Although it’s been pretty much common knowledge for awhile now, let us start by stating the obvious. The record industry, at least in the traditional sense we once knew it, is all but dead.
There I said it okay?
The list of suspects as to who actually fired the fatal shots is of course a long one that most of you reading this have all seen before. This would include everything from the advent of easily accessible downloads on the internet, to the short-sightedness of the traditional record companies themselves in their failure to embrace the emerging new technology rather than fight it, as they initially did.
I could go on and on about this. But in the end what’s the point? If today’s music market is going to embrace a technology that sacrifices both warmth and sound quality for the mobility of a delivery system that is often delivered through a speaker no bigger than your thumbnail, there’s just really not a lot the rest of us can do about it.
And as much as I admire the efforts of guys like Neil Young and T-Bone Burnett to come up with a viable alternative, the expense of warmer sounding technologies like Blu-Ray or even going back to vinyl, make it somewhat cost prohibitive for the rest of us at this point.
So this is the new revolution. Welcome to it.
Just don’t expect to be seeing any artistic works with the same sort of sonic depth as a Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, or Born To Run anytime soon. When today’s music delivery systems of choice don’t exactly measure up to that sort of ambition, what would be the point of it?
What I really want to talk about here though is the ever-increasing, and to me at least, quite disturbing trend of “exclusivity deals,” with mega-retailers like WalMart.
My good friend and fellow Blogcritic Donald Gibson recently sent out an e-mail to the rest of us here at BC about AC/DC’s deal with WalMart for their upcoming album, with the rather humorous headline “AC/DC Signs Walmart Deal; Glen Boyd’s Head Explodes.”
And while I can assure you that my head remains quite intact — and that Donald was obviously having a little good-natured fun at my expense — my feelings about such deals are both real and I think quite valid.
The fact is, I take this shit both seriously, and yes, quite personally.
Not only did I gain much of my knowledge and appreciation about music as I was growing up by going to locally owned record stores staffed by people who actually gave a shit about music. I also eventually worked and managed a few of them myself. In time, I even ended up briefly owning a record store of my own.
For me, there is simply no substitute for the experience of walking into a cool record store, browsing through its racks, and bonding with the fellow music geek behind the counter. Not Amazon. Not MySpace. None of it. I also can’t begin to count the number of great bands I was introduced to in this way — from Issac Hayes to Joy Division to Public Enemy. Bands I would have never otherwise discovered on my own by listening to the crap they spoonfed us on the radio.
Later, I also had the pleasure of being able to do the same as the guy on the other end of the counter. To this day, I’ll run into somebody at the supermarket, the drugstore, or wherever from time to time who will stop me to thank me for introducing them to the Clash, Elvis Costello, or R.E.M. before they got big. It all goes back to when I was cutting my own musical teeth in retail.
Now, I can almost excuse guys like the Eagles, Garth Brooks, or even Journey for their deals with the devil, who in this case goes by the name of WalMart.
All three have huge fanbases consisting of what I would mostly call casual music fans. They may buy the new records, listen to them once, and then go back to their tried and true copies of Hotel California or Infinity for example. The bottom line is these guys are simply cashing in, and far be it from me to rain on the parade of good old American capitalism in action.
AC/DC and Genesis — who just signed their own deal with WalMart for their live When In Rome DVD — don’t get off the hook so easily however.
Genesis owe their very existence to geeky guys like me who poured over the lyrics of albums like Selling England By The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, back when most folks knew them only as a bunch of weirdos with a lead singer who had an odd habit of putting on foxheads and the like while performing in concert.
No excuses there.
But AC/DC in particular oughtta’ be ashamed of themselves. Much like Metallica, this was a band who was built from the ground up largely through word of mouth, and equally so through independent music retail. This was back in the days before Highway To Hell hit big, and long before rock radio would touch them with a ten foot pole.
I can actually remember going to a concert where AC/DC was on the bottom of a bill with Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent. This was back when Bon Scott was still alive. And although they ended up eventually winning the audience over, the crowd initially wanted nothing to do with them. The common consensus at the time was that with a name like AC/DC, they must have been a bunch of punk-rockers. You had to be there to understand, but back in the mid-seventies the punk and metal crowds were about as far apart as fans of the Village People and Led Zeppelin.
Okay, so most of these people have long since grown up right? True enough. But have you ever noticed how most WalMart stores are located either in the suburbs or in out of the way rural areas? With today’s gas prices, you might as well figure in a couple of extra bucks for the drive.
And once you get there? You’ll probably be greeted by a pimply faced teenager in a blue shirt that says something like “Hi, My Name Is Steve,” who likely doesn’t know the difference between AC/DC and Jay Z, and is even less likely to give a shit. After all, he’s working for minimum wage and no benefits, which WalMart is all too glad to pass along to the consumer in the form of dirt cheap prices.
It’s the American way.
I also understand that WalMart is in the process of shrinking its already not exactly deep selection of music. Think you’re gonna’ find that great new record by a developing buzz-band like Seattle’s Fleet Foxes there? Think again. And even if you were so lucky to find it, do you honestly believe that the hapless employee working the music department that day will be able to steer you towards any other great new music? Again, highly doubtful.
Back in the day when independent music retailers actually broke as many records as radio did, they of course also committed a multitude of their own sins. Anyone who has ever walked into a Tower Records store, and endured the condescending, snotty attitude of the pierced and purple haired guy behind the counter can attest to that.
Still even there, at least there was a personal touch about it. You may have wanted nothing more than to tell the hipper than thou clerk to stick it where the sun don’t shine as you brought your John Denver album up to the counter. But at least you were interacting in a personal way with an actual human being.
Between the instant access offered by the internet, and the grocery store sort of experience offered by big-box retailers like WalMart, I fear this sort of personal interaction may be close to being lost forever. The one thing I know for sure is that WalMart won’t be breaking any future AC/DC’s anytime soon.
The good news is that there are still a few independent music retailers out there. But in most cases, the key to their survival has been diversification. In my own West Seattle neighborhood, Easy Street Records probably saved their ass by expanding their space to include a cafe. Good for them too, as they seem to be thriving.
Maybe it’s partially because I’m getting older, but I just find myself missing a lot of things about the good old days. Like most everybody else, I miss $1.50 a gallon gas, drive-in movies, and mom and pop burger joints not called McDonalds or Jack In The Box. I miss the days when someone named Bush or Clinton wasn’t my president.
But most of all I miss my neighborhood record stores, snotty hipper than thou counter jockeys and all. What’s most sad, is that I think they are going the way of the 8-track tape and won’t be coming back anytime soon.