For some people, music is just another thing. A distraction. But, for others (like myself), music means a hell of a lot more. At some point, there was that one song, that one band that transformed everything. The one that made them want to be part of it in some way. Music for them is like what sports or politics or any other obsession is to other people. It informs everything about them. Conversations, friends, fashion, values. Whatever.
When I was a lowly teenager in Orlando in the mid-90s, my friends and I were heavily into punk and its offshoots. There were still a handful of independent music stores around at the time that catered to our tastes and one that we spent a lot of time at was called D.I.Y. Records. The store clerks there were basically like us, except older. They dyed their hair and knew the music and joked around with the people that wandered into the small space they rented in a strip mall down the highway from the state university. I used to go out there to put out copies of my zine and pick up copies of others’. On weekends, they opened up the backroom for local bands to play all-ages shows. We’d go and watch our friends perform and see kids around that we’d see at every show in town we could get into. We were young and music was a big deal to us and so, D.I.Y. Records became a kind of second home.
Brendan Toller’s 2008 documentary, I Need That Record: The Death (Or Possible Survival of) the Independent Record Store, would say that D.I.Y. Records helped forge a community. Music may have brought people there, but it was more than just a music store. Its local roots and that scene that we identified with gave us kids a sense of place, one that we never would have found (or will find again) had we done our shopping in giant, homogeneous chains. Not that we would have found what we were looking for on the shelves of a major retailer, anyways. Most of the stuff we loved listening to wasn’t played on commercial radio. And it sure as shit didn’t rate on any charts.
D.I.Y. Records closed not longer after that, and they say it was because of the rampant shoplifting. But, rather than go out of business entirely, they switched to an online and mail-order operation. And, rather ironically, the store became a Spanish church. And the community that the little record store (that could) fostered had been displaced, if it wasn’t killed off altogether since a lot of other shops closed probably within one or two years after that.
The story of D.I.Y. Records is a lot like the independent music stores spotlighted in I Need That Record are shown to be undergoing the same fate, closing their doors after some twenty or thirty years in the business. These were neighborhood staples that served as small sanctuaries for oddballs, weirdos, and fanatics that make up the universe of music junkies. With collections that spanned in the thousands, they were a place to make those beloved rare discoveries.
But sympathize as I might, it’s a little uncomfortable watching the owners as they’re at a loss for words, and some on the verge of tears, reminiscing and wondering what the hell they’re going to do next. Of those screwed by lease agreements, it’s not clear why the owners didn’t attempt to relocate. The customers, too, kind of ham it up, shaking a fist at big chains (more so than any other culprit in this changing business), and likewise, wonder where they’ll turn to for their music now, especially the ones who dig vinyl. Sure, you could say the Internet, but ex-Minuteman Mike Watt (who looked high during the interview) and ex-Patti Smith collaborator, Lenny Kaye, would say it just doesn’t hold the same sense of community. Although, the kids born and bred on the Internet might disagree.
So basically the question comes down to, what’s killing off the indies? These places that made it easy for kids to wander into and find this whole other world of music (it still is a little harder to do on the Internet, because you already have to know where to look), and three thousand of them shut down in the last decade. But, it soon becomes apparent that sales of hard media (not just CDs, but things like books and movies, too) have been on the decline for quite a while, forcing even major retailers like Tower, Borders, and Blockbusters out of business. What we were witnessing was basically a dramatic change in business models because of changing technology. I Need That Record attributes a lot of the answer to music’s digital conversion, providing a little history of the inventions along the way that really revolutionized the game like the creation of mp3 file format and the release of the first iPod. And, while the litigation battles over piracy and peer-to-peer networks are discussed, they thankfully don’t overshadow the entire history as is usually the tendency. But, it’s also important not to overlook the fact that, digital conversion wasn’t everything. The Internet gave people a way to find even hard copy media at a much cheaper price.
Filed under: after the 90s, documentaries, indie, punk! | Tagged: Brendan Toller, changes in the music industry, how the Internet changed music, I Need That Record, independent music stores, Internet, lenny kaye, mainstream radio sucks, media, mike watt, movies about music, patti smith group, radio, the minutemen, Thurston Moore |