The First Story
A guy walks into a music store, credit card in hand.
“What brings you in?” asks the clerk. “How can I help you?”
“I’d like to buy a microphone,” he says. “My grandfather had a microphone when I was a kid, and I loved to hear him sing. I’d play with it when he wasn’t looking, imagining I was like him. I don’t know where that mic went, but I miss it and thought maybe now was the time to get a mic of my own. Maybe I could also be a singer like he was.”
The clerk turns to a wall of microphones and selects one: stainless steel with a vintage look. “This is a best-seller,” he says. “It sounds beautiful, and perhaps the retro look will remind you of your grandfather.”
The man picks it up. It’s heavy in his hands and feels well-made. He recognizes the logo and smiles. As he gazes at the price tag, “You get what you pay for” runs through his mind. “I’ll take it,” he says, “and I’d like a cable and an amplifier, too.” There’s something beautiful about a purchase like this, like a doorway to a forgotten world has opened up. As he heads out with his new gear, it’s difficult for the man not to get drawn into the daydream that one day he might be crooning on a stage for an audience in a darkened room.
At home, he plugs it all in and sings a few Neil Diamond songs to an empty living room. When his kids come through the door after school, he sings a few lines for them but finds they are more eager to get upstairs to do their homework and get online with friends than to sit and listen to his new passion. His wife humours him but is equally unimpressed. “Practice,” he thinks. “I just need practice.”
And so he does—for hours over the weekend, singing along to his favourite songs playing on his headphones. The microphone’s box displays a website link, and a few clicks later, he’s talking to microphone owners all over the world, sharing songs and offering tips about how to best use the microphone. It turns out there’s more to this than he knew, including accessories. The next weekend, he’s back at the music shop and buys a mixer to sweeten the sound. On his way out, he picks up a copy of Microphone Monthly.
Over time, the man becomes adept at using his microphone. He knows more and more about its history and different kinds of microphones. But something’s missing. Dissatisfied with his progress, he returns to the music store, now much more aware of his choices, and purchases the best microphone they sell. He soon begins scouring eBay and buying vintage microphones. For a while, he becomes obsessed with old tube amps, convinced they’ll be the thing that finally makes his voice…well, see, this is the problem. He doesn’t know exactly what is missing, but his dreams of being a singer don’t seem to be moving very quickly.
His trips to the music store have become a weekly pilgrimage, and the guys behind the counter know him by name. “Hey, Barry,” they say when he walks in. “What are you looking for this week?”
To their surprise, he says, “I have no idea.”
“I have it all. And I can sing every song without my wife wincing. She’s even stopped going down to the basement when I get my mic out. But something’s missing.”
There’s an old guy sitting at the far end of the counter who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sam Elliott. Barry’s seen him around but never paid him much notice. “What do you sing about?” he asks Barry, turning to face him.
“Excuse me?” says Barry. “What do I sing about? I sing about everything. I sing about whatever anyone sings about when they get a microphone in their hands. My grandfather had a microphone, and I’ve always wanted one, too. So now I sing.”
“But about what?” the old guy presses. “You gotta have something to sing about. If you don’t know what the song’s about, how do you know how to sing it? To really put your heart into it?”
Barry sits down as he sets his magazines on the counter. “I hadn’t thought of that before. I just like singing.”
“Sounds like you like the sound of your own voice.”
“Listen, there’s nothing wrong with collecting microphones. I’ve accumulated a few of them myself over the years. But there’s a difference between that and being a singer. A singer has something to say. A singer connects the song to the listener—through the ear, into the heart. A mic doesn’t do that, no matter how good it is.”
“I never thought of it like that,” Barry says.
“Some people never do,” says the old guy. “There’s more to a song than making it heard at the back of the room. A song’s gotta make you care. It’s gotta tell a story or make you feel some kind of emotion, so some of the bits are hard to sing along to because it makes your audience get all lumpy in their throats. A song is more than a melody or a good beat. Why do you want to sing? Was it your grandfather’s microphone you truly remember, or was it his voice?”
“His voice. I can still hear it. I can still remember the look in his eyes when he sang to me—like I was the only one in the room—and the look in the eyes of everyone else who was listening. There was magic in that.”
“And you think the magic was in the microphone?”
Barry purses his lips and closes his eyes. “No. But it seemed like that was part of it when I was a kid.”
“The magic was in your grandfather. That’s what you’re chasing: what he thought about, who he was, and what he loved. It was in the way he revealed a part of himself to you when he sang. Singing can be a very vulnerable thing. I bet if you gave him the cheapest mic in this place, he’d still make magic when he sang. I bet your grandfather knew what he was singing about. Hell, I also bet that if he had no idea what made a great microphone, he most certainly knew what made a great song.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I overheard you say something was missing. It doesn’t sound like you need a better microphone. Perhaps you need something better to sing about. Maybe it’s time to start focusing on what makes the music, not what makes the sound.”
The Second Story
A guy walks into a camera store, credit card in hand….
For the Love of the Photograph,