This weekend I spent two days sitting at a local market selling off some of my vinyl records. I’ve been collecting records for about 15 years, and it has gotten to a point with my own ‘collection’ that I have way way too many. Of course, there is the honest response as well that almost all of the music that I listen to now is in an electronic format, so I wonder the value of keeping the records around.
I found the experience in selling the records quite cathartic, where it somehow made me feel a bit better knowing that my records were going home with people who would cherish them a bit more than I had cherished them. But the really amazing part for me were the people that would just flip through the records because they were there – and the age ranges – anywhere from kids around 11 years old, to probably one of the older customers who would have had to have been in his mid-seventies at least. All of them had the stories that went along with each record – from those that had some of the records as kids, to others who remember seeing one of the bands in concert, to the one person that was looking solely for album covers by this one graphic designer from the 50’s. I knew that my record collection was diverse, but I really didn’t think it would reel in such an eclectic crowd.
It was a great experience – I didn’t know how I would be accepted as the market was mostly for hand-crafted materials. But it seemed like the boyfriends/ husbands of some of those that were there for the more hand-crafted items would drift over and have a look at records when they had a moment. But the buying was not at all just from men – I’d say it was about 50/50 split. It seemed that a good portion of those that bought records from me didn’t even have a record player at home – they just either loved the artwork, or they loved the kitschy attraction of vinyl, or they thought they would hold on to the vinyl longer than other musical formats. One younger lady had almost literally flipped when she saw I had Prince’s Purple Rain (in fairly pristine condition); she didn’t have a record player, and most certainly had the MP3 versions of some of his songs, but it didn’t stop her from buying the record.
When I got home after the fairly successful market, I decided to watch a documentary that had been made a couple of years ago called “I Need that Record” which attempted to document the rationale behind the decline of the ‘record store’ as a place of musical community.
The documentary wasn’t that well constructed, and seemed to pit the local record store against the big bad record industry- I imagine a somewhat tenuous relationship at best. There were interviews with bigger names from music who have ventured into side-businesses, or who were now self-releasing music, and who had said eff you to the traditional business models and were trying to embrace a new way of connecting with their audiences. One record store who had apparently been pushed out of business by a neighbouring print store was profiled as well, but the idea of why the business hadn’t attempted to set-up in another location was never investigated in the film.
I have a love/ hate with vinyl. I adore seeing the piss poor business decisions that someone made to release a record as a promotion piece (for instance Maple Leaf sending a double vinyl album to store managers to promoter their Christmas Meat selections), the strange artwork that would accompany children’s records of the 60’s and 70’s, and the records now that seem to be released without hesitation on vinyl.I love the crackles and hisses, the artwork, the ‘posters’ that were included as promotions pieces, etc. The aesthetic of vinyl is one of childhood for me, of wonder and even of danger (that I would scratch a record of my mom’s!).
My hatred comes from this weird nostalgic relationship that people have with records and record stores. The people behind the tills of those record stores profiled in the documentary could say all they wanted that they were in it for the sense of community, but when it came down to it, they also needed to make money. And similarly when I was at the market on the weekend, I do adore connecting with people, but it is not “me” as vendor that they are interested in, it is the musician that has created this piece of artwork that they would like to connect with. I am a conduit, probably rather inconvenient, that stands in the way between them and their purchase of Corey Hart’s Boy in the Box. And if I hadn’t made some money during the weekend, I wouldn’t have come back because of that warm fuzzy feeling of ‘community building’.
But being in this position as ‘seller’ also made me think differently about my take on record stores. I remember a million years ago, there was a discussion in a class I was taking about the commodification of public space, and how meeting and gathering places, that would have existed 50 years before and would have been ‘free’ of charge, were dwindling and were instead being replaced by companies who took advantage of that kind of community building to create a space that would help bring people to their store and also help their bottom line. And in that regard, I don’t know that I see the decline of the record store as an entirely bad thing – why *should* I feel bad that a place that was said to exist to solely profit off of my love of indie/ hard to find music? Or why should I feel bad for – just like the RIAA with electronic music- that a record store isn’t adapting to a new business model that more closely reflected the current musical times? I mean because there was maybe one or two times that I didn’t walk into a record store or two in Vancouver, where the clerk could give two shits where I was from, my history or stories, or what albums I had at home — no matter what I did in that situation, I was not as cool as they were. In a way, I had the interest of hearing what the record store people were listening to, but it is a rare occasion where I want to actually meet people with attitudes like Jack Black’s character from High Fidelity – in all seriousness, sometimes I like a decent customer service experience too.
Another problem I had with the documentary specifically in their portrayal of the music business, is this liberation of the artists from “the man”, where one Mr. Billy Idol was telling the record companies to kiss his arse, and that he was appreciating the connection direct to his fans. But with Mr. Idol – would he have even cracked into the industry had it not been for the promotion done by his record company in the early 80’s – the funds spent on videos, marketing campaigns and all? Yes, a musician can appeal towards their fans – if they have them – but if you have yet to build a fan base are you really that much farther ahead in a digital world?
It was generally an amazing experience – to have selling records this weekend – and then to watch this documentary just now about that topic. I can see that there is still a massive appeal for vinyl, and there is a love and adoration of the culture surrounding the records that were produced. But that nostalgia, that thought that someone has connecting their memories of music, don’t usually bring them to a record store where they bought the piece – it is usually connecting them to a childhood memory, or maybe even a concert where they saw this band play live.
There is still this need for the tangible.
So my strange rambly predictions for the music industry seem to be happening already – but it started 20 years ago (almost to this day) where Lollapalooza announced its first large concert, comprising of several bands from different lables (GASP SHOCK!). Today now they are a dime a dozen, travelling through cities like a modern circus. But also these massive concerts- the UK type super concert- like the Coachellas, Sasquatch, etc, that draw upon crowds and make the destination the production and playing of the music, almost to me circumvents the capturing of the music in a recorded format in its entirety. Records were created to create a way to get the music out to more people, where they wouldn’t be able to see a concert in-person, or couldn’t possibly afford attending a concert. Like almost a business card for the band, a 7” was an audible way of bands getting their art into the hands of fans. But if we have access to see and hear (youtube/ myspace etc), why do we need to have the artifact of the music in the first place?
The Jukebox of the Future
Another way that the distribution of funds has changed is this idea of the $200 music player – the Ipod, Iphone, Ipad etc. The major player in the music industry now isn’t a record label, it is the company (apple) who has the ability to connect fans to the music they want, and when they add little proprietary touches to the mechanisms, they are almost guaranteed an income from music lovers.
Distribution = Key
Finally, the method of distribution now of those packages of music, for the most part, is not going to happen through a brick and mortar store (and this hasn’t been the case for a long long while). The power of the current and future digital age will lie in whomever controls how we connect to those mechanisms. So the real money for the ‘music industry’ is not in the production of a ‘product’ but the ISP that will distribute the product to the buyer (or the ‘sharer’). The stat that I’d like to see, that I haven’t yet, is the correlation between revenue from record store sales of hard copy items like CDs and records, from 1950 to now, compared to the combined revenue from online file purchases and revenue from customers paying their monthly ISP charge… I think a lot of that projected revenue that some believe disappeared from the music industry has been reallocated towards the cost of being connected.
So what would my model for a record store be, in 2011? What it was like in 1995 – I wanted to start a record store that was part cafe, part bar, part record store – where I could roll away the bits and pieces so at night, it could be a licensed place to host bands and sell booze. So sort of like the record labels diversifying and getting into gaming technology, I would diversify in booze. Because it is one thing we know about what people like – sex and drugs and rock and roll. I figure I can’t help too much with the middle one, the last part would be easy, and the first part, well, I figure beer goggles are as much help as anyone needs. And isn’t that part of community building? Bringing people together?
I guess what I’m saying is that I do find it difficult to feel entirely sorry for a record store that hasn’t changed their model of business – and like the one point that the documentary made that was very very valid – people won’t be doing their shopping in stores – period. And I definitely don’t feel bad for the RIAA and other narsty groups that seem to think that being jerks in a legal sense will help shift the culture away from the digital. The one thing that we can say is that music will continue to be made and played, and there will continue to be fans of music, and they will continue to find ways of connecting to each other.