Record Store Day

Record Store Day

When in Memphis...

As someone who spends, and has always spent, a great deal of time in record stores, I have not been able to avoid hearing about the fast approaching “death of the record store” after a long and heroic battle with the Internet. There are now documentaries on the subject and an international Record Store Day to which several musicians and record labels lent their support. Nevertheless, in much of what is said or written on the subject, it is taken as sadly apparent that these shops are doomed if we just take current consumption patterns and project them into the future. Young people can buy music online, and that’s where they live now, so they will keep doing so into the future, which by the way will be exactly like today, only more so.

This argument becomes somewhat contradictory when it comes packaged in laments about the vanishing record store: to wit, record stores are doomed because music can be purchased easily elsewhere; but record stores, it is argued, offer consumers many benefits and meet many needs aside from mere music distribution. So, either future generations will lack those needs for no clear reason, or simply not recognize an obvious resource for meeting them. This shift in consciousness will either be universal or so widespread as to make the stores untenable and quixotic. It’s worth looking at the needs that record stores are supposed to meet.

The first such need is social: record store devotees describe the convivial pleasures of hanging out in record shops talking about music. Here we should note they’re clearly talking about independent record stores since the mall chain stores tend to actively discourage consumers from hanging out. They’re also oddly overlooking music related message boards where people can discuss music for hours. Perhaps though they are touching on the very different nature of face-to-face socializing from what we do here online- its off the cuff spontaneity, awkward pauses, body language, moments of boredom, funny off-hand comments, flirtations, and natural brainstorms. Possibly, the underlying fear is that socializing itself will die out. However, it seems highly unlikely that man will cease to be the social animal in the future; and certainly young people seem not to have lost any taste for hanging out together.

A secondary concern is that there is some sort of decline in music fandom going on. Record stores serve as a meeting place for the sorts of music fans that obsess over their favorite bands with a devotion bordering on cultishness. The era of groupies, magazines like Rock Scene, Deadheads and the like, and music appreciation as a lifestyle might be ending. And maybe the music just doesn’t demand that sort of devotion now. For all of the industry hype about artists like Lady Gaga and Kanye West as pivotal and their albums as epochal, it’s hard to imagine any of those albums as really being the Metaphysical Graffiti, Sgt Pepper’s, Exile on Main Street, Pet Sounds, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, or, hell, even the Rocket to Russia or Appetite for Destruction of 2011. Bands and labels now think primarily in terms of singles instead of albums, a trend reflecting how music is bought online, but strangely bringing us back to a 1950s style of marketing music. What this means is that many, if not most music fans are content to pick out those great songs if the band is not concerned with making a great album. Bands like the White Stripes recorded some excellent songs, but never really made a great album without filler. The people who bought only those songs were probably right.

In fact, it’s become a bit of a lame game among music snobs to ask what was the last great album. Nevermind? OK Computer? Back to Black? It’s a bit of a meaningless exercise, especially since we could probably think of a great album from the last few years; but certainly the old process of recording that reached its nadir in the 14 years and over $13 million to finish Chinese Democracy will most likely never be repeated. A scenario like Brian Wilson going mad trying to perfect Smile is one it’s hard to imagine anyone actually wanting to repeat, but the desire to create a monumental and lasting work of art in a recording studio is one that nobody has the time or money to peruse anymore. It is worth asking if the quality of pop music hasn’t declined in general and whether musicianship hasn’t been replaced in many cases with slick overproduction. But, contrary to the assumption, there still are plenty of music fanatics left and they would likely disagree with the question.

Finally, it’s often suggested that record stores offer the benefit of expertise, which might be devalued in the age of Wikipedia. A good record store clerk can point you in the direction of great music you’ve never heard of and away from junk. Expertise is increasingly taken as “elitist” (along with many other things that threaten an individual’s inflated sense of self-importance). “Why should anyone tell me what to like?” Regardless, wide, repeated, thoughtful, and extensive exposure to any art form will cultivate expertise over time. A music fan of thirty years will have better informed tastes than a newcomer, even if their tastes might lack the freshness of the newcomer. What is elitist is instead how they express those tastes. While the “stuck up record clerk” is nowhere near as widespread as rumored, I’ve certainly met some music fans who dismissed me as a “poseur” for expressing enthusiasm about the same music I’ve been listening to enthusiastically for the last twenty-two years. With so many independent record stores closing though one would imagine that store owners would discourage such behavior. (Also, I’ve yet to meet an aloof record clerk who didn’t brighten when I either expressed enthusiasm about the music they were playing or just asked if they had anything by the Pretty Things.) Besides, the flip side of the surly record store snob is the cute store clerk who gushes about the record you’re thinking of picking up that she just loves. Little can top that.

What seems more likely to happen than a total extinction of record stores is an end to the widespread local stores but plenty of stores surviving in more dispersed locations as specialty shops; more a winnowing down than the shopocalypse. I’m also curious to see if independent shops will start selling books, music, magazines, and DVD rentals in the same location. A friend’s weird little DVD rental place has actually morphed into a movie rental/antiques/records/books/fine hats store! Buying music online is certainly convenient and many of the benefits of hanging out in a record store can be obtained elsewhere. But a point I’ve not heard made yet is that a world in which music (not to mention movies and books) could only be purchased online would be briefly novel and eventually very boring. It’s not that a good number of half-assed local record shops won’t close, but the shopocalypse argument rests heavily on the idea that whatever a lot of people are doing right now is what they’ll all be doing in the future and nothing else. Record stores will thus go the way of burlesque dancing, roller derby, and records themselves, all of which vanished as expected and no longer exist.  As someone who has been buying vinyl records for about twenty-six years, and had people much hipper than me tell me for twenty-six years that nobody would be manufacturing records by the following year, I’m skeptical.

Or, perhaps, human beings, particularly the young ones, will continue to seek out novelty, variety, new experiences, and kicks– what leads young people to music in the first place. You never can predict what teenagers and music fans will do next year- Rolling Stone has consistently embarrassed itself by trying to make such predictions. For all we know the next generation might even go so far as to “tune out” from the internet- just to piss off their parents!

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20 thoughts on “Record Store Day

  1. I think there may actually be more here than you think.

    certainly young people seem not to have lost any taste for hanging out together

    Really? I mean, maybe, but what about projects like this one and this one? Certainly both have ample room for criticism, but there does seem to be something there.

    If you accept the thesis that the internet and related technologies can function as a complete substitute for in-person interaction, then you probably have nothing to worry about. But if you reject that thesis, there is cause for concern. Admittedly, record shops may come fairly far down on that list, but as another symptom of the decline in social capital and civic participation, they’re still worth some attention.

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    • It’s one thing to be a pony-tailed denim-jacketed (one pocket holds the walkman, the other pocket holds three/four cassette tapes) righteous dude who is flipping through albums.

      It is another to no longer be that guy and to go to the same album store.

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    • I don’t really know if I accept the thesis. On the one hand, it definitely makes sense and I’ve seen enough examples of people together ignoring each other to stare at their phones to wonder. On the other hand, I still see lots of gangs of teens hanging out at the 7-11 and the mall. It probably helps that I wrote this after getting back from a cheap restaurant where there were so many teens hanging out and talking we could barely hear each other! Then again, we live in a very low income town so the social patterns might be very different here than they are in the burbs.

      As for record shops, I don’t know if it was obvious, but I’m really just trying to spitball some ideas in this post, instead of coming down too hard on one side or the other. If record stores cease to exist, it will be pretty terrible for me though. I’m in them at least a few times a week.

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      • You have to look at both sides of this. I used to love hanging out in used record stores, seeing which of the obscure albums I coveted they might have. Now I can Google for them or, if I weren’t so upright, get them for free via Hemingway’s first novel. It’s much more efficient, if less fun, especially since it becomes clearer that many of them are obscure for good reasons. I guess something’s lost but something’s gained.

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        • Yeah, I think it’s definitely a trade off. Recently, I was in the used section and for about 5 bucks I picked up the Genya Ravan album Urban Desire, which you can probably download for not much more than that and certainly don’t have to track down. On the other hand, I was really only dimly familiar with her as a producer and only bought the album because the cover was great (something I’ve done many times and it’s almost never failed me). The result? I discovered a really awesome album by sheer happenstance, something I’ve never really been able to do via Amazon or iTunes, although I think they’re trying desperately to figure out a way to replicate that.

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  2. re: one never knows what the future holds – the return of cassettes as an indie label distribution method still baffles me.

    the wire has been running a series called collateral damage on this topic; it’s an interesting back and forth from folks actually in the trenches.

    http://www.thewire.co.uk/themire/2011/05/collateral-damage

    the whole “kids don’t value music like we did” misses that being an obsessive nerd gives one a different relationship to music and it’s related objects than someone who just enjoys music. most of their peers also didn’t value music “like we did”. depth is still possible, but it requires that durn discipline thing that seems to vex so many of us.

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    • Exactly. It’s also not a cheap hobby. That’s the real advantage of MP3s. I didn’t mention how many places now sell records for $20 or more. Admittedly, you can usually buy used for about half that price.

      I’m baffled by how many bands still sell cassettes too. I thought I was weird to still have a cassette player in my home. The fact that our local music stores are now increasing their vinyl stock was less surprising to me. I’ll say I am still pretty stunned to have started seeing sellers who specialize in VHS tapes recently.

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      • vhs? that’s a new one for me. yeesh.

        i get why artists and labels go with cassettes – it’s unique, very, very cheap and seems like an easy shot of nostalgia at odds with the ease of downloading and the like. but i hated cassettes as a kid. being able to skip to the next song instantly was just about the greatest thing that ever happened to me the day i bought my first cd player. no more tape hiss! actual low end! whee!

        vinyl makes sense as you can do lower runs than ever before and still make some money. and i did enjoy collecting certain bits of vinyl, though i currently have nowhere to set up my record player for the time being. maybe i will once again, some day… [cue sadness panflute]

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        • I think it’s because a whole lot of movies got released on VHS that have yet to appear on DVD and likely won’t because it’s apparently more expensive. It was odd- I went to a small horror convention recently that vowed to spotlight “clam shell culture” along with a bunch of other stuff- what that turned out to mean was VHS tapes (the big plastic boxes were called clam shells apparently). One guy had easily 1,000 for sale.

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          • One of my favorite movies is “Eric The Viking” and it’s not available on DVD. The Director’s Son’s Cut is available… but it’s 20 minutes shorter than the original and they cut out some of the awesomer parts.

            If you want to watch the good version, you’re stuck with the tape.

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  3. This is basically the same argument we hear all the time about libraries. Of course, that’s kind of unhelpful – because if there’s anything libraries are aware of, it’s that people fail to recognize obvious resources for meeting their needs all the time, especially when those needs involve going to a physical place to look for something.

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    • Also, I’m also going to dispute what you’re saying about albums, at least with regards to Kanye. He’s absolutely a guy who thinks in terms of albums, big epic statements with thematic unity. Basically every track on My Beautiful Dark Twistsed Fantasy works better in the context of the album than on its own, and the same is true for Watch The Throne. What people who mourn the album are really doing is mourning the hugeness of consensus, and the supremacy of (white-washed) Rock And Roll.

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    • Wait, what part is the argument we hear about libraries? That some will stick around? I’m not trying to be terribly decisive authoritative in this post. If anything, what I was trying to do was keep a bunch of mini-arguments open so that people could weigh in on whatever they wanted. Hopefully, this post is more of a, “Hey guys, what do you think was a great album that came out this year?” sort of thing.

      As for Kanye, I wanted to hear what people thought about his music. I was trying not to mourn the death of the album because I definitely don’t think the idea of an album as an organic whole is really dead. Like I said, we can pretty easily think of recent examples. I actually had Kanye West in mind there (maybe I should have mentioned that!) along with Radiohead who has said they think of their albums in terms of Hunky Dory, which to me is a way of saying they intend to have no filler and some underlying thematic unity. Certainly, Green Day has been trying for the same thing, even though their music isn’t quite for me. I mentioned Back in Black because there’s really no filler on that thing. But, let me point out that I’ve heard each of those artists say they see themselves as swimming against the tide in how they conceptualize albums and I’ve definitely bought more albums than I’d care to admit in the last decade that had two good songs and a bunch of filler.

      Now I did say that I think Kanye is overhyped and that’s partly because I wasn’t as impressed by My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy when I heard it as I’d been led to expect. Let me say though that given that you’re defending it, I’ll order a copy on vinyl and sit down and listen to it a few more times.

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      • I meant that argument you’re criticizing – if we just take current patterns and project, libraries are supposedly doomed. There’s no better way to troll a library blog than to claim that because of the Internet, nobody needs them anymore. Of course, I do think it’s likely that we’ll end up with an even sharper divide in library types into museum-like special collections and public internet-centered social spaces with books, especially as the spaces for the latter currently provided by chain bookstores vanish.

        As for Kanye, yeah it’s overhyped, certainly, but that says more, I think, about the decline of mainstream rap than about the quality of the album – it’s not totally flawless, and sonically it’s ALL over the place, but it’s at least an Album in a way that Born This Way or even The Blueprint 3 aren’t. All I was really trying to say is that – yeah, he’s more in line with Radiohead than with Gaga. And it took me a while to really get into it too.

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        • Yeah, people made jokes about it when he said that Radiohead were the only other musicians doing what he’s doing and, you know, Kanye’s not exactly known for his modesty, but I do think there are some similarities there.

          Damn, this is another reason we need to monetize this site. I’ve got a lot of records to buy!

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  4. If the record store added sufficient value to the buyers it would continue. However as with book stores, the cost of inventory makes this difficult. Compare the need for inventory at a bunch of stores to one central warehouse. Whereas at a bunch of stores you need to have inventory that might turn over every few weeks, at the central warehouse it can turn every few days, and you need a lot less of it. Now if you went to a record store that cut CD/DVD’s on demand from storage on a central server, i.e. no physical inventory, one could defeat the problem, just like with books. But its a vastly different model, and still does not beat the online and UPS combo.

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    • It is difficult. I think it’s only going to be the really special stores that will survive, and plenty of them won’t. I wonder how much consignments cut down on the cost of inventory though. A lot of small, local music stores are willing to sell records on consignment when the chain stores are not. It’s good for local bands and, if they’re popular enough in the area, it probably helps the store too. Here in Hamilton there’s a thriving music scene with local bands that are real home town heroes and I think they all still get their stuff out that way, especially with the collector’s items and one offs. You’re right though that record shops are facing an uphill battle.

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  5. Any media-focused retail establishment is going to have trouble in the next decade or so, because more and more of their customer base is going to have broken the association of “media” and “physical object”. (Or, more likely, they’ll have grown up in the era of iPod and Kindle and Hulu, and they’ll never have made that association in the first place.)

    It used to be that a store could make a business out of being A Place That Has Stuff. Because, if you wanted to listen to music or watch a video or read a book, that involved Stuff. Now that you only need one little piece of Stuff to do all those things, stores need something else to trade on.

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  6. A good record store clerk can point you in the direction of great music you’ve never heard of and away from junk.

    The best thing that record stores ever offered me was a clerk who could say “Oh, if you liked that Ben Harper record, you’ll want to check out Maggie’s Dream.”

    Even if he hated Ben Harper. Even if he loathed Maggie’s Dream. He was a guy who knew that if someone dug the one, they’d probably dig the other.

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    • Yeah, I’m sort of fascinated by how hard the online sites are trying to find the code to replicate this benefit and how badly it seems to be going. Amazon, for instance, never comes close to recommending something I’d actually like, while the charmingly weird guy at that video/record/book/ and bowler hat store has effectively blown my mind about three times in the last month, just like he promised to.

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