#444: “Can I Listen to This?”

GETTING MORE TALE #444: “Can I Listen to This?”

In the early 1990’s, the CD store in which I worked was just an ordinary music store that sold new product in a mall.  Later on, we did the switch to used discs which was the smartest move the owner could have done.  He was able to control his own cost of goods sold.

Switching to 99% used stock attracted customers to the better prices.  Before too long, the used selection was better too, because we would see many deleted and rare titles that you couldn’t buy new anymore.  Ebay didn’t exist yet.  It was hard to find those titles on CD.  Another benefit to the switch was the ability for customers to sample music before they bought it.  It was harder before.

In the earliest days, if a customer wanted to hear something, we had to crack open the disc and play it on the store player.  We didn’t even have a re-sealing device.  The way around this was to carefully (carefully!) cut the cellophane off the CD case, along the spine of the disc.  Carefully (carefully!) slide the disc out of the cellophane.  When done, you can carefully (carefully!) slide the disc back into the cellophane, and “seal” it up with a piece of strategically placed Scotch tape.  This did the trick well enough for us.  We made due.

The annoying thing wasn’t the fact that we had to crack open a disc for people to listen to.  The real irritant was that we didn’t have anything for them to listen to it on, except the store CD player.  If a customer came up and said, “Can I listen to this?” it meant stopping whatever you were playing, and putting in their disc.

This happened one Saturday afternoon, sometime in the spring of ’95.  Radiohead had just released The Bends, and we only carried three copies to start.  A guy came in curious what it was like.  The Bends may be critically acclaimed by fans worldwide, but that spring afternoon in 1995, it did absolutely nothing for me*.  Skipping from one track to the next, then back, at the customer’s command, I hated what I heard.  To my ears it sounded too mellow and I was ready for a nap.  It was definitely not what I wanted to hear while I was trying to work.  To date I still don’t own The Bends.  This guy stood there listening for half an hour before declining to buy it.  It was annoying for both myself, and the other customers, to have to listen to this disc skipping from track to track at the guy’s hand signals or nods.

But we didn’t have anything else, and we were customer service oriented, so what are you to do?  You listen to (rather, skip back and forth through) The Bends.

A year later I was managing a bigger store, with the 99% used format.  We had a store player, plus several other units hooked up to headphones.  With an entire store of used stuff to listen to, and a pair of headphones to do it with, it was a vast improvement over the old way.  Once again the owner had a great idea.  Even though there is no question they were a huge popular feature for our stores, the “listening stations” as we called them were still ripe for abuse.  Customers would make you run around retrieving 20 (or 30 or 40) discs to listen to, only to buy none.  They’d complain about the sound quality.  The headphones were constantly busting due to overuse and abuse.

“These headphones suck.  I can’t hear the nuances in the music.”  That was a real complaint.  Since there wasn’t much I could do about it, I explained that the listening stations were there just so you could hear a song and decide if you liked it or not.  Not much thought was given to hearing the nuances.  But this guy insisted he couldn’t tell if he liked a song without the “nuances”, so no sale was made.

Other folks would want to listen to an entire CD – the whole thing! – to make sure it didn’t skip before they bought it.  Even though we offered a guarantee.

Even though we had gone through the effort and expense of providing these listening stations, there are some people you can never please.  More than one fellow (yes, it was only guys) asked to listen to something, only to complain, “No, I don’t want to hear it on those headphones.  I want to hear it on the big speakers!”  Yeah, but nobody else in the store wants to.

Music fans:  Although you can now listen to almost anything you want in the comfort of your own home, please, if you want to use the listening stations at a CD store, don’t be a douche!


*I do have Kid A in my collection.  I love Kid A.  


  1. I remember HMV had those listening stations and loved them. Where I was from up north there was no HMV or any record store with listening stations until Music World opened in one of our malls up here, but that was way after I moved away. When I moved to London, I would love to go to HMV and listen to whatever new music they had installed on those listening stations. I’d never have the balls to ask the store clerk to crack open a new CD so I could sample though.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The store clerk thanks you! Although they had resealing devices at HMV so really they didn’t care.

      Remember Future Shop used to put a sticker on any CD that was opened and resealed for listening? Just so you know what you were buying?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Listening stations are a great thing when buying used vinyl, they have saved me money in the past. They are open to abuse by customers and I really appreciate the stores that have some way of sanitizing the headphones before use.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yup…..listening stations were great for the punters, but a pain in the ass in general for staff!

    Great for regulars who generally bought a good percentage of the things u gave them to check out. Not so great for those “other” type of customers (as described below).

    I remember at HMV one weeknight – young Asian couple came in (u know the type “do you have any Trans-X?”ha ha). They poke around, and end up pulling out some sort of Electronic/Dance comp on cassette. Come up to front counter (luckily not very busy) and ask if they can hear it. We open – they put in their walkman (God I’m O L D !)…..and listen for about 15 min or so – some smiles – seem like they are into it. Then they buy it (miracle of miracles) and walk away – I see them sit down on bench near front of store. I see them listening away – many odd faces made……..time goes by……then about 40 min later I see them back at front counter. Yup, u guessed it…..they want to RETURN that fucker!! God Lord man, u just listened to 20 minutes of it, and u were happy then. Now after hearing the whole thing, you absolutely CANNOT LIVE WITH IT!??? I himmed/hawed a bit – they were pushing back, and I finally just said NOPE, sorry – you had a good listen – no returns on that one!

    One of the very few times in my career on the floor at HMV that I turned down a return. But those two had it coming……..



    Liked by 2 people

    1. WOW…that SUCKS. I think that trumps any story I have about a similar experience. I’ve seen people return things in a similar time frame…but not after a 15 minute listen and not on a new product. Wow that would have chapped my ass big time.

      I didn’t get that kind of return time when I worked at the store. I thought, “Don’t people let music grow on them anymore?” Most of my favourite records…do you think I loved them on first listen? Probably not! Man….


  4. Doesn’t that seem weird now, to have the idea or goal of being ‘customer centred’ yet not having even a cheap CD player and a set of cans for them to hear music on.
    When a favourite store in Melbourne recently opened another shop, the ‘sealed music’ problem presented itself again – this time (ironically) with records. I suggested he simply stream the request from a web service. I’m slightly embarrassed (though chuffed) to say that he was so pleased with this solution that he gave me a very nice record as thanks. That’s what I call customer service!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well we were customer centered…but we also were not making any money. At least not until we got into the used CDs. If the boss didn’t do that switch we would have be gone before too long. And the place was tiny. We could have set up a listening station of some kind but we were at the point where we were using boxes of CD towers as additional desks and horizontal surfaces. I’m not kidding!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahh thanks Geoff, I’m glad somebody noticed that! COGS, as they say.

      I’d like to give The Bends another try. It’s been years, many years! My sister absolutely adores Radiohead and she has all the deluxes.


      I’m OCD and I like getting the most complete version of an album. So that’s the deluxe. See? I’m costing myself money.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Man, I used those listening posts a few times. I remember checking out a Jon Spencer disc before buying it off you. Which was silly because Jon Spencer. Duh. Just buy the damn thing! DAMN! THE BLUES IS #1!

    Ahem. Anyway.

    I snort-laughed at this:

    “These headphones suck. I can’t hear the nuances in the music.”


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