Today is Record Store Day — a holiday of sorts for music nerds such as yours truly. This year I ushered in the occasion by watching Brendan Toller’s engaging 2008 documentary I Need That Record! The Death (and Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store.
The movie has a pleasantly scrappy, DIY, lo-fi aesthetic, to put it in terms Toller’s interviewees would appreciate. Toller was motivated by the alarming statistic that in the 10 years leading up to 2006, something like 3,000 independent record stores went out of business in the U.S. Toller clearly felt the hit on a personal level: he focuses in part on two Connecticut record stores, Record Express and Trash American Style in Danbury, as they closed their doors and the beleaguered owners had to cope with their new, diminished circumstances. He also interviews eminences of indie-rock music for their POV on what ails the music industry and the role that indie stores have played in their lives.
A skeptic, or just the average college student who loves his iPod just fine, thanks, might watch the opening minutes of I Need That Record! and recoil: a parade of middle-aged cranks, grumbling about how things used to be so much better. But with the exception of washed-up NYC rock journalist Legs McNeil, the interviewees generally prove quite eloquent and clear-eyed about why indie stores became an endangered species — and just what the culture at large is at risk of losing if they disappear completely.
The word that keeps coming up is community: any indie record store worth its salt functions as an unofficial clubhouse for not just music lovers but the nonconformists in any town. The store acts as hangout, de facto art gallery, gathering place for local musicians and scenesters, and even concert venue. The owners are almost invariably iconoclasts and/or eccentrics, dedicated to sharing what they love. (The movie doesn’t need to spell it out: no one who runs an indie record store is doing it for the money, and no one is getting rich.)
Conspicuously absent from I Need That Record! is anyone who might shed some light on the role that turntablism, and by extension hip-hop culture, might have played in keeping vinyl viable during the years when the CD reigned over the music industry. As Toller tells it, indie record stores correlate directly to indie rock (i.e., a distinctly Caucasian, middle-class culture); what about the independent hip-hop scene? That said, Toller might already be juggling too much material as it is in his 77-minute running time, and he does well by keeping things local. (How often do you see a movie with a Connecticut-centric perspective?)
And Toller’s endearingly irascible perspective keeps things lively. He makes no attempt at “balance”: he’s out to vilify the major labels and point out how years of spectacular mismanagement and just plain corruption brought the music industry to its knees. Some of this story is familiar, but a trump card of the film is having indie store owners on hand to tick off the various business practices of the major labels that led to their ruin.
(One store owner recounts how Universal broke Amy Winehouse in the U.S. by first offering her breakthrough album Back to Black at the “bargain” price of $12.99 per CD, and then raised the price once it became a hit, to the point where the disc had an official list price of $18.99 once it became a million-seller. Bizarre.)
What all of the interviewees are surprisingly resigned about is the convenience of iTunes and iPods, as well as the fact that when offered the choice of music for free, via file sharing or illegal downloads, many people will have no qualms about not paying. No one here is out to bash the public, only to ask that people really think about the ramifications of the choices they’re making.
Toller strikes gold by digging up nightly-news stories about the invention of the MP3; Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams and CNN’s John King appear in hyperbolic — yet in retrospect, not inaccurate — clips from 1999–2000, when “MP3” starts to replace “sex” as the most popular search term in the world. In retrospect, the rise of file-sharing is like an Internet gold rush in reverse, wiping out huge fortunes where $20- and $40-million recording contracts were once commonplace.
The music industry has mutated so quickly since then that it’s disconcerting how even I Need That Record! feels slightly dated, just six years later. Indie store owners and patrons in the movie grumble about chains like Sam Goody’s and Borders, both now deceased; and Pandora and Spotify have yet to enter the picture, further making music even less associated with physical objects that you buy and more like a utility streaming into your home or apartment. (And Thurston Moore talks about being too busy with Sonic Youth’s “constant touring” to open his own record shop. Sigh.)
Still, the rise of Record Store Day since 2008 is one cause for guarded optimism. It would be nice to think that even with those 3,000 stores gone, the ones that still exist will be around a lot longer, thanks in part to RSD.
For this site’s past tributes to Record Store Day, click here.
For the official Record Store Day site, click here.