Thursday, April 16, 2009


The Case for why the Record Shop is Still Imperative to the Fabric of American Culture in Spite of Music Downloading
By Ron Hart

When I first started to make my own money as a high school student, Tuesdays were always my favorite day of the week, as this is historically the day of the week when the record industry releases their new titles to retail outlets. While not every Tuesday presented itself with something worthy of which to spend my hard-earned dollars, they were offset by those Tuesdays when the latest album by one of my favorite bands would come out, presenting itself as a day of holiday-like proportions.

One particular Tuesday that remains the most vivid in my memory was during my senior year in high school when Guns ‘N Roses released their double-LP Use Your Illusion. A small group of us all skipped classes that day in order to drive over to Strawberries in Newburgh, NY so we could be there right at 10 AM to pick up the two-CD (or, for those of us with less money at the time, double-cassette) just as the store opened up. The anticipation for these albums, though dwarfed in comparison to the band’s latest release, Chinese Democracy, was as high as any other title in my lifetime back then. And the whole ritual of getting everyone together early in the morning, meeting up at our friend Darran’s house, driving into Newburgh, grabbing breakfast at Perkins beforehand and then waiting for those doors to open so we could rush in there and grab the album to spend our skip day listening to it, reading the liner notes and arguing over which song is better was a bonding experience with good friends I will never soon forget. Unfortunately, in the advent of music downloading, this Tuesday tradition is in danger of becoming as archaic as stickball and marbles in the eyes of today’s youth.

There was a time when the only way to purchase the latest album from your favorite artist was to drive over to your nearest record shop and pick it up. However, there is a drastic and rapidly-evolving movement that has been cultivating itself over the course of this decade that has been impacting the way people get their music, all done from the comfort of one’s own home. On the surface, it seems like a great idea: Enjoying the luxury of downloading music right onto your home computer, which takes up zero room in your household unlike that unsightly CD shelf unit is now. However, whether the latest album from, say, U2 was downloaded from iTunes or on a Blogger site that helped to leak it two weeks before it’s intended release date, the quality and value by which that record was made as compared to earlier works in U2’s catalog has been dramatically altered, a casualty of the ripple effect the idea of downloading music online has caused in mass culture. This includes how we value the music as a tangible commodity, the quality and care by which it is made and, most importantly, the diminishing sense of organic community a record shop has provided for generations as its offspring move closer to exclusively digital means of social interaction.

Contrary to popular belief, there are still people out there who take pride in their collections of CDs and records and value music as something more than megabytes on a desktop. Unfortunately, for every one person who prefers to purchase music at a local record shop, they are outnumbered by those who have staved off purchasing their tunes the old fashioned way, which has spelled the death knell for just about every major record store chain throughout the last fifty years. And these days, you just can’t beat the price: $9.99-$19.99 per CD vs. FREE. In this economy, downloading music appears to be the only viable option allowing for music fans to stick to a budget while still enjoying the latest music releases.

The effect this Laissez faire, go-with-the-flow ascension towards the acceptance of downloading as a preferred way to buy their music, Americans, led by their children, have come to accept the MP3 as the primary means of listening to their favorite new song. “Song” being the operative word in that last sentence, because it’s the single tracks that matter most to the iTunes-buying public. At just $.99 per song, why buy the whole new album when you can just cherry pick your favorite tracks and save a few bucks? This kind of attitude undermines the intentions of most respectable recording artists, who create a full-length album to be listened to from beginning to end, not a compilation of singles. Or hire a jacket artist to do an intricate cover or pen a well-written, insightful essay for people to read in the liner notes for that matter, as CDs are running out of steam at retail with each passing year. “Why spend all this money on packaging and high-end recording equipment, when it’s only going to be played through tiny ear buds on an iPod?” the artist might ask themselves the next time they go over their budgets for their forthcoming studio endeavor. Needless to say, that romantic vision of the music fan with headphones on his ears listening to the album he and his friends had waited two hours in line to purchase, staring intently at the artwork on the cover, has given way to that same kid sitting in front of the computer downloading full albums within minutes to their hard drive and appreciating cover art as a thumbnail sketch that appears on a tiny iPod screen.

However, there are still a few of us who still see the value in buying music from the local record store. The record shopping experience as a whole can be seen as a tradition passed down from father to son, uncle to nephew, cousin to cousin and friend to friend as quality time spent socializing with others and strengthening the bond of relationships. Although one can easily argue the point that music is still very much placed within a social context in the online world, as such prominent community sites as MOG, MySpace and Facebook have all rooted themselves deep into the lexicon of people meeting other people through the common ground of music enjoyment. However, trading music files, e-mails and instant messages with people whom you only know as an avatar and a scrolling weblog on the screen does not offer the true sense of community that the social aspect of the brick-and-mortar record shop has provided for nearly nine generations. Nor can shopping on Amazon or iTunes compare with the social benefits of getting the latest updates on new music or discovering a rare album through face-to-face interactions with fellow shoppers or educated clerks.

It is important to recognize this major shift in how people obtain their music in today’s mass culture. This shift has helped the consumer save on spending while creating a significant impact on the economic growth for the musicians themselves, the record labels and the shops that sell these products. This change in the face of how we obtain music also has a profound impact on the value of the artist’s final piece of work and the social connection between fans and their music. The music buying experience is being replaced by a music downloading movement and is becoming less and less organic and genuine as more people continue to interact through networking websites instead of their own town square.

It’s very sad to think that in the none-too-distant future, the only way one will be able to get their music is through the Internet, thus leaving future generations completely unaware of the joys that getting together with your friends “to hit up the spots”, as we like to call it, had brought their parents and grandparents throughout the majority of music history. One can only hope that but a handful of these aging emporiums of sonic treasures will remain in existence in twenty years thanks to the elite few of this current generation who have jumped on the digital music backlash bandwagon early and spend their weekends at places like Flipside in Pompton Plains, NJ or Mr. Cheapo’s on Long Island (whose Commack location is pictured above) or Academy Records in Brooklyn or the Princeton Record Exchange doing what I did when I was their age, getting their fingers dusty and their knees scuffed up flipping through moldy old 33 1/3s on a dirty record shop floor.

No comments: