Skip to comments.The Lost World of the Indie Record, Book & Video Store
Posted on 06/01/2011 12:25:28 PM PDT by GSWarrior
Brendan Tollers documentary I Need That Record! The Death (or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store (2010) brings a good deal of personality and attitude (in the best sense) to the story of the demise of the independent record store, though it might just as well tell the story of the demise of the independent video or book store, all of which are victims of the same forces: box store encroachment followed by on-line revolution, all feeding the bottom lines of large corporations that dont particularly give a damn about records, or movies, or books. The restaurant business has been similarly decimated. Applebees anyone?
I am a fierce advocate of free-market capitalism, and yet I have to agree with Toller that something has gone wrong when Wal-Mart sells 20% of all albums and those albums are largely the work of corporate mannequins like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. My mid-sized Southern college town has one remaining used record store and one remaining used book store. Our last independent video store closed in December, and our Borders which drove out our independent book and record stores recently got a dose of its own medicine and closed amid a blaze of luridly florescent signage of the kind you associate with particularly tacky used car lots.
Ill have to explain to my young daughter how likeminded people used to gather in the flesh to mingle, swap notions and preferences, and listen to whatever was on the turntable. I will have to recreate the lost world of my youth, and tell how I roamed the second-hand record stores of Boston and Cambridge, spending hours in grungy mouse-holes like Mystery Train (named in honor of the Elvis tune), and how I timidly put my fourteen-year-old inquiries to the superior wisdom of pierced twenty-four-year-olds, who had, in fact, heard everything and evolved a real critical acumen. Between 1988 and 1992, I spent many procrastinative late afternoons at Cutlers in New Haven (still there!). I once asked the sagacious manager about Moby Grapes first album, about which Id read in The Rolling Stone Record Guide (before it annoyingly became the album guide). He said that the record was out of print but that he had a copy (of course) and that hed make me a tape. My tape was waiting for me the next day, as promised. You dont get that kind of service that degree or any degree of giving a damn at Wal-Mart.
I will have to convey to my daughter what an elegant physical object the long-playing vinyl record was: how heavy as it balanced on the fingertips, how mysteriously engraved, hypnotic in its rotation, poignantly delicate and prone to times different kind of engraving.
Explain also how eye-catching and sometimes beautiful album art was and how much the art mattered. Certain album covers were indelible objects of fascination. Blue Notes myriad masterpieces of cover design (see here) seemed to inscribe a whole worldview of avant-gardism and cool, a kind of visual code for high modernism in its African-American dimension. On more sober and mature reflection, I realize that Blue Note created one of the supreme caches of modern American design. I adored the Warhol banana on the first Velvet Underground album (1967) and the Mapplethorpe portrait on Patti Smiths Horses (1976). Its reasonable to surmise that album art, like comic books, filled a gaping visual void in middle-class American life and inspired countless young people to begin to think about the world in visual terms.
I will also have to explain that technology is not necessarily progressive and that the long-playing record actually sounded better.
I will have to explain, finally, that each record somehow told the story of its own history. In I Need That Record, Lenny Kaye, Patti Smiths guitarist, beautifully elegizes the LP as an artifact in this sense:
"Im a fan of the download. I like to hit enter and have the song appear on my iTunes within seconds, but theres something about holding the artifact, about feeling it in your hand. It reveals a lot about the moment in time that the record was made. An abstract song could come from anywhere, but if you see something in a twelve-inch vinyl LP, with the cover art, or you hear the scratch in the 78, you get a sense of time and place that is, for me, irreplaceable."
When my daughter asks what happened to record companies and record stores and to the records themselves, I will have to answer honestly, Im not really sure. Communism is a potential analogy: decades of self-imposed misery, the illogic of which was demonstrated by the almost instantaneous evaporation and repudiation of the offending system. Does capitalism have phases of communistic heartlessness and aimlessness and self-destruction? Perhaps we too will eventually exclaim, Good lord, what are we doing to ourselves, and our equivalent of the Berlin Wall will suddenly become the pile of rubble it was, in actuality, all along.
Fred Goodmans classic The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce is a good place to begin an inquiry into what the hell has gone wrong (1998). I Need That Record updates the story.
Digital media have partially loosened the bottleneck created by the record companies, but on-line existence is comparatively sterile and un-educational in the broadest life sense. Its great to watch, say, Wanda Jackson or Hound Dog Taylor on YouTube (here and here), but theres no getting around the fact that you remain at your desk, not having had to foray into the world of sights and sounds and chance encounters. And, in any case, where are todays Wanda Jacksons? Where are the A&R men and independent record store owners working on behalf of the next Wanda Jackson, not because they want a spread in the Hamptons, but because they instinctively want to live in a world thats a little more spirited?
Here in Dallas, we have Half-Price Books, it’s like a museum.
The olden days are far too romanticized (always in in everything IMHO). A band would struggle for months or years, spend a huge amount on a “demo” hoping to capture the attention of an A&R person, and if lucky enough to ‘sign a contract’ had to sign over pretty much all the rights to their work.
Give me a world where I can write a song on Friday night, lay down some of the tracks, send the Pro Tools file to a bud 3000 miles away for lead or back up vocals, mix the damn thing and be selling it on Garage band or CD’s at a gig or market by Sunday.
I don't miss LP’s *one.damn.bit* Be it Mongo Santamaria or Mozart, trying to compile a complete collection used to take years and thousand of dollars and cleaning a piece of vinyl and replacing needles and dealing with insufferable nipplheads in record stores who wouldn't know Shostakovich from Scarlatti.
Actually, I think it’s more a case of free market capitalism eating alive a corrupted political system where content was chosen by a small group of overlords.
Sure the indie stores suffer, but even during the 90’s boom of small press and independent labels, they were using the same 4 distributors. Much of it was marketing.
So now, anyone can publish, and produce, with cheap tools, and the market has been flooded. The market realities are that the only products making money are mass market paperbacks, Imax films or huge budget Blockbusters, and Arena tours. A tiny percentage of material will slip through and defy that rule, but the reality is, it’s not just your friend and his home recording system who can’t get a break now...it’s legends with cult followings like Prince. It’s Hollywood studios and the Cineplex chains.
It smells like bum and surfer. Oh wait: sorta the same thing.
This is like someone who tinkered with engines in his barn back in the 1890s whistfully complaining about the easy availability of automobiles in the 1920s. We have the internet now, and it can give us whatever weird, crazy crap we want without bothering to find a little boutique.
I understand nostalgia, and, indeed, have fond memories of little, local treasures selling food, clothing, music, books, etc. that I was forced to go out of my way to visit. But when you get down to it, commerce is commerce. If I can get what I want without unique atmosphere and comraderie, all the same. McDonald’s and Wal-mart can take over the world, for all I care. I wouldn’t waste time crying for lost stores. Save the whistfulness for lost family, friends, community, art, religion, or whatever.
By the way, I realize “community” and commerce go together, to a certain extent. So don’t remind me. It’s just not a very important part of community, in my opinion.
Amoeba Music--used to be a bowling alley on Haight Street. Now it is the granddaddy of independent record stores.
Eh. I’m sure as convenient as a good Barnes and Noble is, you can appreciate a good mom and pop shop that carries interesting titles without needing to special order them. It really is a cultural thing also.
Think of it as the difference between relying on NY Times or Drudge, and having a Free Republic, or whatever else is in your bookmarks list.
“without needing to special order them”
That’s just the thing: it’s so easy and natural to “special order” things now that it’s no longer “special.”
“Think of it as the difference between relying on NY Times or Drudge, and having a Free Republic, or whatever else is in your bookmarks list”
I can’t get my head around this analogy, for my entire point was that the internet has made specialty shops more and more irrelevant. So the choice isn’t between the Times and the internet; it’s between the olden days of big name, regional, and local publications, and perhaps amateur papers and “zines” and the brave new world of the interwebs.
It’s cool, but even Amoeba doesn’t order everything any more, and doesn’t get the so-called DJ copies, which in the past it sold at a cut rate.
My point is, without specialty shops, you have a harder time accessing specialty content....unless you actively seek it out.
On one hand, you can find a book or film virtually any topic you can think of. On the other hand, with rare exceptions, a lot of good stuff slips through the cracks, and marketing controls what gets exposure, and turns a profit.
Now, you could say, it's back to the old days as far as open market, because musicians can produce and market their own CDs. The problem with the Brave New World is that there are no referees, such as old time producers, and the market, or the Web, is filled with trash more than ever. (Just see epitonic.com)
While we're at it, do yourself a favor and lookup this dude, and the David Wax Museum.
Frank Zappa hit the nail on the head:
One thing that did happen during the 60s was that some music of an unusual or experimental nature did get recorded and did get released. Now look at who the executives were in those companies at those times not hip young guys. These were cigar chomping old guys who looked at the product that came in and said, I dunno. Who knows what it is? Record it. Stick it out. If it sells, all right!
We were better off with those guys than we are now with the supposedly hip young executives who are making the decisions about what people should see and hear in the marketplace. The young guys are more conservative and more dangerous to the artform than the old guys with the cigars ever were.
And you know how these young guys got in there? The old guy with the cigar, one day goes Yeah, I took a chance. It went out and we sold a few million units. All right. I dunno. I dunno what it is. But we need to do more of them. I need some advice. Lets get a hippy in here... So they hire a hippy. They bring in the guy with long hair. Now, theyre not going to trust him to do anything except carry coffee and bring the mail in. It starts from there. He carried the coffee four times so they figured they could trust him. Lets give him a real job. He becomes and A and R man (artists and repertoire) . From there, moving up and up and up... Next thing you know, hes got his feet on the desk and hes saying, Well, we cant take a chance on this because its simply not what the kids want and I know.
Good old days were always better. Remember Emperor Franz Josef?
The OTHER problem is that “indie” is also a way of saying “not overproduced”. But the INDUSTRY will still slip some faux “indie” acts into the public consciousness.
If I recall, there was a woman who had “viral” videos on Youtube playing her guitar in her kitchen. “Then” Disney(?) announced they were signing her. Except she’d already been signed and the videos were shot by her label.
The INDUSTRY can’t stand to lose control of their empire. So the pravda press is sure to give plenty of coverage to the latest “activity” from Lady Gaga, Britney Courtney Kee$ha, and hip hop gangbanger with a phony street cred bio. Anything to serve as a distraction.
Don’t even need CDs now, just go to selling digital downloads and song placements in tv/movie/advertising.
With a record or book, you have a tangible good. You have the right of resale. Not so with a digital download, you’ve bought it, that’s it. You MIGHT be able to get up to 3 REPLACEMENT download copied from itunes should your ipod/computer/cellphone/etc be stolen/break/get lost. Try claiming that loss of a music library with your homeowner’s insurance sometime...
The music industry doesn’t make money on the sale of used product and doesn’t particularly benefit from the prestige of rare records selling for $20-120-1200. They could always press more copies of the music (and in some situations, that would suffice to drive down the price of some rare R&B or rock single that was never released to an album). Some pioneering profiteers have taken to making their own bootleg pressings of obscure (but in demand) singles and compilation albums; some seek out proper rights payments, others just press the wax and try not to get caught.
Wax, shellac, and vinyl have gone through some format changes over time (cylinders of 2 playing lengths, pathe/edison/"standard" 78s (each played with a different stylus, Brunswick DID make a combination player). Even with the shift to wax there was a format war over 331/3 LP/EP vs 45single (or boxed album of singles). BUT in the end, dominant technology permitted you to play 78s from the 1910s-2011 LP/singles all on one contemporary turntable.
I question whether today's mp3s will still be supported by playing technology in 2110. And you certainly won't be able to reverse engineer a player from physical parts.
People will take the ease of a McDonald’s hamburger in the drive-through vs. preparing a balanced and enjoyable movie at home. They aren’t comparable experiences.
Instant gratification is the rage. Oh, and they want it for nothing. Not that the labels bothered PAYING their artists the money collected in their name...
The last time I know that the majors did that was in the 1990s and then they panicked and moved to the safety of boy and girl pop singers that they could market like the Monkees but without the depth or personality or staying power.
“dominant technology permitted you to play 78s from the 1910s-2011 LP/singles all on one contemporary turntable”
While it may be true that you have been able to play LPs on the same piece of equipment for that span of years, it is beyond reason to suggest any but the most assiduously preserved specific records remained playable for a similar span of time. For unlike digital ones, physical copies are prone to entropy.
It may be as you say, of course, that technology shifts will make irrelevant our digital copies. Be that as it may, almost certainly none of your LPs will survive to 2110.