Support Your Independent Record Store
Usually I’m not usually one to speak ill of the deceased, but I’m glad that Musicland is dead.
The chain of mall stores, once the nation’s largest retailer of prerecorded music and video, fatally skipped the groove in March 2006. The company’s holdings, including some 1,300 Musicland and Sam Goody stores, were the acquired by Trans World Entertainment, another big music retailer (they run Wherehouse and f.y.e.), which seemed to buy the stores only to begin closing them in bunches.
The reasons behind these closures continue to spark debate. Most blame illegal downloading, which seems the most likely culprit; I’ve heard others level blame at iTunes and Amazon, and some have even laid blame on the buyers and sellers of used CDs. The absence of mind-blowing, mega-superstar releases (there will never, ever be another “Thriller”), the devaluing of popular music through an overabundance of “content streams” (Billboard is charting ringtones? Seriously?), and the slow death of malls themselves — all of this factors, taken into consideration with illegal downloading and iTunes, easily explains why you can’t visit Sam Goody or Musicland any more. But it doesn’t explain why people aren’t particularly motivated to visit the music stores that remain in business or why I believe that Musicland deserved its fate.
That part’s easy. To my mind, Musicland engineered its own destruction by being openly contemptuous of its customers. They could have cared less if you were buying music or bricks of asbestos, just as long as you paid. They were a willing and even helpful participant in a system that deceived consumers, robbed artists and made a number of talentless corporate lackeys richer than kings. And in the process, they drove a number of small, independently-owned record stores — run by people who actually knew something about what they were selling — completely out of business.
I worked at a Sam Goody store from late 1989 to early 1992. There, I was a witness — and grudging party to — some of the industry’s most unforgivable behavior. I sold $18 CDs that were mostly useless, wasteful packaging. I put customers through lengthy special-order processes for items we didn’t have in stock, instead of merely sending them someplace that did. I pushed dubious suggest-sells, did nothing to discourage redundant buys (did the world really need a Milli Vanilli remix album?), and I flat-out lied about records I detested.
After I quit Musicland in 1992 I went to work for an independent record store at two-thirds the salary, and I’ve never regretted that decision. I was broke, but I was able to tell people how much I loved Massive Attack and Soundgarden, and to hold up Guns ‘N’ Roses “The Spaghetti Incident?” and say, “This really isn’t that good.”
Working at independent record stores was a surprisingly fulfilling gig. Even today, the cultural perception of independent record-store employees is that of bored, hostile elitists who will ruthless mock your musical tastes. (We can probably thank Jack Black for that, along with the entire cast of “Empire Records.”) But that’s not the case. Small record-store owners and employees are more knowledgeable, more passionate and more helpful than their corporate counterparts — after all, it behooves them to know every piece of merchandise in their store, and to be nice enough that you’ll want to return, again and again, until you’ve bought every last little bit of it. I made a point of listening to every new release, and developing an honest and informed opinion on it; I put aside records that I knew some regular customers would appreciate; and I even made mixed tapes from my own collection for some customers, free of charge.
I haven’t worked in an independent record store since 1996, but I continue to shop them. The process of buying new music just isn’t as satisfying when I go elsewhere. I could have bought that new music from Gorillaz, Kettel and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club through iTunes, but I wouldn’t have gotten the thumbs-up from that cool kid working the counter at the Queen Anne Easy Street, which made the records sound better. And the crew down at Ballard’s Sonic Boom makes right-brain suggestions that the web-based algorithms of Pandora simply can’t; I’ll be forever grateful to them for making a recommendation of Shawn Lee, based solely on an offhanded comment I’d made about Esquivel.
This Saturday, April 17 is Record Store Day. This event, now in its fourth year, gives America’s independent record stores a chance to thank you for keeping them afloat. They do this through in-store concerts, special events and product releases, and irresistible giveaways. But really, all the independents need to do is the thing they’ve always done — to connect you with the music you love, even if you don’t yet know that you love it. That’s far more than Musicland, with its 1,300 storefronts and relentless suggest-selling, ever did for anyone.