Just released on DVD by MVD Visual, writer-editor-director Brendan Toller's fascinating new documentary I Need That Record! is a must-see for American music lovers. In it, Toller travels around our troubled nation discussing the plight of independent record shops with ousted or struggling store owners; underground music legends such as Thurston Moore, Mike Watt and Ian MacKaye; social and political expert Noam Chomsky; and people of all walks of life who are upset about how difficult it's becoming to buy albums anywhere but “big box stores” like Wal-Mart and Best Buy.
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I was able to do a much-needed record-shopping run at Amoeba Records in the Haight Ashbury district, which is a holy pilgrimage for American music geeks. It's not hard to argue that if an album can't be found at Amoeba –which is housed in a former bowling alley near the entrance to Golden Gate Park—it doesn't exist. But it's also not tough to argue that the number of such quality independent record stores—places where you can spend hours discovering new and rare music from all over the world, meeting interesting people and even catching live sets by traveling bands of all genres—has depressingly dwindled in the past decade. And the problem is getting much, much worse.
Over 3,000 independent record stores have closed since 2000, and Brendan Toller does a fine job astutely explaining the independent record store's demise, which could end in the elimination of yet another place where Americans have long loved to gather and connect face to face over a shared passion:
“The love of money corrupted all the major music distribution channels,” Toller says in I Need That Record!
It's true. To the detriment of small record stores, MTV decided in the mid-1990's to play more reality shows than music videos in order to raise profits, which seriously diminished the number of young people who are excited about buying new music that isn't spoon-fed by major labels. More damning for independent record shops, however, is the current reality that 75% of hard-copy music sales in America now occur at Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Borders.
Music is just one more cheap product at Wal-Mart, which is even succeeding using its power as the nation's leading music retailer to requisition family-friendly content from record labels, and in general all of the big box stores sell music at a loss (i.e. under $10) in order to get shoppers to load up on more expensive items—or just more items, period. This business method drives masses of potential music buyers away from indie stores that can't pay rent without making a profit every month. Additionally, as Toller details in I Need That Record!, many small record shops are now forced to buy a large portion of their CDs from Best Buy and Wal-Mart because it's actually cheaper than buying directly from major labels, many of which still haven't realized that $18 is a ridiculous price for one CD.
If this community-threatening pattern continues at record shops and all kinds of other independent stores in America, our country could realistically become devoid of any shops that are not chains. Imagine all our cities' urban marketplaces resembling downtown Denver, where what passes for “local flavor” is The Cheesecake Factory, ESPN Zone and the Hard Rock Café.
Perhaps worse, Toller states that less than 2% of revenue at big box stores goes to local payroll, so money spent there makes a fast getaway out of town, whereas money spent at independent stores obviously nurtures local economy—not to mention local friendships. One wonders how often a CD purchase at Wal-Mart results in a long conversation about music with an exceptionally knowledgeable clerk—or exceptionally knowledgeable fellow customer—who ends up turning the buyer on to a new band, or even a new genre. Indeed: “Big box stores move product, while independent record stores define culture,” Rob Miller, of Chicago's Bloodshot Records, asserts in I Need That Record!
Of course, in America convenience is king, and a key reason for the near-extinction of independent record stores has been the rise of iTunes and online file sharing. Sure, it's less expensive to download singles for 99 cents and steal mass quantities of music via file sharing than to support indie shops and burgeoning musicians but, as Thurston Moore says in I Need That Record!, “The internet is really lonely and boring.” Plus, according to Toller, iTunes carries less than 1% of the recorded music available in the world, which can make one long for a heavenly trove like Amoeba.
And who can forget (or stop appreciating) the great cover art, stickers and posters that often came with LPs and some CDs? A grainy image of a CD's front cover on your iPod just can't compete with the four 8” x 10” photos of the Beatles I was excited to find in my first used copy of The White Album or the extraordinary pop-up art from Portugal. The Man's 2009 CD The Satanic Satanist.
Right now, the amount of music downloaded per month trumps the number of hard-copies of record music sold in America by 12 to 1, Toller states, and file sharing is growing by 100% a year. Thus, independent record shops sadly represent “one less place to go,” as a dejected former East Coast indie record shop owner who recently lost his lease after 21 years says in I Need That Record!
If you relish the experience of discovering great new and rare music at locally owned shops where the clerks know your name and it's easy to find an embraceable community of music lovers, don't go to big box stores. If you buy albums solely at Target or Wal-Mart, the aforementioned experiences could be gone forever. Supporting indie record stores is no different from grabbing breakfast at Santa Fe Baking Co. instead of McDonald's, or burritos from Posa's instead of Taco Bell. As the legendary Joe Strummer said just before his death in 2002, we vote with our dollars in today's society, and we really can get whatever quality we demand as consumers if we refuse to pay for the cruddy experience and cruddy products doled out by Big Business.
The DVD version of I Need That Record!, with over two hours of bonus interviews, is currently only available at independent record stores and will be sold everywhere starting July 27. Just one last thing: I'm new here—where are the good independent record shops in Santa Fe?