Why Record Stores Matter

posted by Tom Moon on April 13, 2009 at 4:02 pm
in , , , , ,

Thoughts on Record Store Day, April 18, 2009.... http://www.recordstoreday.com/Home

The scene: A well-stocked record store. You are one of maybe six people browsing. It’s a rainy day, and you’ve ducked inside armed with just a few things you intend to check out. After a few minutes you begin to pay attention to what’s playing, and after a few more minutes, you find you have to know more about the music.

You ask. The clerk – ideally one who’s not as famously snobby as those immortalized in Nick Hornby’s novel (and subsequent film) High Fidelity, but instead a music lover with broad taste and a generous disposition – slides over. In the terse code that passes for conversation among music geeks, she conveys the basic information. It’s all you need. Your curiosity has been activated. Something about this music has slipped past your armor, and as you listen, you sense that these sounds could be vital to your future well-being. You snag this and return to hunt down what you came in for. And then you overhear two people talking about a guitarist whose work you know – turns out he’s a sideman on a record you didn’t know. Off you go, on another tangent, about to encounter another bit of amazingness. You walked in looking for one thing, and just through an offhand mention – “So, you’ve never experienced Fela before? Right this way….” – an entirely new world has opened up.

Of course it’s possible to have similar encounters via the Internet. But the web, with its endlessly cross-referenced and utterly logical stepwise connections, misses that essential human element. There’s not much in the way of thoughtful curatorship happening at the Genius bar: Input some touchstone recordings, and it will spit out a string of utterly plausible recommendations. It’s coldly digital, a seek-and-find mission with limited potential for serendipity. Encountering music in a record store can be quite different – haphazard and at times random, a tour led by those who, by virtue of their employment in these temples of sound, have heard tons of stuff and can make some connections for you. No search engine or software application can replace what they know. Nothing, in fact, can replace the electric experience of discovery that happens in a place where people gather, in real time, to share music and seek out the next obsession.

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#1 from Mike Vago, Jersey City, NJ - 04/16/2009 10:01

As much as the record store experience has always meant to me, there are plenty of other venues to be turned on to new music, most of which didn’t exist in the days before iTunes.  There’s a million music blogs out there, there’s Pitchfork, there’s the AV Club, and they still haven’t managed to kill off internet radio.  And of course, there’s still good old-fashioned talkin’ to your friends.

I do miss the atmosphere of the record store, but I don’t miss the snobbery, the $18.95 price tags, or the fact that there isn’t a record store in my neighborhood.  I say more has been gained than lost.

#2 from tom moon - 04/17/2009 4:33

True enough, but most of those sources you mentioned aren’t interactive—ie, it’s possible to learn about a great record from them, but then what? with a real-time record-store exchange, you start in one place and then there’s the potential to “volley” a little bit. with people. some of whom have big ears and adventurous taste.
and also there’s the chance to bump into something (or hear something) by accident. I find that doesn’t happen quite the same way doing an internet search.


#3 from Mike Vago, Jersey City, NJ - 04/17/2009 4:51

I’m not talking about an internet search; I’m talking about a specific place online, whether it’s a magazine, blog, or internet radio station, where you can hear from someone knowledgeable whose taste you’ve learned to trust.  And while radio’s not interactive, virtually any article or blog post has comments - on a site like AVClub, I usually learn more from the discussion an article sparks than from the article itself.

It used to be, your community was the clerk at the record store, your friends, and that was pretty much it.  Now it’s the whole world.  I’m not saying something isn’t lost when actual human contact is taken out of the equation, but I maintain that something valuable is gained when you have so many more sources to learn about new music.  This blog, for instance.

#4 from Adam Herbst, New Jersey - 04/18/2009 8:18

I think the best dichotomy is a library with open stack and a well-read librarian vs. a research library with closed stacks.  Sure you can search for things shelved next to your favorite book, but you can’t really get your hands dirty. 

And God, I remember walking into a record store and saying - what is PLAYING - I must have this.  And each record store had its own taste - there is an article in the NY Times this week about the closing of a classical music store - sold scores, I believe, and how it is impacting the culture in New York - not just classical musicians, but across the board. 

Monopolization of the media - grab the pitchforks.

#5 from Rhonda Smart - 04/20/2009 6:44

As someone who worked in record stores for 10 years (5 years while working a ‘real’ job too), I have to agree with both sides of your arguments.  These days, I feel so out of touch, and if it weren’t for sites like last.fm or pandora, I doubt I’d ever hear anything new.  Thank gord for Shazam on my iphone, so at least when I hear something, I can find out what it is if there is no one around to tell me. Allmusic guide also helps when I want to find out more.

#6 from Al King, London - 04/21/2009 3:00

I envy you in the US. Pandora, for me the single best thing that the www has yet produced, were obliged to switch themselves off outside the US over a year ago.

Now I am sure that there are a number of valid commercial reasons why this had to be, but even so this is worthy of lament.

This fabulous on line music service promises to “find more music you like” and admirably delivers on that but does so much more to boot.  The thinking and tech behind it is visionary.  They use the same science as the Human Genome Project which tracks hundreds of variables which are used to describe a specific human manifestation and apply it to music.

That means instead of just genre or era, every track is profiled based on key, rhythm, time signature, timbre, mood, degree of improvisation, riff based, vamp based, groove type etc etc etc.  That means that at some point in time someone had to classify every track in their HUGE database on that basis in the first place.

Now I am an anal music fan with a huge collection alphabetised by genre (of course), but how long did that take Pandora?  How many people were involved?  How much commitment and passion is required to undertake that?  Churchill’s Battle of Britain speech is equally valid here: “never before…” etc.

I have a good knowledge of 20th century (popular) music and read a wealth of specialist magazines weekly and monthly, but I discovered more excellent music*, and learned more about what defines my own personal taste** in 18 months from one source than in the past 10 years from many.

Granted, it cost me an arm and a leg to then go and buy all the bloody stuff, and backtrack into deep catalogue from the same artists, and buy the furniture to store it in, but this is true, real, actual proper genius at work. I feel like I now have a PhD in music.

All this wonderful music used to stream into my PC and out the speakers and I was left agog at how it nailed what I like, time and time again.  I did try to catch it out too.  I have very varied tastes from funk to metal, through classic rock, prog and fusion.

So I plugged in some Zappa, Miles,  Santana, van halen, paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan, and Queensryche, thinking it might struggle to make sense of it, but no, it spewed out stacks of tracks from these and many other artists like ‘em.  Few things can be as refreshing and thrilling as hearing a James Brown funk groove drop into a Megadeth thrash work out followed by a Macca ballad.

Pandora also provided another fabulous use: Democratic in office radio.  We all like to listen to music while we work, but cans dont work because you cant hear the banter or the boss coming or your team bitching.

So I would poll my staff for their top 6 artists, plug ‘em in and hey presto!, the perfect background for a happy productive work vibe, regular shouts of “Tune!” across the room and occasional moments of nostalgia and bonding through shared favourites.

Ladies and gentlemen of Pandora, I salute you all.  We wait in earnest for your return. 

* Larsen-Feiten Band; Eudemonic; Burning the Hard City; Spaced Out; Luna; Cosmo Galactic Prism; Death Cab For Cutie; Steel train; Sherinian, Derek; Diabolical Masquerade; Flying Saucer Attack; Saxon Shore; Liquid Tension Experiment; Yo La Tengo to name a few

** funky grooves, extensive vamping, major and minor key usage, improvisation, long instrumental passages, varied rhythms, riff based to mention some

#7 from Adam, New Jersey - 04/21/2009 8:35

I’m actually listening to Pandora as I write this (and as I read your comment).  Pandora is good.  My problem with it is that it is based on the contracts that they have with few record companies.  Put in some relatively rare 60s soul and you will get Motown.  They have a contract with Motown, so there you are.  It may be relatively deep, but it is not deep.

#8 from Shane, Nashville - 04/23/2009 5:57

I got to work in a record store for three years in my early twenties.  It was a great experience that I still look back upon fondly.  As a teenager, I would go into my favorite record store and ask the clerks for something new.  They knew my general tastes and usually I got to experience a band I would have never heard of otherwise. It sent me down a musical wormhole that I am still traveling down even 25 years later.

The internet is great for finding out about music and there are many sites I visit daily. Nothing will ever take the place of walking into a mom and pop record store and spending hours looking through tons of vinyl or compact discs, wishlist in hand, looking for that elusive piece to your collection. 

As long as record stores exist, I will be spending my time and money, trying to expand my musical experience.  I highly recommend it to everyone.

#9 from Al King, London - 04/23/2009 1:44

Thinking about key record shops through my life takes me on a warm nostalgic journey.  In order from my youth:

The Record Shop, Grantham, Lincs.  While at school (early 80’s), the only serious record shop in town.  You walked through a large room just full of album covers that felt like being in a trip to a little back room where the stock and till was. 

Sanctuary Records, Lincoln.  This involved a trip into the County Town on a bus.  Deep range and very prog/psych.  A real trip.  Bought my 1st double album here.

Left Legged Pineapple, Loughborough.  While at Uni (mid 80’s) this was THE place for students.  A bit too indie, but good nevertheless.

Way Ahead, Nottingham.  After Uni and world tour (90’s), I would make pilgrimages here.  Stacks and stacks of 70’s and 80’s 2nd hand vinyl.  I rebought half my old collection, that i sold after world tour when i was broke, here.

Amoeba Records, San Francisco.  While working for EA in the early Noughties I used top go to SF a lot.  Every time I went, I came here.  Just a huge room full of awesome, deep, quality product.

Soul Brother, London SW15.  Probably the finest specialist shop I know and 5 mins from my house.  I buy all my funk, soul, fusion and jazz here.  Excellent mailing list and website too.  They remember you and make exactly the right recommendations.

#10 from Peter Tobia, philly - 04/27/2009 7:33

Great piece.  Going to a record store is like a journey never knowing what you will end up listening to or buying.  Best memories I have of buying records was just browsing through the bins and listening to the music playing and over hearing conversations and at times becoming part of the conversation.  There use to be a Tower Records on South St.  That closed and now it’s a Walgreen’s.  Across the street was a bookstore.  That’s closed.

#11 from Aaron, Whistler, BC - 05/07/2009 8:14

I hear what you’re saying, I miss that small independent record store. There was a good one where I went to university - I must have spent hundreds there.
I subscribe to the sixtyone for new music; it’s kind of like a Digg for music. It’s free to listen, and the artists involve themselves in the website as well. Plus, if there’s a user that you notice a lot and you share similar tastes, they can recommend when they support a song.
LOVE the book PS! It’s the best present my dad’s ever got me.

#12 from Adam, New Jersey - 05/08/2009 8:23

Another note is the connection between musicians/producers and record labels and record stores. 
Stax Records had a record store and in a documentary I saw Estelle Axton talk about how she knew what kids wanted to hear by seeing what was sold and danced to at the record store.  Similarly, Berserkeley Records, home of the Modern Lovers and Greg Kihn (to name two) had an attached record store.
As for producers, I recently got the Jerry Ragovoy story on Ace and the liner notes indicate that he hung out at a record store in order to get into music.  Same with Joel Dorn.

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