As I write this, Marci Brinker at Insomnia Radio: Orlando is turning me on to an interesting local singer named Timothy Simpson. Simultaneously, a friend is instant-messaging a live Jens Lekman bootleg of a show in Sweden, and my IndieFeed podcast is readying a song by Chi-town battle MC Verbal Kent. Next to that download, Santa Monica’s KCRW public radio wants me to hear a Paul Simon knockoff called Everest. A look at my Internet tabs shows a forum discussion on MusicBanter.com regarding whether or not Gogol Bordello is really gypsy punk; news of an Orlando date for the reunited Stone Temple Pilots tour; and, to drive home the meta, a Chuck Klosterman article in Esquire about why people aren’t buying music. (Turns out, they don’t want to spend money.)
Oh, and I’m also carrying on another IM conversation with a fellow music writer who is telling me not to write this article about Record Store Day, a promotion by the national Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS) coming April 19. (Go to www.orlandoweekly.com/blog/music.asp to read our debate.)
In other words, I couldn’t be more jacked-up with music and music-related trivia if I had a Ramones-sticker-adorned IV drip attached to my hip. Maybe that’s why the announcement of Record Store Day made me nauseous. It’s an attempt to enlighten a younger generation on the merits of good ol’ fashioned record stores and was born out of the wildly successful idea of Comic Book Day. What should be a celebration, however, rings hollow today because I (like millions of people around the world) get my fill of new, hard-to-find and, most importantly, good music at the click of a mouse. Why be guilt-tripped into shopping at a record store out of loyalty and sentimentality? What do record stores offer consumers that they can’t get elsewhere for less money?
The standard price of CDs has gone down in recent years, thanks to illegal downloading, and hovers around $13 up to a high of $18. The average album price is $9.99 at iTunes and Amazon.com, and the offered compression rate at both sites is 256 kbps, the standard CD compression. There is greater selectivity online, a wealth of user reviews give opinions instead of just the store clerk, and music purchased can travel with you on your phone.
No amount of cheerleading in the form of Record Store Day can convince me that record stores are not becoming relics. And speaking of relics, almost immediately after the concept for RSD was launched, Metallica jumped on the event, promising an in-store signing (not performance) at San Francisco’s Rasputin Music. Remember, this is the seminal metal band that became a sensation in the ’80s due to an illegal tape-trading network established by their fans and the band that became the figurehead for the anti-downloading fervor of the Napster era. Metallica is a strange champion, if the point of Record Store Day is to draw digital music users back into stores.
“For some reason, there’s a certain segment of young people who don’t understand `Metallica’s position` because they grew up with everything free on the Internet,” says Fred Ehmen of Rock & Roll Heaven, a longtime independent record outlet in Orlando.
Without question, illegal downloading is wrong, morally and fiscally – even if it’s as common as drinking water by now. But what about the fans who get their music instantly and legally?
Even the CIMS itself doesn’t offer a compelling case for the viability of record stores. A look at the coalition’s website offers this testimony by Jason Wade, singer for Lifehouse, “`A record store is` a place where you … hang out with your imaginary friends.”
“Whether it is in the physical world or online, the value of a great and knowledgeable record store has not gone away,” Peter Gabriel writes.
Or online, you say?
Shelby Lynne helpfully suggests, “You can’t roll a joint on an iPod!”
This is why I should hop in my gas guzzler to drive to a shop?
Sandy Bitman doesn’t argue the logic of buying online. “I absolutely can see why iTunes is the No. 1 retailer `of music, recently taking the top spot from Wal-Mart`,” says the owner of Park Ave CDs in Orlando and a member of the CIMS who has big plans for Record Store Day. “However, what iTunes lacks is human interaction. Independent record stores provide that interaction along with a sense of community building and cultural exposure.”
Ehmen bristles at the new culture. “iTunes, Wal-Mart – those people had no say in the building of the music industry and now they’re in control. Now they dictate exactly what goes in the bins. It’s all corporate greed in the end.”
Bitman speaks to those same concerns. “It benefits the corporations to say `physical media` is dead because they’ve brought in these golden boys who are all about digital and make that the new model,” Bitman says. “So it’s their jobs on the line if digital’s not the only future.
“If you take down the physical media business, a lot is going down with it – including record stores, including an artist’s well-being,” he says.
That argument doesn’t hold up entirely, as artists stand to make a lot more money if they can sell their music directly to buyers and cut out the corporate middleman. The music story of the last year is that Radiohead sold millions of copies of their new album without the aid of a record label or brick-and-mortar shops.
But being a music lover has never been about consumer practicality. It’s something more personal, more abstract, something felt in the gut. Ultimately, that gut feeling is what’s causing my nausea over Record Store Day. No Save-the-Whales-style day of remembrance is going to change the fact that today’s record stores can’t compete against digital enterprises.
On a brighter note, the future of music is exciting, and it’s been less than a dog year since iTunes changed everything. It is possible for independent record stores to adapt (one word: beer) before they become icons of the past. The winning model so far has been a gradual digital incorporation along with added bonuses like in-store performances, but who knows how long that will hold?
As for Record Store Day, “It’s nice that somebody’s trying something, but it’s actually a little too late,” Ehmen says.