So you might have noticed a little piece I wrote in today's paper ("The Crate Debate") in which I make the case that record stores have no place in today's business world besides nostalgia. Fun, huh? I'm sure gonna love reading your death threats - keep 'em comin!
Well, the debate continues today as I reprint an IM conversation (see? ain't technology the cat's meow) I had with another music writer, OW contributor Jason Ferguson. As a longtime crate-prowler, Jason spends even more time thinking about music than I do, so he speaks from a unique perspective: someone who always has his finger on the pulse of music technology yet still cherishes the smell of a musty indie shop. Mmmm ... smells like commerce. Thanks to Mr. Ferguson for taking the time...
Enjoy! We're both pretty verbose, so you'll find it after the jump...
Jason Ferguson (3:09:20 PM): So why do you hate record stores?
Justin Strout (3:10:14 PM): wow, jumpin right in, huh? no foreplay?
Ferguson (3:11:46 PM): i just think there's a willfulness on behalf of many people, not necessarily you, but many people, to push things so quickly past the present and into the future that things like "record stores" and "physical media" aren't even given a chance to adapt before they're completely written off as inconsequential and of the past.
Certainly were there a dealer of 78rpm cylinders in town, i would question whether or not that business was anything but nostalgic but i think the record store is vitally important
both for new stuff and old.
Strout (3:15:39 PM): but that's the way information works today. once something's obsolete, it's dead. in with the new. i mean, if you want to preserve these things, why not petition to have them declared historical sites, but don't guilt people into getting into their gas-guzzlers so they can walk into a moldy building full of relics and get made fun of for still liking whatever hipster band was cool last month
Strout (3:15:59 PM): for example:
Strout (3:17:46 PM): right now (and this is true) my iTunes just alerted me that an hour-long, live-from-SXSW Yo La Tengo show is finished downloading, while I'm watching Astronautalis' freestyle about Heath Ledger at Back Booth on YouTube at the same time I'm scouting MySpace for the shows I can go to within a 5-mile radius tonight. and what, exactly, am I missing from the music experience?
Ferguson (3:18:13 PM): the answer to your question is, well, your question
Ferguson (3:18:15 PM): you don't know
Ferguson (3:18:24 PM): but the guy that pores through all the new release books
Ferguson (3:18:34 PM): the guy that sees that limited edition release come through the door
Ferguson (3:18:52 PM): the guy who takes the consignment cds from the touring bands that played the vfw last night
Ferguson (3:19:01 PM): may possibly be able to turn you on to something you didn't know about
Strout (3:19:11 PM): i would argue that a million of those guys are posting their brains out on message boards right now
Ferguson (3:20:16 PM): if they're posting about 'em
Ferguson (3:20:19 PM): how do you find out about them
Ferguson (3:20:24 PM): what's your clearinghouse?
Ferguson (3:20:29 PM): who's your concierge?
Strout (3:21:26 PM): there's a team of concierges at last.fm or whatever other encyclopedic sites are there
Ferguson (3:20:55 PM): the other day
Ferguson (3:20:58 PM): i was in park ave
Ferguson (3:21:11 PM): and was turned on to a band i had absolutely no clue existed
Ferguson (3:21:20 PM): and they completely blew me away
Strout (3:21:39 PM): what band is that?
Ferguson (3:21:47 PM): mehkago n.t.
Strout (3:22:06 PM): grindcore from miami
Ferguson (3:22:19 PM): you look up their myspace?
Strout (3:22:34 PM): i can listen to them right now, buy their stuff and talk to other fans. in two seconds
Strout (3:22:40 PM): last.fm
Ferguson (3:22:46 PM): right
Ferguson (3:22:57 PM): but would i have found them on last.fm?
Ferguson (3:23:01 PM): i doubt it
Strout (3:23:38 PM): but you're not particularly looking for grindcore at any particular moment
Ferguson (3:23:47 PM): i'm just saying that, especially when it comes to people with broad musical tastes
Ferguson (3:23:54 PM): these 2.0 conventions don't always work
Strout (3:32:01 PM): so your argument is that record stores are the last place where you can get turned on to new music? cuz everytime i get online, and i'm speaking from a regular guy stance right now, not even publicist emails, i get bombarded with info about new bands, obscure records, etc
Ferguson (3:32:30 PM): "last place" no
Ferguson (3:32:42 PM): but definitely a place
Ferguson (3:33:16 PM): but that's certainly not the only reason they're important
Strout (3:33:36 PM): i think it is. i think that's the only card these stores still have in their pocket
Strout (3:34:05 PM): because sales-wise, nobody buys records except purists and DJs anyway. vinyl, at least. and if they did, they'd check ebay first, bet that. i'd bet that any of the guys working there, at some point, get online and talk about the band that's their "secret." the second they do that, it's out there for anyone. nobody has "their" bands anymore
Ferguson (3:36:03 PM): hmmm
Strout (3:37:23 PM): all it takes is for me to find out that there's a genre -- just a genre -- called Grindcore (to use your example) and in two seconds, i'm learning about and listening to Excrementory Grindfuckers, Genghis Tron, Circle of Dead Children. i have that info without having to go anywhere. and i can buy their songs instantly. and the artist gets most of my money in their pocket - instantly.
Strout (3:38:21 PM): what i think is that record stores are pure nostalgia. and i say this as someone who's worked at a record store, as i know you have. it's simply not relevant and this "Record Store Day" is the last desperate attempt to remain relevant. I mean, Metallica?? Really? They're scheduled to kick off this whole national event day.
Strout (3:38:43 PM): that tells you everything right there -- Metallica.
Ferguson (3:39:07 PM): that's sort of a specious argument
Ferguson (3:39:18 PM): considering the presence of folks like vampire weekend
Strout (3:39:42 PM): Vampire Weekend's pretty specious themselves
Ferguson (3:39:51 PM): indeed
Ferguson (3:40:21 PM): are you advocating for no brick-and-mortar stores
Ferguson (3:40:28 PM): or no physical media
Ferguson (3:40:30 PM): or both?
Strout (3:41:03 PM): I wish they'd both have a reason to stick around, but they don't. The market has already spoken on that. It's barely worth it as is for a band to press physical media
Ferguson (3:41:40 PM): that's a matter of retarded record-label economics
Ferguson (3:41:48 PM): not a shortcoming of the actual media
Ferguson (3:41:57 PM): here's a question: you're in a band and you "release" your new "record" digitally. no physical product at all
Strout (3:42:13 PM): i can't play a thing
Strout (3:42:17 PM): oh, hypothetical
Ferguson (3:42:17 PM): ha
Strout (3:42:27 PM): right
Ferguson (3:42:34 PM): people dig it. pay you for it
Strout (3:42:43 PM): not me, but ok
Ferguson (3:42:48 PM): "YOU"
Strout (3:42:50 PM): i get a dime off it
Ferguson (3:42:55 PM): whatever
Ferguson (3:42:59 PM): you consider it successful. your fans dig it. and they come see you play. and give you even more money. you're getting your music out. you're playing out. you're being a rock star. at whatever level you deem appropriate
Strout (3:43:38 PM): i like it
Ferguson (3:43:39 PM): but you die
Strout (3:43:44 PM): !
Ferguson (3:43:45 PM): 20 years from now
Strout (3:43:48 PM): oh
Ferguson (3:43:58 PM): or your band breaks up
Strout (3:44:04 PM): fuck em
Ferguson (3:44:05 PM): you weren't massively influential
Ferguson (3:44:09 PM): nor massively successful
Strout (3:44:15 PM): debatable, but sure
Ferguson (3:44:20 PM): but you built a career based on the aforementioned model
Ferguson (3:44:24 PM): here's the question:
Ferguson (3:44:36 PM): how does my grandson find out about you?
Ferguson (3:44:41 PM): granted, him finding out about you will do you no good because your dead.
Strout (3:45:03 PM): right. we don't want to get into metaphysics
Ferguson (3:45:14 PM): but, honestly, if there were no vinyl records of Radio City
Ferguson (3:45:19 PM): or Bryter Later
Ferguson (3:45:49 PM): or, fuck, the recorded works of the hundreds of bands who weren't discovered until decades after their existence
Ferguson (3:46:01 PM): how on earth would people "discover" them?
Ferguson (3:46:13 PM): and then transform that discovery into possibly new music?
Strout (3:46:24 PM): but this isn't about vinyl. that's a different argument. because i don't think vinyl's suffering. its just that people don't buy vinyl as much from record stores anymore. and in 20 years, they won't at all. there's no need to, with online bartering communities, ebay, hell even Amazon.
Ferguson (3:46:30 PM): vinyl, cd, whatever
Ferguson (3:46:35 PM): i'm talking about physical media
Strout (3:46:39 PM): right
Ferguson (3:46:40 PM): that can be left behind
Ferguson (3:46:51 PM): if there's no physical media there's nothing to stumble upon
Strout (3:47:46 PM): I can tell you how I find out about oldie-but-goodies, setting aside record stores which I do go to (but only out of a sense of duty): blogs. msg boards. hell, even fellow musicians who mention something in an interview
Strout (3:48:31 PM): we've never had as much information at our fingertips as we do right now. there is nothing you can't find if you look just a little. wouldn't you agree that most record store workers also have blogspots or myspace pages, touting the new shit they heard?
Ferguson (3:48:46 PM): absolutely
Ferguson (3:48:50 PM): and all of those things are great
Ferguson (3:49:01 PM): i just think there's room in this ecosystem for all of it
Strout (3:49:27 PM): (p.s. a friend just logged onto my AIM and is transferring me a Jens Lekman bootleg. during this debate. i think that says something)
Ferguson (3:49:31 PM): completely dismissing physical media and, more topically, record stores as archaic seems to me to be quasi-dangerous
Ferguson (3:50:00 PM): because the risk isn't that musicians will somehow disappear
Ferguson (3:50:03 PM): or anything like that
Ferguson (3:50:29 PM): but that "narrowcasting" will end up with a culture of people who end up running around in recommendation circles
Ferguson (3:50:40 PM): basically
Ferguson (3:51:00 PM): record stores constitute the joy of finding - literally, finding â?? something
Strout (3:51:05 PM): are you saying record store crawlers never become limited in their scope? i think that's a human thing, not a byproduct of the ages
Ferguson (3:51:21 PM): there are many different types of record store people
Ferguson (3:51:32 PM): hell, we had a guy who shopped in my store who ONLY bought soundtracks
Ferguson (3:51:38 PM): didn't care what movie they were for
Ferguson (3:51:42 PM): or who did the score
Ferguson (3:51:47 PM): just wanted every possible soundtrack
Strout (3:52:11 PM): haha, that's awesome. there's absolute merit in crate-digging. but enough to guilt me into shopping there instead of ebay? i don't think so
Ferguson (3:52:15 PM): well, there's no guilt on my end
Ferguson (3:52:20 PM): i don't feel obligated to the concept
Strout (3:52:29 PM): but isn't that what Record Store Day is, ultimately?
Ferguson (3:52:36 PM): i don't think so
Ferguson (3:52:40 PM): i just enjoy shopping for records
Ferguson (3:52:56 PM): much more than I enjoy sifting through search results
Ferguson (3:53:08 PM): and WAY more than i enjoy suffering through infantile recommendation engines
Strout (3:54:04 PM): on their website, http://www.recordstoreday.com/CustomPage/381, they have these testimonials from musicians (who do have a stake in people buying physically) about the benefits of record stores, including Band Marino. What did I see? "You can't roll a joint on an mp3." Or Bruce Springsteen saying "Iâ??ll just buy $500 worth of CDs. I will! I am singlehandedly supporting what's left of the record business." And I'm NOT supposed to say "Fuck that guy?"
Ferguson (3:54:19 PM): well
Ferguson (3:54:28 PM): when it comes to springsteen, yeah, you should always say "fuck that guy"
Strout (3:54:33 PM): HA
Ferguson (3:55:29 PM): and sure there's a lot of sentimentality to it
Ferguson (3:55:34 PM): but that's not really where i'm coming from on it
Ferguson (3:55:43 PM): i just think that there's a real value to physical media
Strout (3:55:45 PM): Cameron Crowe, who has as much right as anyone to talk about this (and who I worship, writing-wise) says this: Long live that first step inside, when the music envelopes you and you can't help it.
That's not an argument for record stores, that's a eulogy
Ferguson (3:56:11 PM): and a real value to listening to people who are surrounded by it all day, who take it seriously
Ferguson (3:56:19 PM): not as a fetish
Ferguson (3:56:32 PM): but as a way to actually interact with music
Strout (3:58:16 PM): but it is fetish. take old school hip-hop. the market has moved past it, by a mile. yes, we look back on it fondly and take some lessons from it. its our foundation. but does it have any place on the streets today besides nostalgia? not at all. we can respect record stores and physical media, but it no longer has a place
Ferguson (3:58:38 PM): correction: it doesn't have the place
Strout (3:59:40 PM): Speaking from a business standpoint, it's simply not realistic to think they'll survive any more than another 10 years. and to close your eyes to that or blame new media, i think, is delusional
Ferguson (3:59:49 PM): and, the fetish is what will ultimately derail it, i think
Strout (4:00:01 PM): how do you mean?
Ferguson (4:00:16 PM): i think over-sentimentalizing it
Ferguson (4:00:27 PM): instead of pronouncing its real value
Ferguson (4:00:39 PM): leads to the exact argument you just laid out:
Ferguson (4:00:48 PM): "fuck that, i'll just go on ebay instead of feeling guilty"
Strout (4:01:14 PM): Ziggy Marley: Without the independent record stores, the community breaks down with everyone sitting in front of their computers." How is that not the same as living in the '90s and saying "The Internet will keep anyone from ever meeting someone in person again?"
Strout (4:02:03 PM): but with torrents and, in the next few years, smart recommendation engines, the only thing left is nostalgia
Ferguson (4:02:15 PM): actually
Ferguson (4:02:17 PM): i disagree
Ferguson (4:02:29 PM): the only thing that will effectively replace record stores
Ferguson (4:02:44 PM): is when the Celestial Jukebox opens up
Ferguson (4:02:56 PM): and everything ever recorded is available
Strout (4:02:57 PM): If I were a record store owner, and I said to myself 'The only reason I'm struggling to keep this place open is for the handful of fetishists' I'd say it's noble but self-defeating
Strout (4:03:02 PM): Celestial Jukebox?
Ferguson (4:03:08 PM): the fact that i can't pay someone for half the records i want is ridiculous
Ferguson (4:03:14 PM): figure of speech
Strout (4:03:19 PM): .ah
Strout (4:03:26 PM): pay someone in person, you mean
Ferguson (4:03:31 PM): ha
Ferguson (4:03:37 PM): i mean anyone at all
Ferguson (4:04:00 PM): i think record stores' fates are intertwined with physical media
Strout (4:06:30 PM): if people stopped buying CDs (which I believe they will very soon), I think you'd see most of the record store owners say to themselves, "I can take my stock onto eBay and start an online business." And I think they'd be smart to do so
Ferguson (4:08:11 PM): i just think the record store, as both a repository of "lost" stuff
Ferguson (4:08:23 PM): and as an intelligent clearinghouse for new stuff
Ferguson (4:08:29 PM): is very much a valuable thing
Ferguson (4:08:37 PM): plus there really is the social aspect of it
Strout (4:08:41 PM): That hypothetical band who breaks up and 20 years later? You're saying that, today, without a physical pressing, their music would be lost forever?
Ferguson (4:08:56 PM): yes, that's what i was saying about the hypothetical band
Ferguson (4:09:28 PM): "lost forever" is strong
Ferguson (4:09:32 PM): but yeah
Strout (4:09:50 PM): but that's simply not true. there are always masters. and i can't imagine that, in today's world, someone in the process of making that album didn't import it somewhere digitally, even to MySpace
Ferguson (4:10:13 PM): sure, but what if they let their domain name lapse
Strout (4:10:16 PM): and once that FIRST import happens, it's everywhere
Ferguson (4:10:22 PM): no, it's nowhere
Strout (4:10:36 PM): i think that's paranoid
Ferguson (4:10:47 PM): nobody ever sold a hard drive because they needed to pay rent
Strout (4:10:48 PM): that's not what today's landscape is at all
Ferguson (4:10:56 PM): but they've sure sold their record/CD collection
Strout (4:12:14 PM): everything today is viral. that process of someone selling a CD to pay rent and then eventually it gets in the hands of someone who loves it? happens a million times a day online, the first time it's imported anywhere. like i said, at this second i'm receiving a bootleg album. right now. and i'm gonna turn around and send it to a couple other people i know would love it
Ferguson (4:12:40 PM): and that's totally awesome
Ferguson (4:12:43 PM): but
Ferguson (4:13:03 PM): until everything that every artist has ever done is readily available online
Ferguson (4:13:08 PM): there's always the joy of the hunt
Strout (4:13:12 PM): And why do record stores need a Day? Is that like Save the Whales Day?
Ferguson (4:13:38 PM): i don't know wtf the point of record store day is
Ferguson (4:14:07 PM): i was hoping it was like "pizza day" and everyone gets a free record store
Strout (4:14:09 PM): Well that's kind of my point. This just seems desperate
Ferguson (4:14:40 PM): i think the days of town having/needing a half-dozen/dozen record stores is long gone
Ferguson (4:14:48 PM): but a couple well-curated, well-staffed shops?
Ferguson (4:14:53 PM): abso-fucking-lutely
Ferguson (4:15:29 PM): places like cd warehouse, hell, places like the cd dept at best buy and wal-mart
Ferguson (4:15:42 PM): probably aren't long for the world
Strout (4:16:21 PM): yeah, i think BB won't have CD dept soon
Ferguson (4:16:46 PM): but, again, i think where we're at right now, record stores are absolutely necessary
Ferguson (4:17:09 PM): 5-10 years from now, who knows
Ferguson (4:17:28 PM): all i do know is that 10 years ago, people wrote off independent book stores and music stores in the wake of best buy/barnes & noble
Ferguson (4:17:34 PM): and lots of them did disappear
Ferguson (4:17:41 PM): but a lot of them survived AND thrived
Strout (4:18:19 PM): OK, here's the perfect example of disingenuous. I go to YouTubeâ??s Record Store Day page and thereâ??s a video of Green Day saying "help keep mom-and-pop shops alive, plus it's a good feeling to walk into a record store." Multi-millionaires guilt-tripping.
Ferguson (4:18:32 PM): well, yeah
Ferguson (4:18:39 PM): i think that's kinda stupid
Ferguson (4:19:04 PM): business ≠ charity
Strout (4:20:44 PM): Is there any value to record stores anymore but a warm and fuzzy feeling and guilt? Independent book stores, I'd argue, are a little different. It's harder (not impossible) but harder to find rare books online, or like, download them. But music? It's everywhere, it's free mostly. Even getting people to pay for downloads is tough. But to trek out to a brick-and-mortar?
Ferguson (4:21:13 PM): again, i'd fundamentally disagree with you
Ferguson (4:21:19 PM): and not because i'm being nostalgic
Ferguson (4:21:44 PM): why go see a band play a concert in a bar?
Ferguson (4:21:50 PM): why not watch them on tv?
Ferguson (4:22:05 PM): it'd be the same performance, right?
Strout (4:22:20 PM): but the money from a concert actually goes to the band. i can actually feel it in the pit of my stomach. and there's beer.
Ferguson (4:22:49 PM): well there's no reason the money from a recording shouldn't go to a band
Strout (4:23:48 PM): but we're both in agreement that Record Store Day is bullshit.
Ferguson (4:24:05 PM): i think the message of record store day is a little bullshit
Ferguson (4:25:10 PM): they should have positioned it differently
Ferguson (4:25:22 PM): "we're still here"
Ferguson (4:25:34 PM): or "we give a shit, and nobody else does"
Ferguson (4:25:37 PM): or something like that
Ferguson (4:26:29 PM): but definitely not "feel sorry for us"
Strout (4:26:56 PM): true. but there's still the fact that record stores are trying to NOT be just record stores anymore, and it's still not working. I worked at a place that not only had an in-house DJ spinning while you shopped, but had in-store concerts, listening stations, all of it. and it closed too
Strout (4:27:27 PM): people don't want to shop for music when it's everywhere and mostly free. plain and simple
Ferguson (4:27:30 PM): you know what they need?
Ferguson (4:27:35 PM): they need beer
Ferguson (4:27:38 PM): and i'm not joking
Strout (4:27:44 PM): i know!
Ferguson (4:27:48 PM): well music has value
Strout (4:28:40 PM): right now, the value is purely in awareness. bands are willing to give their CDs away for free or next to nothing, as long as you've heard of them and might buy a ticket to their show. but the actual album? no value.
Ferguson (4:28:57 PM): which truly sucks for bands who don't tour
Ferguson (4:29:11 PM): anyway
Ferguson (4:29:27 PM): i've gotta go download something