The Faltering But Not Quite Decline of Record Store Culture
Neill Jameson via Ezra Lefko
Neill Jameson is a musician and general creative person who has worked in the independent record community for much of his career. Those familiar with underground American metal may know him from his own music projects Krieg and Imperial and his collaborative work with Twilight and Nachtmystium. We are thrilled to bring you his insider perspective at an important but changing part of modern music culture
If people walk by a record store and are not in amazement that people still make records then they are a part of a culture that is apparently on life support but still growing and evolving. Record store culture. I suppose all stores have culture: book store culture, porn store culture (cultures growing on things in porn stores) and so on. Starting with spending all my paychecks at record ships shops growing up to working at several since my late teens – I’ve been a part of record store culture for almost as long as I’ve been a working member of society. . These shops ranged from chains to head shops to mom and pop boutiques. Every single one has a culture attached to it, or had one depending on where you’re reading this – if you’re reading this in the shitter: please wash your hands before buying anything.
I say that this industry is in transition because it truly is a different animal than it was even a few years ago. Brick and mortar stores for any industry are faltering and trying to hang on thanks to the juggernaut that is the internet. Things are different because the perception is that people do not want tangible media anymore. iPads, cell phones, iPods, tablets are all replacing books, DVDs, newspapers and yes even records. Underneath that is a small resurgence in vinyl that was never really expected. Records have never fully gone away; independent labels have been thriving on the format for years. There has also been a strong circuit of underground collector’s, ever since the form’s inception., Just look at local record conventions (bring Purell). Then there is the stock market aspect of records, the speculators who think this will be something that will sustain their retirement, their children’s college savings, their mistress’s abortion funds. You get the idea. They did very well with baseball cards and Beanie Babies obviously.
People come into record stores all the time with mouths agape like they either walked into a time machine or caught their parents fucking. For a brief moment they remember when they were living, breathing people before they surrendered themselves to the notion that aging means you have to give up loving music, literature and other things that can make life beautiful. This feeling disappears pretty quickly because godamnit we live in America and there HAS to be money to be made. So this turns into them trying to sell the box of records they have stuffed behind the furnace for maximum money because they say some guy on some pawn show sell a Who record for ten thousand dollars. I’ve seen this at every record store I’ve worked or shopped at. The struggle is that most stores need to operate where they bring in more money than they put out. I understand not everyone has read Adam Smith but this is a pretty easy concept. Still, people lose their minds at the idea that their prized possessions (so prized that they forgot they even owned them until they walked by the store) may not be worth a king’s ransom nor can a store buy it for 75-100% of the perceived value.
While on the exciting and erotic topic of economics there are a few things forcing the industry to think on its feet. Inflation (told you this was erotic) has been a definite cause for concern, especially thanks to the postal rate increase earlier in the year. Most record stores have some kind of online presence which has made business easier due to being able to reach more people and has turned a lot of stores into public warehouses. The raise in the postal cost has damaged that, especially with international orders. “Fuck those Godless heathen nations!” you might be saying now, clutching your Budweiser, but remember this also means that it’s more expensive for distributors and labels to send their wares to stores. Wholesale prices on new releases can be absolutely crippling which means the records have to go up in price to the customer too. This isn’t helped by online only outlets who somehow sell these records not only below the suggested retail price but also below the wholesale price. Of course it’s going to look like the store you’re in is trying to fuck you out of greenbacks when you look online and see some guy selling it below cost. Sure there are some greedy assholes out there but most stores want to be able to supply you with music and keep you coming back to them for your personal soundtrack needs.
Boing behind the-scenes-shit aside, record stores are important cultural institutions. Most of us growing up in the pre-9/11 world had important formative experiences because of them. Music is one of the things in life that helps bring people together, give them a sense of identity, something to bond with others over. You see that represented still in popular culture: outcasts developing relationships over punk rock, romance sparked because of a song, people fucking because Barry White’s on the radio etc. Music creates culture and the record store is one of the houses of that culture. It’s an experience you will not get while downloading files and exposing yourself to strangers on Skype. I don’t care if they said they were 18, there is a loss in the personal connection, a loss in fidelity if we’re going to go the pun route. It’s brave to open a new store in these conditions, and stubborn in a noble way to keep them operating. I urge you, dear reader, to go out and explore these dark, often odd-smelling places and try to reconnect to an important piece of cultural Americana. If you’re already doing your part, then cheers, you just wasted 5-10 minutes (depending on your reading ability) on something you already know.
You can find more stories and musings from Neill here: