Saturday April 18th is National Record Store Day, which unlike so many of the National-YourCauseHere-Day proclaimations, actually has a strong movement behind it. It shouldn’t be hard to find the participating stores in your town, since there aren’t many left – most of them have been forced out of business thanks to label greed, megastores, piracy and the bad economy. (I’d add “asshole clerks” to that list, but having lived through the golden era of vinyl shops I can assure you that even the most surly clerk could not dissuade a buyer from getting an item on his or her target list.) But here’s a map to check and see who is near you.
These stores fill a need for anyone whose tastes run beyond what the radio tells you to buy this week. Can you imagine what it would be like if the Best Buys and WalMarts of the world were the social arbiter of what can be for sale and where? (Um…what? They already are trying??) You’re not finding The Montgomery Cliffs or The Terror Dactils or Wil Featherman in those racks, and the best help you’re likelyto get from “Tom” – who just transferred from Major Appliances – is that Prince is probably somewhere in the “P” section. And yes, I know you can buy online, some of the smarter indie stores have online shopping as well, having survived there after their only-brick-and-mortar shops had run into financial trouble. We need these stores and we need these people. It’s culture, plain and simple.
So Saturday, there are a ton of indie artists performing at stores around the country to pay respects to an industry whose customers are largely the backbone of their movement. Yet it’s not a selfish move – many of these bands could easily survive on Internet sales and touring, or maybe they’re lucky enough to get their product shoved in the big box retailers. But even those who have transcended the level understand the committment and sacrifice these indie stores endure, and the efforts they make to bring new and exciting talent to the attention of the marketplace so they can compete for your ear and your dollar. Whether it’s a wall of posters and front-racking an artist’s album, or hosting an in-store to help promote an under-known band’s club show, these are the people who step up and help out. So now it’s their turn to get feted.
Visit the website for the Coalition of Independent Music Stores
I’m sure I’m not the only one who killed many an afternoon browsing rack after rack of music, reading album jackets, discovering rarities, getting turned on (or off) by the tunes piping through the store. It was a meeting place for the local music freaks years before Internet lists and social networking sites, when you had to “come down to the store to see this awesome thing I just found” because cell phones, let alone cell phone cameras, were years away. I used to hang in bookstores, too – still do – but I guess back then there were more rockers than readers.
I even worked at a couple, one in a prime location in the heart of a large university, the other a mall store which was part of a small chain. Both owners were guys who were in it for the bucks only – no soul. They had no clue about what music would sell, but that didn’t stop them from imposing strange and atonal playlists at peak selling times (that the crews would ignore the minute the owner left). But conversely, both shops were staffed with some of the nicest, funniest, most interesting people I have ever met, and a few remain close friends today. Somehow we weathered the idiots, the competition, the stench of disco, the vapidity of the mega-hit of any given year being hyped beyond belief, and yes, the pursuit and torture of shoplifters. (Not on our watch, buddy. Because I might want that album.)
Working at a record store is like going to school – you can learn a ton if you apply yourself, as everything is right there in front of you. But even at a surface level, you learn by osmosis. A really good store will have people skilled in different genres, and just by hanging around and listening to their conversations, you can’t help but educate yourself. Sure, it would be nice to have a staff where each person knew everything, but that’s not practical. You probably find that you have more people who think they know everything. I knew a lot going in but learned a ton during my tenure. I was insatiable; more often than not I owed money at the end of the week because I picked up so many things each day. I wasn’t the only one.
Today I’m blessed to have multiple options in my town, whether it’s vinyl, used CDs, rare product, weird t-shirts or even (shudder) the newest commercial success. There are still cool people working there, because.. let’s face it – you’re not getting rich working in a record store, you need to love it. And I hang fairly often, although maybe not with the obsession of my youth. It’s not my time anymore…but I’m glad to know so many who have picked up the baton with the same fervor that I had. When I travel I always ask where the good stores are, it’s a must-stop for me.
Go on Saturday. Go for the bands, or the sales, or the food, or whatever is happening at your local haunt. But just go and hang out, and soak it in, and say hello to the people fighting to keep that place alive and special. And hey, if you bought something – anything – that probably wouldn’t hurt either.