Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Record Store Angst

Recently, I was attacked by a bunch of vultures, who mistook me for a corpse, in the Rock/Pop “G” section of Tower Records on 4th Street in the Village.

All right, this didn’t happen. The only strange animals to be found in that store are the hired help: the usual assortment of lackadaisical, know-nothing hipsters who are good at ignoring everyone and raising self involvement to an art form. Glad to see that some things never change.

But every time I walk into a record store (let’s call them that for old time’s sake), I do get the feeling of vultures circling overhead. These places are empty. Even at peak times, after work or weekend afternoons, they are seriously under-populated: Tower, Borders, J&R Music World. In the past 10 years, I’ve seen at least a dozen major Manhattan music outlets close shop – HMV, which had about five stores at one time, has disappeared all together.

Smaller indie stores have not picked up the slack – they’re being vaporized, too. NYCD, which held down the fort on the Upper West Side for a long time, closed up shop recently, the owners complaining of their customer base abandoning them. (This probably wasn’t helped by them moving from a store-front shop on Amsterdam Avenue to a basement area on a side street just off the avenue.)

There’s no point in asking what’s going on – downloading, legal and illegal, has reached the point where it’s on the verge of nullifying physical stores. Sure, as consumers, we’re sick of the high prices. I recently tried to buy The Gourds new album in Manhattan. They’ve always been on indie labels without a major distributor, i.e., when a new album of theirs come out, it will not be sitting in a “New Release” bin at the front of the store for $11.99; it will be buried in the “G” section in Country or Pop/Rock. I found the album at Virgin and Tower – for $18.99 and $19.99 respectively. There’s just no way I’m going to spend that much for any domestic release. I found it at Borders for $15.99 – which still sucks, but next time, I’m abandoning the old habit of buying “special” albums on CD and downloading them instead.

It does seem strange that an industry that has been sucking the tailpipe for the last few years doesn’t do a damn thing to alter their pricings to win back consumers. Then again, as I’ve told friends before, I’ve always felt like a piece of dogshit on the bottom of the music industry’s shoe. Whether it’s been crazy pricings, desperately uncomfortable live venues or the sickly focus on teenagers as their financial engine, it’s an industry that predicates itself on a fair amount of self loathing in the consumer. They’ll treat you like shit because they know they can get away with it.

On one hand, I’ll encourage folks to illegally download as much as they want, but on the other, I can now see, literally every time I’m in a record store, that the end is near for these places. And that’s a bag of mixed emotions. I’ve never been much for warm/fuzzy record store communities. High Fidelity? Never mind the fact that I loathe John Cusack and Jack Black. There comes a time when you should stop trying to be “hip” – whatever that means, since we’ve lived in a society for years now in which everyone has a different definition of that word. What’s hip to a 15-year-old doesn’t mean shit to me – and woe unto anyone over the age of 18 who subscribes to that teenage version of hip. (I don’t hate kids. I just recognize that they’re kids, and not cultural arbiters of taste. For the most part, they’re tasteless, which is why it’s so easy to foist bullshit trends on them.)

I started buying records at mall stores in Pennsylvania, simply because there was no other option – Listening Booth and Record Town were the big ones when I was a kid. And believe me, once I fell in love with music, I was in there constantly, buying at least two albums a week for years on end, often more, as there was so much for me to learn. The workers were indifferent for the most part. I’ll never forget making my only return: The Fine Art of Surfacing by The Boomtown Rats. Not a bad album. But there must have been some malfunction at the record plant as there was a long, straight line burned into Side A – literally a ridged line across the face of the vinyl. When I took it back, the guy at the counter who had been seeing me constantly for the past decade, rolled his eyes and said, “How do I know you didn’t do this yourself?” “With what, you asshole, a red-hot metal rod? How in the hell would I do that?” I eventually got a new copy, but was incensed over the lousy customer service.

College record stores (at least in State College, PA) were great. This is the one time in your life when you should be hanging out at record stores and taking it all in. The guys who worked there were in local bands, had great taste in music, and a surprisingly good knack for customer service, too. As this was the mid-80s, it was also the golden years of the 80s Alternative scene, and every week brought mind-blowing new albums well worth owning. It’s always sunny in my memory regarding Penn State. This is probably why I never go back.

Coming to New York a few years later was like moving to Xanadu – record stores galore, big and small. Christ, back in the late 80s, there must been a few dozen stores all over the Village, along with the big-name behemoths that are now dying off. Sounds on St. Marks Place was the first one I walked into, and aside from switching from vinyl to CD, hasn’t changed all that much. Again, save that the few times I go in now, the place is almost empty.

Aside from some very cool, informed people (like the guys who owned NYCD), it’s been the usual “humor the hipster” dance with a lot of these folks. Even if they like what you’re buying, there’ll be some smug comment at the counter. Remember that kid Mikey from the Life cereal commercial, the one who hated everything? He found his calling as a record-store clerk. I’m basically a happy person – don’t try to be, or need miracle drugs to feel normal, just have the disposition of seeing things clearly in life and recognizing there are always better and worse scenarios, so why worry. It was a bit of an off-putting shock to me to find that so many people who were into music as much as I was were malcontents and manic depressives. I like Lou Reed. That doesn’t mean I have to pattern my life to be as fucked-up as he is. Whether it was posing or people with real mental problems, I eventually caught on that just because I shared musical tastes with a person didn't mean we had anything else in common. (There's another story to be told here about late 80s dating scenarios with women who owned every Cure and Smiths album, lots of black clothes and at least one cat ... but another time.)

In the end, it’s irrelevant whether or not record-store folk are warm, caring individuals with a great sense of customer service or standard-issue hipster bozos. Because downloading is coming on like a giant tidal wave and about to wipe all of them out. I got my first taste of downloading while working at NYU in 1999. All the interns were having the problem of their computers freezing up because of full hard drives. When one of them mentioned it was because they were downloading MP3s, I asked what they were, and that’s when the door opened. It was simply the start of a revolution, and you better believe I reaped my share of free downloads on Napster and Audio Galaxy in the early days – it was simply an exhilarating experience to download not just any song, but in a lot of cases, music that was no longer commercially available or only found on expensive imports.

And I still do that to this day, along with legally downloading through Emusic. In 2000, I interviewed the owner of Emusic about the future of downloading for a story in the NYPress and predicted that Emusic could one day service every major indie label in the U.S. Sure enough, that’s the fantastic position they’re in today – I have no idea how lucrative it is. (Apparently, iMusic operates as a loss leader that exists mainly to get folks to buy iPods, which are extremely profitable.) There are also a few Russian websites that position themselves as legitimate online stores with incredible selections that offer music (entire albums for about $1.50) and claim to honor copyrights. They clearly don't in America, at least artists aren't making a dime from these places, but I gather Russian copyright laws favor some guy named Yuriy who could get you toilet paper at a deep discount and anyone you want dead.

I’m careful with illegal downloading, trying to focus on out-of-print material that hasn’t been reissued and import albums (which always cost far too much). The RIAA has been quietly suing downloaders for the past few years, so I avoid major-label releases, especially ones that you can download before an album’s official release date (this happens constantly). It would be extremely embarrassing for me now to get sued by the RIAA when I’ve contributed a fortune to the recording industry over the past 30 years – but perfectly in synch with the traditional screwing consumers receive from the industry.

We’re in a strange place right now, a changing of the guard, where you can walk into just about any record store, and feel the future in the empty aisles. It is a little depressing, when I consider that going to Tower on a Saturday in 1990 was like going to a crowded bar – annoying, but you had the sense that this was somehow a place to be. That’s probably the big difference now – I go to a record store and feel like an asshole, a relic. I don’t miss records. Seeing as how I don’t smoke pot, I don’t miss gate-fold covers on which one could easily separate stems and seeds. I don’t miss the “warmth of vinyl” – meaning pops and hisses. CDs, by necessity, will hang around a few more years, but I won’t miss them when they go either.

Pretty soon, there’ll be nothing but the music. And that seems like a pretty fair proposition, even if it means abandoning cultural touchstones we all associate with music. We’re on the verge of some sweeping changes. I don’t know what they are yet, but I can feel them coming.

1 comment:

Jordan Hoffman said...

Funny you should write about this. I was just in the Times Sq. Virgin Megastore and noticed that the Pop/Rock section is downstairs. The upstairs section is for Rap, Video Games, new releases on CD & DVD, etc.

I only go in there to kill time in the "world music" section which, in this new set up, is about 2/3rds the size it used to be.