Record Store Day and the new music industry
When I was in college, I was half of a singer-songwriter duo. People called what we did “folk music,” and I’d never considered that phrase before. It was 1995 – incidentally the same year No Depression printed its first issue. There was an internet and a Yahoo! search function, but it wasn’t where you went to find information. The internet, at the time, to me, was essentially a tool for chatting with strangers and emailing the couple of people I knew who regularly checked email.
There was no music online, as far as I knew. That came later.
I probably could have typed “folk music” into Yahoo! and found a few random articles from reference journals, or something, but it didn’t even occur to me. Instead, I went to the place where music was kept, collected, categorized by genre: the local record store.
There were a few I frequented back in the day. The main one was Specs Music. I had been shopping at Specs my entire life. I knew the people that worked there. They sold me tickets to concerts, helped me find the best seats. They had seen my musical tastes evolve from Billy Joel to Debbie Gibson to Babes in Toyland to Ani DiFranco and beyond. They had suggested up-and-coming, unknown artists all along. They didn’t have much of a folk music section, though. For that, I had to go to Daytona Beach. I don’t remember the name of the store, but they sold mostly used CDs.
It was from that store that I discovered and purchased albums by everyone from Concrete Blonde to the Pixies, Greg Brown and Danielle Howle. It was the kind of store into which you could walk with ten bucks and the staff would turn you onto something you never would’ve considered on your own.
Record stores like these two shaped me in my formative music-consuming years. They took me by the ears and stretched my tastes in new and exciting, unexpected directions. By extension, they inspired me and motivated my songwriting engine – that very thing that drove me for years from city to city, opening my eyes to regional styles and songwriting traditions, giving me stories to tell and more words to write. It’s the same thing that has brought me here today to recall those influences.
On Saturday evening, after a long day of watching music critics talk about criticism at the annual EMP Pop Conference, I wandered a few blocks away to Easy Street Records – a mainstay of the Seattle music scene. (Everyone has a story of the artist they discovered while perusing Easy Street’s voluminous shelves, or the band they saw just as they were about to break onto the national scene, performing for a small group of locals on the Easy Street stage.)
I beelined for the listening station and typed in a random assortment of numbers. I listened to the new Marianne Faithful disc, songs one through five. Then I switched to Lady Sovereign. I pulled up Animal Collective just to see what that’s all about. I could have done all of this online, but I didn’t. It felt good to be in a space among music fans, all of us searching for essentially the same thing – a song, an album, an artist who could change our minds. You don’t get that experience online, you can’t feel that energy. Searching for music online is a solitary, intimate act.
For a moment, standing in the telephone booth (another antiquated item) that had been converted into a listening station, I felt sad that I – a person whose life has, for 32 years, revolved around my musical tastes – can’t recall the last time I purchased an album in a record store. I stood there enveloped in my giant headphones – the kind that go over your ears, not in them – listening to throwback beats on Lady Sovereign’s new album, thinking there were only three or four songs I loved on it. I couldn’t stomach spending the special Record Store Day sale price of $8.99 when I could get those songs online for $0.99 a pop.
I left Record Store Day with zero purchases and a sorry feeling in my stomach.
Later the same night, I went to the Tractor Tavern to watch a celebration of recorded music. Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs – one of the best bands emerging from the incredible roots music scene we have here in Seattle – just released their second album. I’d been listening to Star’s record all week long, trying to determine how to fill 400 words worth of space in a magazine with my opinion on the disc, which could be more adequately summed up with a single three-word phrase, “I love it.” By Saturday night, I was intimately familiar with these songs, but it still felt good to see them come to life.
I stood there watching this incredibly tight band weave their way through a set of songs that lay lifelessly on plastic-wrapped discs stacked on a table in the back of the room, waiting to be inserted into someone’s stereo and, by extension, their life. I thought about my experience at Record Store Day. I thought about the panel discussions through which I’d sat at the Pop Conference – one panelist talked about how the emergence of record-making brought the listener intimately close to the musician, and another about how the relationship between music reporter and laptop has changed the way we listen to, interpret, and report about music. I thought about how I received Star Anna’s new disc – via digital download in an email from the Laughing Dogs’ drummer – and wondered about how all these things could exist in concert with one another.
But this is our world. Times have changed and this is the way the music industry operates now. Where my musical tastes were built, shaped, and fed years ago by strangers behind a counter in a room full of shelves and discs, they are now ignited by typed conversations with strangers I may never meet – but whose opinions still matter simply because they choose to share them – in Australia and the UK. They are ignited by emails from friends, friends-of-friends in bands, artists I’ve met at photo shoots, colleagues who post links to MySpace pages via Twitter messages that go out to hundreds of anonymous strangers. And still, even more often, despite all of these digital means that seem to exist to pull me further and further from the people behind the music, I find what I’m looking for in a packed bar where people with instruments stand on a crowded stage, close their eyes, step to the mic, and let go.