If Music Is The Victim, Then So Am I
I confess, I went into I Need That Record! The Death (or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store with a bit of trepidation. As we all know, music brings out people's pretension in spades. The fact that it was written, directed, edited and financed by 22 year-old unknown Brendan Toller was even further cause for concern -- perhaps I expected a low-budget, shaky cam'd harangue about how awesome vinyl is and how other people just don't "get it." Well, having now seen it, I admit that that hesitance was not only unfounded and silly, but that I Need That Record! is actually a remarkable piece that deals with far more than simply the dying indie record store industry, but also is a insightful examination of the music industry as a whole, from its roots to its present day incarnations.
At its heart, I Need That Record is both a celebration and a memorial to the independent record store. Toller, who hails from Connecticut, watched his favorite record store, Record Express of Middletown, CT, close it's doors and end up turned into a tanning salon. As the film tells us, in the last 10 years, over 3,000 record stores have been either shut down, or forced to close because of a lack of business. While 300 stores a year may not seem like a sizable number, when taken in the context of the relatively small number of independent record stores, it's a staggering blow. Using thoughtful and sharp interviews with the owners of several record store owners and employees, he paints a picture of what inevitably became more than just a store, but rather a community, a gathering of people of common interest and loves who end up with no place to go to feed their hobbies. The clerks, patrons and owners are a quirky, yet wan bunch who are visibly upset by the suffocating effects of big box stores, online purchasing/downloading, and the voracious greed of record companies and executives. Their feelings are perhaps best stated by one person who says that the closing of a neighborhood indie record store is like "a best friend moving away to a far away land."
All of this paints a very human, and rather depressing, picture of a not-so-small niche of people whose loves and lives are being slowly chipped away at. Had the film focused on that group alone, it would have made a solid documentary already. However, Toller's greater feat is that not only was he able to garner the participation of that particular group. Instead, the film also features in-depth interviews with indie rock legends including (but not limited to) Ian MacKaye (Fugazi, Minor Threat), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Patterson Hood (The Drive-By Truckers), Pat Carney (The Black Keys), and my personal favorite, Mike Watt (The Minutemen, fIREHOSE). It's a remarkable gathering of talents and voices and opinions, and it lends a heavy weight to the subject. Each of them gives intimate accounts of their own love of record stores, of the sense of family and how their respective stores fostered their own interest in music and, hell, moved them along on the journey to becoming who they are. While all of them have fascinating things to say about record stores, their own personal history, and the music industry as a whole, Mike Watt seemed the especially impassioned and emotional, as he lamented the impersonal nature of the modern consumer and the visceral impact that this trend has not just on the buyer, but on the industry itself. While Moore and MacKaye simmer with a sardonic anger and resentment, Watt comes off as simply hurt by the story being coaxed out of him. Also notably compelling is the interview footage with noted theorist, activist and all-around amazing personality, Noam Chomsky.
That mindset leads to Toller's inevitable discussion of why record stores appear to be dying. It's not just because people don't have record players anymore, but also because of a concerted effort by the recording industry to make big money by partnering with big stores, by labels overcharging ridiculously for CD's (seriously -- $17.99 for a CD? Are you high, Best Buy? You must be), by the ever growing juggernaut of online music downloading (both legal and illegal), and plain old corporate greed. As Mackaye puts it, most record executives "don't give a shit about music" and really, only care about making money. One can perhaps argue that that particular idea isn't unique to the music industry -- as we all know, the movie industry is equally guilty, which is why the Wayans brothers are millionaires -- but in some ways, the effects from the music industry are much harsher to aficionados, consumers, and small business owners. One of the worst culprits, Toller asserts, is also the radio industry. In particular, he cites a Berklee School of Music study that indicates that the biggest stations play the same songs 58% of the time (even worse for the dreaded and reviled Clear Channel stations). And 90% of those songs are crap -- but more relevant is the fact that the majority of people who listen to said crap, likely aren't shopping at Record Express. The mass-produced, canned pop music that invades the airways inevitably leads listeners to Best Buy and Target and their ilk.
Also included are a number of well-utilized archival clips from MTV (who also doesn't escape criticism -- rightfully so), various news outlets, and 3rd party interviews. One of my favorite clips is from an interview/debate between Chuck D (Public Enemy) and Lars Ulrich (Metallica), over the importance and impact of digital music and downloading. Chuck D's obvious disagreement with Ulrich, a prominent "musician's rights" guy and all-around pain in the ass, is great fun to watch.
Of course, we are to blame as much as the executives. I myself admit that I do almost all of my music purchasing online -- partly due to my own misanthropy, but also because of the fact that CD's simply cost too much money. Why buy a CD for 15 bucks when you can download it for 10? While I always enjoyed the physical nature of browsing through music, that tactile sensation that comes from picking it up, glancing through the liner notes, feeling the type of paper... I also, like many of us, consume music in such large amounts that there's also an unquestionable convenience to the online system. But the workers, owners, patrons, musicians and others involved with indie record stores all corroborate Toller's assertion, perhaps rightly so, that there are numerous forces at work that have paved the way for the indie record store's demise.
But despite all of the seeming gloom of the subject, the film has a sweet, nostalgic tone to it that makes it more engaging than depressing. It's that tone that enables it to avoid the easy pitfall of condescension and sanctimoniousness, and instead it has a warm feel to it that gives you more a feeling of wry sympathy, even when you realize the role that you yourself might play. I admit it -- I am part of the problem, and perhaps Toller's true greatest achievement is getting people to start thinking about things that way.
I'd be remiss if I also didn't mention the stellar variety of music that's used in the film, featuring everyone from The Kinks to The Dirtbombs to one of my current favorites, The Black Keys, who we at Pajiba Music seem unable to shut up about. In fact, I'll leave you with one of my favorite, brief moments that Toller used -- The Black Keys performing "Your Touch" in a record store (Grimey's in Nashville, TN). Let's see that happen in a WalMart.
TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.