I prefer collecting music on physical media—I like holding a vinyl record or cassette tape in my hands, and I enjoy the way the sound disintegrates when tapes get worn or LPs get scratchy. But sometimes it’s nice to have access to more music than I can afford to fit in my home, so I’ll use streaming services for specific genres or eras of music underrepresented in my stacks. A big drawback to most of these apps and websites (besides the fact that they don’t like to pay artists) is their use of algorithms to feed you music you “might like.”
What about those times when I want to listen to someone else’s random list of music that I probably won’t like? For my monthly premium subscription, either keep me guessing and throw in the occasional whale song, or just drop the whole “We’re curating this just for your exquisitely unique tastes” shtick and sell me the merchandise relentlessly, like a man on the CTA with one last pack of tube socks.
My wish for a more random musical world brought me to former Kmart employee Mark Davis and his gift to California-based nonprofit the Internet Archive: a collection of prerecorded “shopping music” issued on cassette by Kmart’s corporate office and played on internal store speakers 30 years ago. Davis worked at several local Kmart locations for ten years starting in the late 1980s—Bridgeview, 51st and Kedzie, Naperville, Villa Park—and moved on in 1999. These cassettes were issued every month at first, then every week, and Kmart customer-service workers were instructed by higher-ups to throw out the current tape when a new one arrived. Davis decided to take them home and keep them, though, and his tiny workplace infraction is the world’s gain—he’s collaborated with the Internet Archive to share all 56 of his tapes.
- Mark Davis’s video introduction to his Kmart cassette collection
Davis has also created a helpful video introduction to his collection, where he lets us know a little about what kind of music and in-store advertising we might experience on the various tapes. There’s a little easy listening, some instrumental versions of the pop of the day, and the occasional reminder to go to the men’s department and check out all the shaker knit sweaters and jacquards you might need for the fall. Other people may call these tapes vaporwave, and in fairness, this sort of music often provides that irony-saturated genre with its raw material. But I’m happy to just call it soothing home-office ambience peppered with sales pitches for stuff I might find on Ebay. Attention shoppers: Listen to some random songs completely unrelated to your current obsessions, and watch the day fly by. v
- The tape from March 15, 1992, includes Zamfir, Klymaxx, and New Edition.
- There’s some Yanni on the cassette from July 26, 1992.
The Listener is a weekly sampling of music Reader staffers love. Absolutely anything goes, and you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.