As someone who spends, and has always spent, a great deal of time in record stores, I have not been able to avoid hearing about the fast approaching “death of the record store” after a long and heroic battle with the Internet. There are now documentaries on the subject and an international Record Store Day to which several musicians and record labels lent their support. Nevertheless, in much of what is said or written on the subject, it is taken as sadly apparent that these shops are doomed if we just take current consumption patterns and project them into the future. Young people can buy music online, and that’s where they live now, so they will keep doing so into the future, which by the way will be exactly like today, only more so.
This argument becomes somewhat contradictory when it comes packaged in laments about the vanishing record store: to wit, record stores are doomed because music can be purchased easily elsewhere; but record stores, it is argued, offer consumers many benefits and meet many needs aside from mere music distribution. So, either future generations will lack those needs for no clear reason, or simply not recognize an obvious resource for meeting them. This shift in consciousness will either be universal or so widespread as to make the stores untenable and quixotic. It’s worth looking at the needs that record stores are supposed to meet.
The first such need is social: record store devotees describe the convivial pleasures of hanging out in record shops talking about music. Here we should note they’re clearly talking about independent record stores since the mall chain stores tend to actively discourage consumers from hanging out. They’re also oddly overlooking music related message boards where people can discuss music for hours. Perhaps though they are touching on the very different nature of face-to-face socializing from what we do here online- its off the cuff spontaneity, awkward pauses, body language, moments of boredom, funny off-hand comments, flirtations, and natural brainstorms. Possibly, the underlying fear is that socializing itself will die out. However, it seems highly unlikely that man will cease to be the social animal in the future; and certainly young people seem not to have lost any taste for hanging out together.
A secondary concern is that there is some sort of decline in music fandom going on. Record stores serve as a meeting place for the sorts of music fans that obsess over their favorite bands with a devotion bordering on cultishness. The era of groupies, magazines like Rock Scene, Deadheads and the like, and music appreciation as a lifestyle might be ending. And maybe the music just doesn’t demand that sort of devotion now. For all of the industry hype about artists like Lady Gaga and Kanye West as pivotal and their albums as epochal, it’s hard to imagine any of those albums as really being the Metaphysical Graffiti, Sgt Pepper’s, Exile on Main Street, Pet Sounds, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, or, hell, even the Rocket to Russia or Appetite for Destruction of 2011. Bands and labels now think primarily in terms of singles instead of albums, a trend reflecting how music is bought online, but strangely bringing us back to a 1950s style of marketing music. What this means is that many, if not most music fans are content to pick out those great songs if the band is not concerned with making a great album. Bands like the White Stripes recorded some excellent songs, but never really made a great album without filler. The people who bought only those songs were probably right.
In fact, it’s become a bit of a lame game among music snobs to ask what was the last great album. Nevermind? OK Computer? Back to Black? It’s a bit of a meaningless exercise, especially since we could probably think of a great album from the last few years; but certainly the old process of recording that reached its nadir in the 14 years and over $13 million to finish Chinese Democracy will most likely never be repeated. A scenario like Brian Wilson going mad trying to perfect Smile is one it’s hard to imagine anyone actually wanting to repeat, but the desire to create a monumental and lasting work of art in a recording studio is one that nobody has the time or money to peruse anymore. It is worth asking if the quality of pop music hasn’t declined in general and whether musicianship hasn’t been replaced in many cases with slick overproduction. But, contrary to the assumption, there still are plenty of music fanatics left and they would likely disagree with the question.
Finally, it’s often suggested that record stores offer the benefit of expertise, which might be devalued in the age of Wikipedia. A good record store clerk can point you in the direction of great music you’ve never heard of and away from junk. Expertise is increasingly taken as “elitist” (along with many other things that threaten an individual’s inflated sense of self-importance). “Why should anyone tell me what to like?” Regardless, wide, repeated, thoughtful, and extensive exposure to any art form will cultivate expertise over time. A music fan of thirty years will have better informed tastes than a newcomer, even if their tastes might lack the freshness of the newcomer. What is elitist is instead how they express those tastes. While the “stuck up record clerk” is nowhere near as widespread as rumored, I’ve certainly met some music fans who dismissed me as a “poseur” for expressing enthusiasm about the same music I’ve been listening to enthusiastically for the last twenty-two years. With so many independent record stores closing though one would imagine that store owners would discourage such behavior. (Also, I’ve yet to meet an aloof record clerk who didn’t brighten when I either expressed enthusiasm about the music they were playing or just asked if they had anything by the Pretty Things.) Besides, the flip side of the surly record store snob is the cute store clerk who gushes about the record you’re thinking of picking up that she just loves. Little can top that.
What seems more likely to happen than a total extinction of record stores is an end to the widespread local stores but plenty of stores surviving in more dispersed locations as specialty shops; more a winnowing down than the shopocalypse. I’m also curious to see if independent shops will start selling books, music, magazines, and DVD rentals in the same location. A friend’s weird little DVD rental place has actually morphed into a movie rental/antiques/records/books/fine hats store! Buying music online is certainly convenient and many of the benefits of hanging out in a record store can be obtained elsewhere. But a point I’ve not heard made yet is that a world in which music (not to mention movies and books) could only be purchased online would be briefly novel and eventually very boring. It’s not that a good number of half-assed local record shops won’t close, but the shopocalypse argument rests heavily on the idea that whatever a lot of people are doing right now is what they’ll all be doing in the future and nothing else. Record stores will thus go the way of burlesque dancing, roller derby, and records themselves, all of which vanished as expected and no longer exist. As someone who has been buying vinyl records for about twenty-six years, and had people much hipper than me tell me for twenty-six years that nobody would be manufacturing records by the following year, I’m skeptical.
Or, perhaps, human beings, particularly the young ones, will continue to seek out novelty, variety, new experiences, and kicks- what leads young people to music in the first place. You never can predict what teenagers and music fans will do next year- Rolling Stone has consistently embarrassed itself by trying to make such predictions. For all we know the next generation might even go so far as to “tune out” from the internet- just to piss off their parents!