Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Angry Record Store Patron Not Really Sure What He Wants, Except That He Wants It Now

first they came for the staff picks rackHave 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":

[Pic via]

22 Comments / Post A Comment

HiredGoons (#603)

Machkovech, Machkovech, Machkovech.

Machkvetch, Machkvech, Machkvetch…

KarenUhOh (#19)

I spent at least 40% of my second and third decades in record stores. I was one of those Must to Avoids always offering breathless, and free, essays about why Wild Gift was far far far far better than London Calling. My physical exercise came from chasing folks around the shop to deliver this news.

Those with lives went to K-Mart and invested in KC and the Sunshine Band. Or Katrina and her Waves. I strive to believe we were all enriched–but they had dates.

brent_cox (#40)

It was a particular treat when a friend in high school got a job at the town record store, b/c that meant that pretty much every night we'd hang out at the store and play records. Or frisbee. Or both.

Bittersweet (#765)

This makes me nostalgic for all those trips to Record Town and Waxie Maxie's (in the 'burbs) and the indie stores in Georgetown. And also makes me wonder what the heck happened to all my vinyl albums and singles. I'm guessing yard sale.

PropSword (#2,870)

I just wish I still lived near my beloved Electric Fetus, the best record store in Minnesota. If that ever goes under… then it's all over.

panchomill (#1,187)

Never! Even tornadoes can't keep The Fetus down.

Matt (#26)

Hey. Don't diss the little hand-written cards. You wanna know how I got into the Afghan Whigs? A little handwritten card, with a caricature of the bro in the shop who wrote it attached. (RIP Bert's Music, Newark, DE.)

Matt (#26)

Also, indie-NPR can get bent, am I right?

David R. (#391)

While spending my rent money this past Record Store Day (at Red Scroll Records in Wallingford, CT woowoo), I had the pleasure of eavesdropping on a one-sided phone convo between the helpful-yet-harried proprietor and some rather insistent dude that rang up the store (for the umpteenth time, it seemed) and DEMANDED to know RIGHT NOW whether they had the RCD Drive-By Truckers seven-inch in stock before he deigned to drive down to the establishment and find out for himself. Owner Dude said in a wearily polite fashion, "Hey, sorry, I'm really busy, I got folks in line, & I won't be able to check for you." At which point Insistent Dude angrily hung up in a huff that I heard pretty clearly despite being on the other side of the counter.

Which is to say that angry record store patrons expecting handholding and peeled-grape service can suck one (1) penis.

LondonLee (#922)

I'm not sure what the anecdote about his "casual" music fan friend was supposed to prove about record stores in the 21st century. Surely this person would have been just as clueless in ye olden pre-internet days, those are people that used to (and still would) buy their singles at a chain store.

My first job was in a record store and I still spend way too much time in them (buying vinyl!)

EAT (#4,511)

That friend sounds like a real gem ("boring").
I'd rather huff dust off of old vinyls all day than exist in a world where my computer is my sole musical companion.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

As someone who is 41, and has spent tons of time in the mid-1980s exploring record stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan I must say there is nothing that makes me want to scream more than anyone who wants to "make a day" out of going to record stores in 2010.

First, no matter what anyone tells you, record stores are dead. They are just no longer the common ground where music lovers of all types gather (key point) but are a fetishized outpost that exists mainly due to… Not clear. Good rent? Good stock? Good customer base? Lord knows if I owned a building with a storefront I would most likely open some catch-all shop in that storefront. Would I care about making a killing on sales? Not really. I own the building!

Anyway, to me record stores were part of a larger landscape of teen/young-adiult stores I hung out in as a whole to make a day a day. If I was bored and it was 1986, I'd hop on the train and hang out on West 8th Street and head over to St. Marks. Going to a record store was part of the mix and I was introduced to music that way, but it was never a destination. I'm sure the same experience can be shared by others in small towns or basic mall rats.

But in 2010? I admire and support the spirit of "Record Store Day" and such, but I can't bring myself to care about record stores enough to care. It's a different world and record stores are fetishized outposts of "knowledge" and not much else.

Also, the football analogy makes sense to an extent, but it ignores the fact that going to a record store now might mean you "love" music, but that actually plays into the modern elitist view of record stores.

At one point they were far from elitist, and that world is gone. And that's what I missed.

Don't even get me started on vinyl fetishists in 2010. Anyone buying vinyl in 2010 is just an elitist.

LondonLee (#922)

Not an elitist, just someone who'd rather have that "object" than have my music be nothing but a collection of digital ones and zeroes on hard drive.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

Oh please. I too once felt this way. And while I had a modest collection, you start to realize after a few moves that CDs and LPs really just end up being the heaviest thing outside of furniture to schlep around. I have no nostalgia for crates of vinyl and plastic. I love my MP3s and my iPod Shuffles and the dirt cheap hard drives the music is backed up on.

But you are right about objects. After getting rid of physical music stuffs from my life I realized I still wanted to have nice objects around. As odd as it may sound, I started to buy more cool objects and really consider purchases of truly physical things more. My apartment is not filled with kitsch, but I feel now I have a better sense of filling up the empty space that lack of LPs and CDs creates with other things.

Heck, while I don't personally like it I think the whole world of 33 1/3 books is brilliant. In a world where music is becoming ephemeral, here comes along a concept that takes the idea of liner notes, expands them and creates a new market. Genius move! Because even as publishing moves into digital worlds, the size of books like 33 1/3 is so small it's a "no brainer" purchase.

So you can keep your CDs and LPs. I have a cigar box filled with ticket stubs and band pins from the 1980s I'm holding onto as mementos of the music I like.

But I will say this: I do genuinely miss the guarantee that I can walk into a physical store and be able to talk to someone who has real knowledge of music. FYE exists, indeed. But does the staff there know anything?

LondonLee (#922)

"Oh please" yourself. Who were you calling elitist again? That post reeked of smug self-satisfaction.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

Oy vey! Look, let me make this easier: I grew up going to and loving record stores and such and the peak was the mid-to-late 1980s for me. But in 2010 it just makes no sense and the times I have gone I almost immediately gone "This is off… Not into it…"

Also, the whole argument that people who don't like record stores don't "love" music. That's not elitist? Who throws that cannard into an argument about whether they "love" music or not? Why is it so important to qualify that if someone doesn't like going into a record store it means their heart is off kilter.

It's debates like this that make me realize what I truly hate about indie culture: The fact it all seems to hinge on masochism, fetishization and actually liking ("loving?") things because they are counter to a popular opinion. Lord help you if you actually admit you like something "pop" to a true music "lover" behind the counter of a record store.

I like music, don't get hung up by the container it's in and appreciate the fact my back doesn't have to strain to carry boxes of this stuff.

When the "hook" of record store day is buying limited edition vinyl, you're resorting to gimmicks and novelty and that doesn't bode well for anyone.

LondonLee (#922)

I didn't actually go to a record store on Record Store Day and I've never bought expensive limited edition vinyl. I know the sort of people you're referring to but I'm not one of them – I love pop music too (Christ, I own four Kylie Minogue albums). My use of the word "clueless" above wasn't necessarily meant to be pejorative, just a statement of fact. There's nothing wrong with being a "casual fan".

brent_cox (#40)

Also I am loving the hell out of that Wye Oak.

Sam M. (#4,632)

I'm glad to see my article starting a conversation, even if under certain negative pretenses. I had a pretty long Twitter conversation with @maura today about this, and I think there's a slight consensus, but ultimately, she cherry-picked details from my piece to support her point… a point I never fully discerned. She didn't clarify what I was wrong about, so maybe she just didn't like my writing? Dunno.

Point being, we've all come here to post an opinion because we have a serious appreciation for the record store, whether it's a current one or, like SpyMagician put it, a FORMER one. I stand behind my article — particularly the parts that come off as whiny — because I think I'm far from alone; if I were in the minority, RSD wouldn't be necessary, now, would it? I encourage those of you making a quick burn through Maura's take to give my screed a look. Then feel free to light me up on our comment thread. Thanks. -SM

Wye Oak are my favorite band. I've listened to The Knot probably close to a hundred times all the way through since getting it at a show in Atlanta in late March. They're touring with Shearwater now and are spectacular live. Go see them if you can, I Hope You Die alone is worth the price of admission.

BTW, record store clerks ARE snooty. I say this having worked as a snooty record store clerk at Wuxtry's in Decatur, Georgia. By and large, record store clerks are arrogant and superior about music on a regular basis, some of them are even right, but it's a cliche for a reason.

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