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Friday, May 28, 2010

DVD Review: I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store

I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store
2009 MVD Visual
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

In my interview with Frank Delgado of the Deftones last month, I put before him the topic of today's swift killing off of American record stores. I might've caught Delgado off-guard, who'd been professional and straightforward in his answer delivery, because I detected a nostalgic tone in his voice on this subject. Like most diehard music fans, he cited how much the record store served as his personal social hub. Delgado noted he didn't spend his growing up years in sports; they were nurtured in record stores. Delgado can probably take it harder than most people record stores are dying by the month since he uses turntables and sequencers as part of making his daily bread in the Deftones. Hard to imagine others being displaced by MP3 besides record store employees, but it's today's reality. Ironically, this interview with Frank Delgado was conducted on the day Peter Steele passed away, something I mulled over a few days after-the-fact.

While Delgado did make the defense for the current wave of online streaming and downloads as effective marketing tools, the underlying point was staked before he even yielded to modern times.

Whether you accept it or not, we're entrenched in digital warfare. Guerilla filmmaker (and obvious record store junkie) Brendan Toller turned his cameras loose in the underground to back up what Delgado and thousands of loyal record store patrons have lamented the past few years. This writer has likewise written a biased essay or two over the demise of traditional record stores and Toller's documentary I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store hits a mark most of us have been itching over as MP3 has turned the tide of music presentation and stupefied it into a faceless commodity.

Okay, granted, the obscene huckstery of corporate labels and Clear Channel have created a climate where something had to be done. Who the hell can stomach the same 20-30 songs on repeat every goddamn day until Uncle Payola decides when it's time to shift the playlist? Amazingly, a large percentage of the American sheep playing whiny waifs tweaked by voice scramblers on their FM dials lack the freewill to say no to it all. Forget satellite radio and the web, which is filtering hundreds of thousands of artists and artists-in-training for their edification. Music fans may embrace the immediacy offered by the internet, but the true music fans will tell you it's colder than a box of freezer pops compared to lollygagging blissfully in a record store and reveling in the joy of discovery outside of one's home.

Power to the people and all, yet the price paid for privateering albums over the internet is costing us our culture as music heads. Is it really communing if you're gunslinging anonymous insults in online chat rooms? At least hoity toity art farts behind cash registers have the balls to deride others face-to-face. Sure, such elitism has chased more than a handful of clientele into the protective blankets of Wal Mart and Target, who certainly offer value in price, if not a deep selection. Of course, it's much easier to pick up a can of coffee, a pack of diapers and the reissue of Exile On Main Street than it is to drive miles out of the way to pick it up in an indie shop, usually positioned close to if not within urban zones.

Still, if you give a damn about music at all, the independent music store (and sadly, even the mall chains which used to get fat on our coffers but have been whittled down to a meager handful of stores and forced to get real like anyone else) offers an intrinsic value, and we're not necessarily talking about music appreciation.

I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store examines the sociology of record store couture with some hard industry facts to back up its lamenting love letter vibe. Guided on the testimonials of such personalities as Ian MacKaye, Mike Watt, Thurston Moore, Lenny Kaye, Chris Frantz, Legs McNeil, Glenn Branca and Pat Carney of the suddenly-boomed The Black Keys, I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store isn't wholly an hour 17 of bellyaching how the underground has been screwed by the majors. And yet it has over the years, which is why Barnes and Noble became the elite place to buy music, albeit at a premium. Yes, I love Barnes and Noble and have done a considerable amount of music shopping there since their abundance of world music was one of the industry marks to beat. Still, lately I've seen Barnes and Noble's CD racks dwindle drastically as I've since filled in the gaps of my Bob Dylan collection from them, inarguable classics now reduced in price. Why is this?

According to I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store--and it's a valid point--the mass overpricing of records has forced cash-strapped America into finding alternate (and cheaper) means of excavating music. For some, it's a matter of traveling inconvenience, no different than hopping a couple of planes to England to procure some of Yorkshire's finest tea. If a CD costs as much as a quarter tank of gas and the factor of it being in the store is an unknown, then why bother? People would rather pay the shipping charges online for a $10.00-11.00 CD, which equates into the same money big labels hawk their merch for in big chains. Is it any wonder iTunes is running away with a cash cow herd, mooing mad money all the way into rebooted pastures? For all of these semantics, though, the same people at-large have no qualms paying $5.00-6.00 a pop in trendy bars, dropping a couple hundred when the night's drinking is done. Bars flourish in rough times. Record stores, not so much.

Let's face it; not everyone in the world likes to go into a store and be confronted by other people. Even I have moments where I just want to be left alone to take a stack of albums over to the headphones and sample them in private. Still, our society today has grown self-contained and paranoid and there's hardly room for the record store in their lives. Far easier for most to sit half naked in front of a computer and smoke or drink in peace without laws prohibiting them from doing it in the open air and surf for music. For them, preferable to dodging less-than-busy store employees who badger them every five minutes with queries ringing to the tune of "Can I Help You Find Something?" The interactive capacity necessary to communicate is just too much for the average person today. Add to that, a lack of time in everyone's schedules, and we're growing more robotic by the hour. It's why metalheads pass one another on the street yet refuse to stop and chat with one another. Elitism prevails, the clock forces us into working for the clampdown, yet social awkwardness in today's world is more to blame and you can lay that upon the fiber optic trails of the world wide web.

Of course, most people simply aren't going to be familiar with bands such as Pelican, Rum Diary, Minor Threat, Emperor or even long-passed artisans such as Nick Drake. The independent record store is a safe haven where people who know the language can convene and not feel less of an idiot savante because they prefer Black Flag to Rhianna. If the indie store doesn't have the latest Fu Manchu in stock, keep the faith; it's likely on back order. It won't be at Wal Mart, take that to the bank. Sure, you can save yourself the trouble and click it home from CD Universe, or, if you're not of the generation where lingering anticipation of new product was part the bond between musician and consumer, you simply drop anchor with Apple and download to your heart's content.

Where's the interpersonal aspect, though? Can binary code recommend you Bat For Lashes or Red Sparowes albums? Hardly not. Don't get me wrong; I shop online as much as I do in the real world because I'm just that damned obsessed about music and always on the hunt for a cheap deal. However, I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store hit me very hard even though I'm fully aware of the pandemic plaguing the American record store. I've seen some of my favorite hidey holes vanish firsthand, many of them recently. Even at Barnes and Noble I crossed paths with a gentleman complaining it was the only music store in the mall, wondering where he, like many who consider the physical act of leafing through albums therapeutic were going to go in a few years. Good question, sir.

I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store informs us over 3,000 record shops in the country have closed down. Alarming not so much to big chains who stand to reap ostracized customers into their limited emporiums. Brendan Toller hammers the point home in his documentary with his cameras blurring through frosty Wal Mart and Target stores. Rare is the smocked employee running the entertainment section register who knows about Thrice, Paris Combo or Rosetta, much less care. You can guarantee, however, the former occupiers of Trash American Style in Connecticut not only know these acts, they probably have direct access to all known bootlegs.

Or should we say, had.

It's sad when the footnote to a story is its beginning. I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store delivers a ten minute eulogy before the main title flashes up and while the conclusion does offer a glimmer of hope issued to the DIY-minded, you're already wishing High Fidelity had never been filmed. Or you wish it had been played on every channel in the Cableverse just to show the population at-large how important the indie music store is on a cultural level, much less the in-town money it generates.

Brendan Toller pounds this fact as his thesis and continuously puts record store owners and their patrons before his lens. The downtrodden facades are galore, the raised middle fingers aplenty. Stories of music shops being forced out of their spaces to make room for richer merchants who want to expand their spaces truly cut to the nerve. The punchline to this dreadful mistreatment follows with anecdotes of Big Dog business owners subsequently going out of business themselves. Whose interests were served when a gaping space in a strip mall glares like a cavity? Never mind a store like Trash American Style reliably occupied their space for a couple decades and with them, their customers. Perhaps its the bounced checks in harsh times which led to the decision of their eviction, yet the telltale conclusion to be made is economics rule, not art communities nor their benefactors. Sadder still when the former employees are booted to the streets to find work at Trader Joe's or in some cases, nowhere.

Toller treads close to Michael Moore territory with his flashpoint quasi-propaganda, political cartooning and payola vamping. However, Toller smartly threads a story and quickly hustles his indicators to why this crisis is happening. Damn Fraunhofer Gesellschaft to hell if you're a record purist. Yet Toller is savvy enough to flesh out all contributions to the accelerating death of music stores and he's even smarter to keep his film trimmed beneath an hour twenty so it never feels like melodrama. Quite the contrary; you're sucked into what Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth has to say and you find it romantic how Lenny Kaye first met Patti Smith and invited her to the record store he worked at and they danced after-hours in private before starting their band. You're especially glued to Minor Threat/Teen Idles/Fugazi legend Ian MacKaye, particularly how he has made Dischord Records the DIY model for all. His blueprint is so soup-to-nuts you have to scream why others don't use a similar business model.

Music stores are founded on the doctrine that music is life and it freaking hurts to see it devalued by a society which has become singles-oriented versus album puritanical. Okay, there's been too much crap shoved under their noses you can't blame people in general, yet the entire ethos of music production and distribution has turned sour like a jar of pickles left under the sun for too long.

Unfortuntately, people today forget the value of The Midnight Special and Old Grey Whistle Test in terms of fostering an awareness of music. Then again, why should they care when television is formatted to send its faces packing if they don't win the popular vote, their dreams squashed under artifice, judged and dismissed like cattle stock? American Idol is a sham because its only principle is to use a cheaper method of demographic hedging in order to sell records nobody will want in five years like N-Sync and TLC. Where's the chance, where's the development, where's the spontaneity? Gone, like 3,000-plus record stores.

As this film points out, it's the resurge of vinyl which will keep the remaining shops in business, but even wax platters are heavily marketed on the internet and scoffed by the general public as yard sale fodder. For the aspiring band, the key to survival is to take their vinyl on the road and put them up for sale at shows next to their concert shirts. It sure isn't going to come from their labels.

I'm not a bite-the-hand-that-feeds kind of guy since the music industry has been largely good to me. However, I must point out in conclusion that a good music store is like your bedroom amped by the power of infinitum. I sure as hell didn't like my folks crashing in on my room when I lived under their roof, even if I've always loved them with all my heart. Is it any wonder we're collectively taking offense at the calamity presented before us, one record store at a unit?

Time and tide wait for no one, particularly in the name of progress, but let's hope I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store becomes viewed as the fair warning in which it was created instead of an eventual time capsule. The extended interview segments on the bonus features are worth your money alone. The film itself is mandatory viewing.

And for the love of God (and music), support your local record store!!!

Rating: ****1/2


Some Tool said...

So glad you put this into words and that someone is "studying" this. I miss the days of going into a record store and milling around with the other common folk...

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

That was very nice of you, thanks, ST. I know it's a very wordy piece, but I'm as passionate about this topic as my wallet will allow me to be. :) Seriously, though, I'm really afraid of what may come down Apathy Road if people don't take an interest in their local music scene, which is just as much about getting into the stores and hanging out as it is forming band.

DPTH International said...

I have to agree with you also, Ray. I still have a few haunts to browse (mostly used stores though).

My local HMV (aka Big HMV) is a superstore and for years had a truly great metal section. But in the last 5 odd years that section has waned to big label, mainstream choices.

Gone are the European imports from smaller labels. And what it does stock of my personal interest is too damned expensive to buy.

Alas, I have been forced to the internet to find those hidden gems I read about or are 25 to 30 bucks at HMV.

I truly miss the browsing.

cjk_44 said...

Ray, don't know if you know this but the lone Record & Tape Trader is in Towson and it looks like it fits Towson's college town image. However, as the lone R&TT is owned by F.Y.E. it is merely a corporate owned entity masquerading as an independent store. Buyer beware!

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Dpth, we have a handful of places left including a couple FYEs, Best Buys, etc. The chain cjk is referring to was a Maryland institution for the underground and was considered a model indie chain. Each store fit the profile of a homey record shop, even if they ripped people off trying to sell or trade with them. They were great for imports and had a good mix of mainstream and indie music of most genres.

We used to have a true downhome music store called Music Machine, which was THE place for punk rock albums in the Baltimore region...on this documentary, Ian MacKaye makes reference to Kemp Mill Records (remember that one, cjk?) and there was a Waxy Maxy's personal favorite growing up was Record Theatre on the edge of was a larger-than-life store, though not quite in the league of Tower in its prime...still, they had the cover of The Cars' Candy-O mounted on the wall until they shut down in the late eighties.

Cjk, yes, I was aware of the corporate sabotage with R&TT. Towson always was my favorite location, especially when I went to college there. It was an amazing store then. Now it's still very good, but yeah, you have to stomach some corporate pricing, albeit lately there's tons of $5.00 used albums there, as well as the FYE chains.

safemeds said...

I love music. I don't kind-of like music, don't enjoy music, don't have an interest in music. Music, for me, equals life. Period. I hate being out in public, can't stand being around people, would much, much, much rather be sitting at home with my headphones clamped over my ears... but I have relished every second of my life that was spent in a record store, and there have been many. Why was being 19 the best year of my life? Because that was the year I had the opportunity to manage an independent all-metal/hard rock record store in the sleepy community of Lawton, Oklahoma. How did I survive high school? Easy answer: the indie record shops that thrived in every Bahnhof (train station) in every small city in West Germany, where I lived at the time.