PM Pick

The end of record stores

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image