Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Record Store Days Plays Only on Generational Nostalgia

Megan Seling wrote an interesting piece in The Stranger last week titled, "Damn the Man, Save Your Local Record Store: Why You Should Care About Record Store Day." Though I liked it, I didn't buy it (pun intended). Consider this column my response:

by Joseph Coscarelli
April 23, 2009

It was at a rooftop party in lower Manhattan that I encountered a unicorn. Well, not exactly a unicorn, but a creature equally elusive. I had been told these mythic creatures existed; promised that their purity surrounded me, even if I couldn't see them with my disbelieving eyes.

She was barely over five feet tall with loose brown curls, a ratty sweatshirt and black tights. She gushed about early '90s independent rock, lauding Stephen Malkmus while dismissing The Boss as "factory music." She was reverent, but just barely. I'd heard these vaguely derisive party lines before. Then she said it.

"I don't believe in downloading music," she said. "I go to record stores and I buy it."

I nearly stumbled off of the six story building. "Shady Lane" probably would have played in my head as my stunned body rushed toward the, uh, pavement. Regaining my composure, I pushed the issue. "Wait, so you buy. every. album?!" I stammered. "What was the last one you bought?"

Silence. I could practically hear the bum below shaking his change cup.

I knew it. My generation -- teens to early twentysomethings -- does not care about record stores. They love music, songwriters, bands, concerts, mp3s and the idea of record stores. But the racks of plastic, the bearded, bespectacled know-it-alls, and the prices that often match our age? Good riddance. And that's why Record Store Day -- the "holiday" created last April in which "independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music" -- will not and does not resonate with us.

When I picture a tiny record shop, I imagine it as a haven for the college student of yesteryear: the Berkeley, California activist or the Athens, Georgia scenester. It was a pit-stop on the way to the protest or the bonfire. An archaic place -- a speakeasy for conversation about Black Flag or Billy Corgan, forced to the margins and deemed unworthy by talk of Reagan's reelection or the WTO. These young mavens in the making found guidance in the gravelly voices of aging failed musicians -- another demographic that populated these temples of sound. It is for these types that Record Store Day exists, playing on their nostalgia as a sort of Veteran's Day for the Miles Davis set.

By the time my peers and I decided that Kurt Cobain's estate deserved our allowance money, mega-chains were dominating the market; Target and Wal-Mart cashed in before we even realized that they left out the dirty words. If we were lucky, a Tower Records or a Virgin Megastore was within driving distance, but they sell music with the intimacy that Steve Jobs sells iPods. Tower filed for bankruptcy in 2006; Virgin will close its remaining six locations this spring.

For those of us fortunate enough to live in an urban setting or vaguely alternative area, independent record stores may have been like candy shops, but more often than not there was a grizzled and jaded curmudgeon behind the counter -- not exactly welcoming to a wide-eyed tyke who has never heard Trout Mask Replica. So when advocates for this particular endangered species stress the importance of an erudite staff eager to recommend, I only feel the condescension and alienation of my youth.

In my experience, we prefer the comfort of our own bedrooms, but that hardly means we're sacrificing the knowledge of those older than us or with tastes more eclectic. From the days of Napster and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to SoulSeek and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), the filesharing community has been exactly that: a community. Popular pirate blogs like Bolachas GrĂ¡tis and seminal message boards like Radiohead's Atease Web and Hipinion play host to critical conversations that feature more voices than could ever squeeze into an Amoeba, let alone Other Music.

Instant reviews flow as heavily as pre-release album leaks and recommendations are often a poster's currency -- forum personalities can live and die by the music they push, and with no monetary incentive for their promotion, trust is not an issue. After all, one could download it, give it a try and trash it before you had the plastic off of your Bob Dylan remaster.

If we're mourning for business -- for capitalistic decline and a faulty profit model -- that's one issue, and worth exploring. But let's not dress it up as the death of some higher level socialization, because a change of venue may even breathe new life into the world of critical thoughts on music and its fandom.

For the veteran of the record store, own it as a relic of your musical experience, but don't fault the youngster for making the journey their own. As the generational changeover moves irreversibly forward, likely eclipsing the record store as an abundant entity, embrace the shift and sure, while it lasts, keep your holiday. But don't lose what you love about the process -- let go of the tactile fixation and remember that it's about the community.

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