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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Generation Tech Kills Another Record Store

Times are tough, the disposable income isn't what it used to be. I'm a daddy now and besides, I get a lot of albums for free. Still, it's going to be just a bit tougher watching High Fidelity and Pretty in Pink these days without feeling utterly nostalgic knowing the mass record store kill-off revolution continues to claim victims.

K, so maybe I'm approaching the age of official fossilization. Maybe I'm subconconciously disregarding a lot of record stores have historically overcharged and raped their loyal patrons, many of whom won't admit a large reason they went bankrupt was because they suffer from chronic music addiction. Nevertheless, as one of the indie stores I've been a longtime patron of just shut its doors and I read continuous stories about megachains closing down with indie shops collapsing in the dust of their commercial rubble, I can't help but wonder where the value of music lies with today's iPod generation of Borg.

Does consumerism dictate we must have physical stores to purchase goods, needs and wants? Well, to my generation and those before mine, yes. The ease of the internet to buy products has spread like a rampant virus, so much it's stupefied and stupid-fied traditional commerce. So far the proposed live-web grocery store experiments haven't set the world afire, but they likely soon will. Tech has made us weak, apathetic and arrogant. Click and ship two heads of lettuce, please, and make sure it's iceberg, not romaine...

Up until the new milennium, the marketplace happened to be considered a social network on top of a prolific bartering and exchange system. Before there was even electricity, the marketplace was the hub, the verve, around which life centered and how people managed to communicate with one another. Hustle and bustle, pick up the necessities, exchange information. Soup to nuts when you go back to the primitive. Some cultures today still have open-air bazaars, and they have culture as a result.

Here is where record stores effectively have--until now--functioned as a lifeline to the music industry. Perhaps only overshadowed by grocery stores, music shops historically contained a nucleus of people willing to congregate and discuss what was important to them in life--in this particular example, music. Unless you've spent a considerable amount of your life as a regular habitue of a record store, you can't possibly understand the nuances and inherent conduct function. If you claim to be a big music fan yet you don't relate to a constantly-quibbling Jack Black and John Cusack set on the sprawled stage of an urban record store, then you've missed out on the point entirely.

Sure, a lot of people who have frequented music stores prefer to be left alone and not accosted by an exuberant ninny shouting at lung's capacity how much they love Jesus and Mary Chain or Slayer (albeit you can expect the word "fucking" to prelude the latter). Moreover, you can be turned off by music dweebs holding court over the viability and extensive legacy of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska versus Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. I know, get a life, true.

The common bond, however, is the ritualistic expenditure of personal time spent working those fingers through shelves and racks (not clicking brainlessly on a mouse with your ass falling asleep on your desk chair) on a vigilant hunt, sampling the art work, flicking the tangible recordings over and scouring the song titles for any sort of personal connection. At one time, album covers were shrewd marketing tactics to boost sales, which eventually equated into the caveat that potential shit awaited you at home, so be alert. Masterpieces often fell under the cloak of elaborate artwork, but so too did corporate filler. This would be a case of Yes' Close to the Edge vs. Warrant's Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich.

For me, there's a sense of relaxation to wandering into a record store and flipping through albums for over an hour. It's a physical link to what feels real and true inside of me, knowing somewhere within this vendor's complex is a piece of myself yet to be claimed.

It's the search for music which speaks to you and about you which prompts the slow shuffling through the alphabet of each genre. Sometimes the clock dictates you flip faster and sometimes there's the stress of having just "x" amount of money to spend where you'll skip over something you might want badly but will have to wait until another day. Of course, the possibility someone else will snag that Dictators reissue you've waited years to add to your collection makes you pull out the plastic despite your better common sense. And, bloody hell, they finally got those early Enslaved albums on import here! The cell bill can go in late, whatever...

There's something nuturing my chi to walk in and find Iron Maiden, Isis and Ivy CDs snugly set together for review, and still I leaf through them and other bands I already own their entire catalog of, probably because subliminally I want to see who has good enough taste in music to move those units. More likely because it's just simply therapeutic.

What's even cooler--at least in the eighties when most listeners truly cared--is finding a good music store with genuine depth of catalog product, not to mention personnel with the same depth of knowledge. Sometimes they might come off as hoity toity art farts you'd like to beat their butchie asses up in the alley when they go on smoke break, but at the same time, you have to admire how much they love music with the same passion as yourself. Most times, if you found someone behind the counter who knew about Kreator, Dead Can Dance, Art Blakey and Exene Cervenka, they became your shop buddies and you considered their opinions reliable enough to take a chance on a recommendation.

Where's any of that on the internet?

Sorry, but chat rooms aren't quite the same. Yes, they're well-stocked with opinionated smack-talkers, but most are operating under aliases, too cowardly to back their taunts and rude comments with their real names. It sums up the growing pestilence of anonymity which is misting through America and claiming record stores one at a time.

Okay, granted, I too have bought plenty of albums on the web, frequently at where I find lots of used stuff for dirt cheap. Then there's other places who have rare or out-of-print releases you just can't find via traditional footwork. Most chain stores have a limited network of distributors and it's getting worse as the dominant places to buy hard copy music now is Wal Mart, Target and Best Buy, none of whom have much depth in catalog. Besides, it's not the same trolling around 2-4 aisles of combo music and movies with people in blue or red smocks who care more about what time they get off work than Megadeth putting out the best album of their careers in ages, much less if they believe Lady Ga Ga really is all that.

Admittedly, it's the wankfest syndrome of musicians today thinking they need to fill their albums with 50-70 minutes' worth of material ever since Queensryche proved to the world with Operation Mindcrime and Empire there was durability in hyperextension. Unfortunately, a ton of fans were gypped by rock 'n roll swindles set past the half hour mark where they were buying 50 minutes of shit and 5 minutes of fun. Understandably, the natives grew restless, cried foul and threw out their CD stacks in exchange for plastic hip bubbles and fashionable ear plugs where they could play only their favorite cuts. Despite the return at-large of good music (mostly in the underground), it's no wonder people in general criminally think Black Eyed Peas are cooler than James Brown. Times, they are a-changin' and not for the good.

You hear my generation muse fondly about tape trading domestically and cross-continentally, word-of-mouth networking, magazines with just enough writers and photographers serving as gatekeepers to a mystery world everyone's privy to now and all-ages-shows where the black X on your hand stood for something. Vinyl albums were magical, and you sat on the floor of your bedroom staring at the bloomed artwork (especially if it was a gatefold) for the duration of record spins--much less reveled in the art of flipping the platters over, a sacred act of contrition between ourselves and the artists we played. Lyric sheets were our poetry, and we studied them religiously and asked ourselves and each other questions about the songs' meanings because most artists left the interpretations open to our imaginations, God forbid. MTV and videos (particularly on Headbangers Ball) were more than enough to entertain us--those, and Friday the 13th flicks. Trust me, it was better this way.

And trust me when I say we wouldn't think of staying in our houses longer than we needed to because teens of the eighties and the decades preceding ours were considered losers if we dwelled at home more than ran out. Why every effort is being made to avoid external contact with the outside world is befuddling to me. Rebellion is one thing; primeval cave existence with contemporary luxuries is another. In the true spirit of the eighties, I'm tempted to declare Orwell an accurate dystopian genius by posing conspiracy theory: all of this glorious tech today is a form of governmental control in keeping people off the streets like herded cattle. The demise of the record store is part of the master plan to squash the inevitable proletariat insurrection.

Seriously, though, the web is wonderful, the web reaches so many people within nanoseconds, the web allows bands to be bands and listeners to be listeners. Granted. There's a sacrifice of quality, however. Bad or undeveloped bands get exposure they never would've back in the day. Hack writers are allowed to post their thoughts with little accountability--and in some cases, talent. The bond between fan and creator... Not quite the same to commune by email or MySpace, I assure you. The aforementioned mystery is gone.

Besides, I don't know if anyone can see beyond the razzle-dazzle, laser blasts, mecha-wheezes and eye-popping effects of the Terminator series, but those flicks are trying to tell us a message and it's going largely overlooked: we're putting our necks inside the tech noose and waiting for the robots to kick out our stepping blocks to let us sway and constrict in the folly of convenience.

As our local Record and Tape Traders store hung in there during their final week, I listened to a young couple bounce in and complain within minutes of their arrival. "Nothing but shit in this place; no wonder they're going out of business," the guy smarted off to his girlfriend in front of the soon-to-be-displaced employee at the register who could hardly keep his chin off his chest the entire time I was there. His inevitable unemployment told the story in the midst of such gross indifference. That's what's wrong with Generation Tech. I salute those who crave the knowledge, attend the shows, buy the albums and t-shirts, but the overall lack of empathy tells me the Terminators and Borg are teaming up against mankind and they will win.

Funny, I took home some Joe Walsh and early Genesis for $2.40 a pop and the new Wolfmother at half-off in that bittersweet farewell firewall sale. Like Madonna smartly said in lyric form, beauty is where you find it. Sadly, we're living in a butt-ugly material world...


Metal Mark said...

"Still, it's going to be just a bit tougher watching High Fidelity and Pretty in Pink"

I would find it tough to watch Pretty in pink at any time because it's lame.

"For me, there's a sense of relaxation to wandering into a record store and flipping through albums for over an hour."
I agree with that, but it's because it's the experience I was raised with. Browsing was a huge part of the joy not just a task. If you didn't grow with it then there is nothing there to miss. Just a difference between the times.

I don't think you can just blame tehnology in every situation and you have to note that this store changed owenership a few years ago and things have changed. Their prices are higher on new stuff than they were. They did away with the budget bin as the huge majority of the used discs were now in the higher price range too. The major label stuff they had was frequently higher than Wal-mart or Target. There was more than one occasion where I saw a high price tag on a major label release there and I skipped it and got it for a few bucks less at Target across the street.

" I salute those who crave the knowledge, attend the shows, buy the albums and t-shirts, but the overall lack of empathy tells me the Terminators and Borg are teaming up against mankind and they will win."

I think you are generalizing with the lack of empathy statement. It's reaching too much and kind of broad. There are people like that in every generation. I don't think it's a standard trait just due to the fact that they would rather have their music on a small device instead of a monsterous stack of shiny discs.

That being said I will miss R&TT even though my spending there had gone down greatly over the years due to the economy. I can get most of what I want used from eBay or Amazon and that's the way I had gone over the last few years.

bob_vinyl said...

I really don't think that there's a significant difference between today's music consumers and the ones that bought CDs. If you think about it, CDs, like cassettes and 8 tracks before them, were a format of convenience and the American consumer's pursuit of convenience is not new or even more vehement than that of every generation since at least WWII. CDs are dying because there is now a superior format, from an ease-of-use/ease-of-acquisition point of view, that is replacing it.

The big difference isn't in the consumer, but in the marketing/sales model. MP3s simply don't need a store and that's what is killing the big, bad Sam Goodys as well as the mediocre R&TTs. However, the non-chain stores are doing okay and they offer everything that you love about R&TT, only with more serious music fans working there. These are the stores that are reflected in movies like High Fidelity. Thriving along with them is vinyl, the format that music geeks have long loved and that, rather than dying, is finding its market growing.

The thing is CDs, like cassettes and 8 tracks are really a format for a more casual fan and for them, MP3s bought via iTunes are a huge step forward. For geeks like us, we still have vinyl and we still have the little shops run by people who are like us (only probably 10x more serious, believe it or not). There's no sign that that will be changing. R&TT and CDs were just conveniences and like all of their ilk, they'll soon pass away.

Frankly, I think the difference exists for you, but it's no more historically significant than any other difference between one generation and the next. You've found there's a generation gap between you and the younger, more tech savvy crowd, but is that much different than the difference between those whose adolescence was on either side of the advent of MTV? People only a decade older thought it was absurd that we would want pictures to go with our music. Was it so crazy or just different? Same thing goes for people who recognize that the convenient MP3 outshines the now inconvenient CD.

Oh yeah, and who said it wasn't cool to stay home? I didn't go out to be a stupid teenager. I stayed at home and listened to records. I still do and it's still cool.

cjk_44 said...

everybody is making good points.

so ... R&TT once had 13 storefronts, right? now they are down to 2.

i visited the Glen Burnie location the other day as i usually do once a week. the "metal" section was noticeably smaller - and they did not put the "metal" bands back in the regular rock section. not a good sign.

i've tried to support R&TT as much as possible over the last 3 or 4 years by deliberately going out of my way to shop there.

i daresay it won't be long before the last 2 locations are closed.

ambrose1am said...

Some nice thoughts here about an America that's lost the ability to explore anything new and different. It's an extremely conservative time, and I don't necessarily mean political. There's so little room for artists to leave things unexplained and weird today. And I do believe we're witnessing a generational thing--the newbies don't go to see movies in movie theaters, don't go to record stores, don't get out of the house and run around. Those are dying pleasures no doubt.

DPTH International said...

For me the thrill of the hunt is great. Wondering into a record store and seeing what gems I can find.

Unfortunately, my usual haunts are dwindling in selection and I fear I will no longer be able to browse for metal music.

On-line I have been able to get a shitload of albums I couldn't otherwise find. I'm in Canada in one of the major cities and I find it hard to get new releases from major bands.

It's ridiculous. I love reading through CD sleaves and what not and I still make sad attempts at browsing.

As much as I agree with your statements on the MP3 age and downfall of the local record shops, I have to admit that on-line shopping and iTunes have hooked me up with albums I would otherwise never have and for that I have to give some kudos.

cjk_44 said...

it's been a few weeks, but i figured an update is in order.

as of 2/21/10 it appears the Glen Burnie location of Record & Tape Traders is on its last legs.

most of the merchandise was put in boxes labeled Towson.

sign on the outside of the store "goodbye we'll miss you" seemed to be written by a customer not an employee.

unlike the Westminster location closer there was no "sale" or other special "clearance" effort to reduce inventory as a parting gift to loyal customers.

All Souls Midnight said...

This was such an excellent article! And the comments added extra value to it! The truth is that music (and the way we find, browse and consume music) has changed drastically. Me too I get this relaxed, trippy feel when walking into a record store and start going through tons of records and cds to find a couple of gems I am looking for. For as long as there are still record stores in my city (and I suppose I am lucky there are still a few) I will pay my dues - even though I am also a father and have loads of bills to pay at the end of the month.