Have you ever read one of those pieces that just made you say “ugh” over and over while reading it, even while you agreed with a few of the points within? Sam Machkovech’s piece on the current role of the record store gave me that exasperating feeling, thanks to his trotting out a few hoary clichés (record store clerks are snooty!) while making a few decent points (most of which regard the indie-NPR bent of many of this country’s remaining record stores).
Basically he’s trying to argue that in the age of the Internet, fans don’t really need to have awkward encounters with shop employees in order to suck down the music they want — they can instead browse “free MP3s on blogs, BitTorrent sites, and [their] friends’ USB sticks.” Which, I mean, I guess? This is something of a Urban Person Problem, as it’s not like there are a ton of independent record stores still making their way in the suburbs. (A not-perfect but still-illustrative data point: One of the Long Island record stores operating in 1971 is still operating; it’s a former Record World that’s now an FYE.) But regardless: To prove his point that Record Stores Just Don’t Cut It These Days, he visited a local shop earlier this month — on the day after the indie-store celebration Record Store Day, as a matter of fact — in search of a record by the lovely Baltimore duo Wye Oak. The clerk is not sure of exactly who the band is, but eventually he navigates his way toward a CD of theirs and purchases it, even noting the store’s helpful role in that transaction taking place; “I can’t say I’d have bought the CD if I’d hadn’t listened to it at a spacious store’s listening kiosk or hadn’t been reminded by the gig poster. A MySpace listen doesn’t always translate to an iTunes spree,” he writes. But what did his not-on-assignment friend think of the whole experience?
My friend who joined my experiment, a casual music fan who doesn’t buy music at Best Buy, gave me a one-word review of her experience with me: “Boring.” She looked at the racks with a blank stare, not knowing much about the artists and finding the little handwritten notes insufficient proof of the quality. It’s not that she didn’t want to buy anything; she just didn’t know where to start.
The next day, I ripped my Wye Oak CD to my iPod and gave her the CD. She loved the recommendation. She’d love many, many more.
Machkovech treats his personal victory as a failure of the record store. But isn’t the disconnect here embodied in the word “casual”? It shouldn’t be surprising that someone who just likes music on a non-obsessive level isn’t going to be so into delving blindly into the teeming racks of a record store; that’s like expecting me, as a casual fan of football, to dive right into a pile of statistics and start picking out a fantasy team. (Although I’d probably describe my experience to whatever friend asked me along on this encounter with a term that’s a bit softer than “Boring,” ahem.) Of course I’ll take recommendations from friends, who know me and my proclivities, over handwritten cards, no matter how spikily interesting the script on them might be. (And it’s worth noting that his own description of Wye Oak — “the female-fronted, morphine-drip Americana of Low took on some of the urgency and bleeding-guitar tricks of Autolux” — might cause those casual music fans outside of his social circle to glaze over as well.)
Machkovech’s rant is ostensibly about “music fans,” but he fails to note that it’s the lack of paths into music for the more casual fans out there that has definitely helped put music sales — whether they’re at big-box stores or carefully curated shops — in their current precarious position. (Casual swapping of a USB drive’s worth of music during a night out with friends doesn’t help much, either.) Recommendations by friends are one of the few avenues of introduction left for people who don’t spend their leisure time bitching about Pitchfork’s number ratings and M.I.A.’s Tweets. Combine that with the bitter aftertaste still felt by people who had to deal with the $14.99 maxi-singles that were released as “albums” during the major labels’ Great War Against The Single and the ever-shrinking amount of real estate devoted to selling music everywhere, even at ostensibly music-centric outlets, and it’s not hard to see why the casual fan might find a thicket of options frustrating and subsequently go back to whatever they already had on their iPod.
Let’s wrap this up with a recommendation, shall we? At least Machkovech made it easy for me; Wye Oak is a singularly amazing band, and Jenn Wasner’s rich alto is one of my favorite voices in all of music right now. Here’s the aching “For Prayer”: