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The end of record stores

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On the internet, displaying our musical taste has become easy to the point of being virtually automatic. Social networking sites, with searchable lists of our preferences, seem expressly designed for the purpose. And if we so choose, we can let people eavesdrop on what we are listening to through our computer at any time, or broadcast it like we are our own personal radio station. But in the real world, our options are more limited. We can drive around with our car stereos blaring, wear conspicuous T-shirts, spend a lot of time in clubs. Or we can hang around in the right record stores.


I used to go to record stores a lot—nearly every day, in fact. But then slowly my visits tapered off, and finally I stopped going altogether. Internet distribution and home-digital-copying technology is part of the explanation for this, but it’s not what I think of. Instead, I remember the last time I was in a real record store: in 2001, a place called the Sound Garden in Baltimore. Surrounded by the posters for bands I hadn’t heard of, and struggling to concentrate while atonal music blared through the loudspeakers, I skulked in the aisles, hyperaware of the clerks’ scowling stares and frequently jostled by the much younger customers around me. Intermittently I would flip through rows of discs, but it was a rote gesture to make myself feel less conspicuous. I had no particular hope of finding anything, and beyond that, I felt like I wasn’t supposed to.


The extreme discomfort I was experiencing didn’t seem accidental. Rather, a nondescript guy in his thirties like me in the store probably jeopardized its appeal with the younger, more spendthrift demographic it was after, so it had concocted the perfect blend of sensory irritations to drive people like me out—like that device that emits a high-pitched squeal to repel teenagers, only in reverse. So in other words, like any luxury retailer, the record store was shopping for the right sort of customer and sought to discourage those who would compromise the image the store sought to convey—that it was place where young, cool people congregated, traded information, and escaped from the plastic mainstream represented by people who looked and felt like I did. On that day in Baltimore, it dawned on me that record stores don’t sell music, they sell a lifestyle.


Of course, the same is true not just of music retailers, but consumer capitalism as a whole. Virtually every company tries to associate its products with intangible desires and aspirations a consumer might have, as these are inexhaustible and are only temporarily sated by the act of shopping. No amount of Newport cigarettes will make you feel “Alive with pleasure” once and for all. You have to keep buying them in search of that elusive jouissance.


So regardless of what we buy, the process of buying itself may be where we derive the most satisfaction, the moment where we indulge most deeply in the fantasy of who the product will allow us to become. This makes where we buy crucially important, which is likely why we are often so sentimental about places like independent bookstores and record stores. Where we buy something supplies a lasting context for how we consume it. When I graduated from the Listening Booth at the local mall to Sounds, on St. Marks Place in New York City, I felt as though my tastes had matured and become more sophisticated overnight. Even though chances were good that I could have found that same XTC record at the mall, buying it downtown felt completely different, and it certainly changed how much I enjoyed it and even what it sounded like to me. (How else could I have found Oranges and Lemons to be edgy rather than derivative?)


What we were after in buying records at record stores was the lifestyle embodied in them; when they disappear, as they have begun to (as this New York Times article notes), it will be harder to recapture that feeling. But then, if that feeling was important enough in the first place, the stores wouldn’t be threatened now, I guess. But I think the confusion between the supposed integrity of the product—the alleged greatness of the music itself, stripped of context—and the ephemeral nature of trying to capture a piece of a trend-driven lifestyle by shopping led customers to believe that it was worthwhile, a bargain even, to get the music without the context by downloading it online. They were confused about why they were buying music in the first place.


Only when it’s too late for record stores will customers realize what they have lost—that they don’t want a mountain of music; they want recognition for being in a certain place vis a vis the zeitgeist.


Perhaps consumers have moved on already and are purchasing their lifestyle experience from some other outlet. Music-as-identity-indicator may have ceased to be relevant to them. Perhaps henceforth, subcultures will be formed along other lines.


Where does that leave “true music fans” who profess to want music as music? When record stores are gone and perhaps replaced with subscription services, will music itself be easier to appreciate in and of itself? Or stripped of its context, will it seem emptier than ever, each song seeming even more interchangeable with all the other songs out there waiting to be downloaded.

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