review pages of Nylon magazine, which led me into wormholes of trendy bands with “cool factor.” I stumbled upon the intricate, psychedelic world of Of Montreal while browsing for eye-catching album covers and the extensive (and extremely cheap) catalog of early Beach Boys albums available in the Amoeba sale section. Every album I purchased felt unique and sometimes slightly strange, but they always felt wholly my own, too. Buying music became a way to define myself, my towers of jewel cases tangible personal expressions.
Soon, however, the physical stacks of CDs stopped growing—when I acquired my first laptop computer around seventh grade, my music collecting habits quickly turned digital. I fell in love with the ease and endlessness of iTunes, the way I could hear anything I wanted to in just a series of clicks. I made playlists and mix CDs for myself, diligently cataloguing my evolving interests and tastes in little curated pieces. My music collection grew exponentially, and I sank further and further into my own bubble of obscurities and rarities. At school, I felt misunderstood in the seventh-grade-trope sense of the word, but my music collecting made me legible to my peers, defining me as the “cool but weird” girl with an unnerving amount of knowledge about something called Camera Obscura.
But with my “coolness” (or pretension, or precocity, or whatever it was) came isolation. Knowing what others do not brings an inability to connect with peers, an inability to make the friendships built on the sacred cultural reference points that make middle school bearable. I’d thought middle school might be a chance to find others like me, to find friends who loved music as much as I did—to find a subset of LA teens that seemed familiar. But mostly I found my sonic enthusiasm met with confusion or laughter from my peers. Building a music library gave me solace from this—and the computer made it so easy. Downloading songs became my way to define me, to make myself understandable not only to my peers but also to myself. As my habit intensified, I stopped buying physical CDs altogether. Slowly, I grew less attached to Amoeba. Though I looked at the place with fondness and love, I felt like I didn’t need the store like I once had. By the time I joined Spotify in 2012, I’d stopped going to Amoeba Records entirely.
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Last year, architectural renderings of a glass tower on the current site of Amoeba Hollywood began circling in the LA press. In the drawings Amoeba is wiped from sight and memory, replaced by a generic looking mixed-use building with a rooftop pool. Imagining this possible future is heartbreaking, but it’s also not difficult. Time passes and technology changes, and I know the fact that Amoeba helped me discover Dear Catastrophe Waitress is not enough to save the building from a looming wrecking ball in the digital age. And I can’t absolve myself from responsibility for the store’s demise—every time I stream music instead of purchasing it, I make it harder for a place like Amoeba to exist.
At my very first show—my first Amoeba experience—I’d stood in a warehouse of wall-to-wall people, shoulders touching, an ocean of tattoos, band t-shirts, and beat-up Converse sneakers among yellow CD-rack dividers emblazoned with all-caps band names, meticulously alphabetized. I’d strained my neck trying to get a glimpse of the stage and instead turned my attention to the people around me, the misfit Angelenos nearly a decade older than I was but still treating me like an equal, like a worthy part of the community. There was the specific, sunny world I wanted to be a part of—a room full of strangers, reveling in the joy of dancing and singing with people we’d probably never see again. There were the people I couldn’t find at school—there was the LA I wanted to be a part of.
I haven’t set foot in Amoeba in a few years. Visiting the store feels like entering a weird time warp, going back to a point in my life when I owned a CD player and needed my dad to take me places. Once in a while, though, I drive past Amoeba and pass a line of tattooed punks waiting outside for a show, an hour-or-so away from reveling in that stranger-joy. In line, they stare at their phones, earbuds in, not talking to each other, but inside the devices drop and it is 2008 again and it’s hard to quantify, but there’s something special there and they all know it; they all feel it. When Amoeba goes, it won’t be the treasure troves of CD racks that are the most salient loss—it’ll be the space for a ten-year-old girl to find her people.
But I drive by, alone in my car, Spotify at full volume. BP