The Record Store Experience Must Not Die With The Shops

Grandpa, What's a Record Store?

“We were part of people’s lives because music was part of people’s lives”

Russ Solomon, Tower Records founder

I’m 30,000 feet in the air bawling my eyes out because everyone on screen is as well. The people in this Delta provided documentary are discussing the demise of a company that had been a part of their lives for over 30 years. The company, was Tower Records.

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All Things Must Pass is an illuminating documentary that tells the human story behind the rise and fall of one of the most successful record store chains of all time. There was a culture that surrounded every Tower Records. There was no dress code. Dave Grohl said that he got a job at Tower because it was the only place that would hire him with his long hair. Tower employees partied in store. Sometimes they went home. Sometimes they slept there. Sometimes they partied all night and opened up the next day without sleeping.

Elton John fondly recalled that he would go to Tower Records on the Sunset Strip every Tuesday morning with a list of all the new records he wanted to purchase. He proudly proclaimed that he spent more money at Tower than anyone else in the entire existence of the shop.

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I’m part of the last generation of music lovers who will remember record stores. I vividly remember lining up outside the Exclusive Company in Madison, Wisconsin at midnight in advance of the new DMB album release. I remember spending hours at the listening stations at Hear music in Chicago where I first heard Phish’s (best album) Billy Breathes. I played my dad, a jazz lover, the instrumental track, “Cars Trucks Buses,” and convinced him to buy it for us (me) – unbeknownst to him he was setting his son up for a life of spiritual musical explorations via jam concerts (and weed). Or maybe he was well aware. High five, dad!

I spent a lot of time (and money) at the Exclusive Company during my high school years. The local radio station, Triple M, that played music I liked (rock, blues, funk and folk), had tall “As Heard On Triple M” plastic inserts sticking out of various sections around the shop. I always stopped here first every trip I visited the store. It’s why I bought John Mayer‘s Room For Squares on a whim. It had the Triple M stamp of approval. Long before “Your Body Is a Wonderland” took over the pop airwaves. That CD came with an exclusive accompanying CD with Mayer’s covers of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn songs. I’d like to think I single handedly converted my entire high school into John Mayer fans. But I know the radio had something to do with it as well.

I worked at a sub shop in Minneapolis when I was in college. I lived 4 blocks from the sub shop and on the walk home there were two record shops. Two! Know Name Records and CD Warehouse. I spent nearly all of the money I earned at the sub shop in these record stores. One day Nick Drake was playing on the Know Name speakers and I asked the older, dorky-looking clerk who it was and he handed me Five Leaves Left and Pink Moon and said, start with these. It was a scene straight out of High Fidelity.

know-name

Now, a head shop lives where Know Name Records once stood and Five Guys is now where CD Warehouse once provided a respite for young music nerds.

Watching All Things Must Pass wasn’t actually nostalgic for me because I never got to visit a Tower Records. I moved to LA 4 years after Tower filed for bankruptcy. But I understood the passion all former staff members felt. It wasn’t just a job. It wasn’t just about the music. It was a community. A family.

“Having a job doesn’t have to be tedious. It doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t have to be a place you hate to go everyday. Because it certainly wasn’t for me and probably everybody who worked at Tower. It wasn’t a job It was just a way of life. ”

-Mark Viducich, Tower Records

Tower Records founder, Russ Solomon, and the entire Tower staff understood that it was never just about the music.

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The reason people loved going to Tower was because of the culture, the community, the vibe and the experience. It was a hangout for youth.

“The presentation of music was physically exciting.”

-Bruce Springsteen

That’s something that unfortunately has been lost in the digital age. There is no enhanced experience with recorded music anymore. When we had record stores, music lovers could congregate, make new friends, have a communal bond for the 20 minutes they were inside.

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Record stores stimulated so many senses: Simply approaching the store the endorphins began to explode as all the exciting new promotional displays in the windows and on the walls came into view. Walking into the store came with the familiar smell. Tuning in and out the song playing over the speakers while chatting with a new friend or a clerk. Sifting through the CDs or records and reading the date, track listing, players, label. And then taking that album up to the front, having a brief conversation with the clerk about your selection as they ring it up and pop it in a familiar bag. You felt pride and a sense of accomplishment walking out of the store holding a new prized possession. And of course, the moment you got into your car, you’d pop the new CD into the player.

What experience do we have now with recorded music? Clicking “shuffle” on a Spotify playlist? Downloading a song on iTunes? What happens if you fall in love with a new artist? There are no liner notes, lyrics, player names, or any of that info in digital streaming or download services. Where is the enhanced experience? There are no accompanying visual components – aside from a tiny digital album cover which may or may not be able to be expanded on the screen to admire.

+Tidal, Spotify, Apple All Miss The Point. This Is The Future Of Recorded Music

Why doesn’t Spotify, Apple, Tidal or the rest realize that if they provided an enhanced experience customers would flock to them? Apple wouldn’t have to force their customers, kicking and screaming, into a transition they are currently uncomfortable with (because Apple seems content ripping the last remaining semblance of ownership music fans once had – without replacing it with anything superior).

+Apple Just F’d Me With Beyonce And The iPhone

I consider myself pretty advanced with technology and for the life of me I cannot figure out why the music that I OWN which was once natively stored on my iPhone sometimes disappears when I go into airplane mode. Only some of it. Of course, only the songs I actually want to listen to. I don’t have Apple Music and refuse to make the transition because it f*cked up my entire library when I first tried it. And another musician revealed that Apple outright stole original compositions from his library and replaced them with inferior quality versions. Or sometimes never replaced them at all.

The record store experience millions of music lovers once had could be created in the digital age, just no one has done it yet.

And no one seems to care to do it.

Why can’t I swipe right for lyrics? Why can’t I swipe right again for full credits? Why can’t I scroll down for song meanings, interpretations, history, biographies, chat forums, message boards? Why can’t I buy tickets IN APP? Why can’t I back artists crowd funding in app? Why can’t I link up with other fans of this artist nearby? “There are 37 Allen Stone fans nearby. Would you like to designate a meetup right now and invite them?” How incredible would that be? Why hasn’t Spotify jumped on this? Or anyone else?

Why not create experiences like that of the record shops?

Yes, we have concerts. But concerts are expensive and the big ones of artists we care to see happen few and far between. I went to buy tickets yesterday on Ticketmaster. $40.50 was the list price, but there were $15 in fees?! Are you f*cking kidding me? Didn’t Ticketmaster get sued over this exact practice? Have they learned nothing? Enough with the greed!

We need more listening parties. We need more physical hangouts for music lovers. Record shops were free. We need more bars with excellent sound systems and top notch sound engineers HIRING top notch local and regional bands to perform. Charge a $5 cover, but bars will make their money in drinks. This used to happen much more often. Now club “promoters” can’t see 4 feet in front of their faces and CHARGE bands to play and require them to bring the entire crowd, not realizing that if they provided an experience that people craved, word would spread, and their jobs would be done for them.

The reason people hate seeing “local” music is because it mostly sucks. There’s no curation anymore. Whoever can pay can play. The sound systems are falling to pieces. The sound guys/gals are incompetent. Of course no one wants to “support local music.” Of course there’s no scene anymore. Of course there’s no culture anymore.

Create a goddam EXPERIENCE people crave and people will come.

I’m over the record store nostalgia. I’m onto the path of the future. How are we going to bring the magic back to recorded music?

 

Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and the creator of the music biz advice blog Ari’s Take. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake

12 Responses

  1. Tonk

    Worked in Virgin in the UK until Branson sold the legend down the line and the accountants moved in . . must have shrinkwrapped about . . oooh . . . a couple of million lps, cds, master-bagged cassettes, you name it – I did it. It was hard physical labour, but the feeling of comradeship, the musical taste arguments, the sheer fun – untouchable

    Reply
  2. Musicservices4less

    Ari, Ari, Ari. I wasn’t going to comment on this article but I guess I have to. I have been working day-to-day in the independent record business, in one capacity or another, for over, well, let’s just say a long time. I was part of an executive team that for six months had the world’s largest record store and then Russ opened up in NYC, so we became the second largest. It was part of the Record Theatre retail chain, an eventualy grew tol 24 stores, 4 state operation. We are now down to 2 stores. A great story on Russ is if you came into his office with a tie on, he immediately cut it in half with a scissor. No exceptions!
    I also run with the owner one of the oldest truly independent record labels in the world. In order to accomplish digitally what you suggest (credits, album covers, etc.) is quite an undertaking for a small label when you have thousands of masters and hundreds of albums. But it is something that should be done.
    But do you think we can get more money out of the brilliant tech distributors so I can pay people to do it?

    Reply
    • Troglite

      You wrote: ” It was part of the Record Theatre retail chain, an eventualy grew tol 24 stores, 4 state operation.”

      Wow! Blast from my past. Thanks for the memories… my first job in high school was working in Record Theatre’s regional office on Cleveland’s east side. Great experience. Great people.

      Reply
  3. Your English teacher

    Balling= fucking

    Bawling = crying

    I sincerely doubt you were fucking on that delta flight.

    Reply
    • danwriter

      Plenty of copy editors out there need a gig. It’s time. The writing is getting embarrasing.

      Reply
  4. Rick Shaw

    Didn’t Starbucks attempt to take the music store experience when they put a community feel to their shops, then added in music sales?

    Reply
  5. Antinet

    I spent a good deal of time at the Tower Records in Seattle, not to mention some other great record stores across the city, most of which were usually anchors to culture right next to colleges and univesities. I also met a few ladies in them.
    You could also just end up talking to a random person just based on the music.

    Tower Records was large, right on a major arterial, always had activity going on, would stay open until midnight. Of course, there were also signings and events. In those days, bands had to worry about too many people showing up, not too few. Suspended TVs would play videos. You would hear a new record playing that the staff had picked and see it sitting in a rack for everyone to notice. When vinyl collapsed and cassettes and cds came in, some of the spark evaporated, but nothing like the decline since digital.

    I didn’t spend as much money later in life on CDs as I did on vinyl as a kid of course, but it was still not a purchase I generally regretted, although sometimes you could, when you bought that whole cd based on a song you later grew tired of. Anyway, I hope the few vinyl stores that offer even more community (many now share space with breweries and restaurants) keep going, because the environment is totally unique.

    Tower in Seattle was open at least until about 2006, and then it got turned into a grocery store/condo across the street from the Bill Gates foundation. The modern world is a massive YAWN, except for horrible things going on.

    Reply
  6. Doc Watson E.E.I. LLC Indianapolis

    I can honestly say that it was the record store that shaped my life at an early age. From my early teens I would hit a handful of record stores around the Indianapolis area’.
    In the 70s there was a lot of independent record stores that were all very unique in their own ways. Every record store was an adventure, meaning form their general layouts to how they were merchandised and how promotional materials were used. I actually turned down a couple of really good paying jobs to work for half the money at the record store. I figured for all the time I spent roaming through record stores I might as well work in one.
    I had the privilege of working for an independent chain in Indiana that had stores throughout the state. What made this chain so dynamic was the people that it incorporated. It was more about the passion for the business than it was about the monetary connected to it. Amazingly the chain managed to maintain its strength going in the 80s as music and cultural things changed. The 80s brought plenty of vanilla box chain stores, but what made the independent chain stand out was not only the “esoterical” selection of music, but really great “merchandise” and plenty of “smoking apparatuses”. Then Ticketmaster showed up. That was a major game changer.
    The initial perception was Ticketmaster would create more in-store sales, however after someone bought their event tickets with all the trumped up fees they often spent little or nothing and left those in the record stores doing twice the work with more responsibility and no real incentive to want to sell tickets. The chain no less managed with Ticketmaster and still managed to do consistent sales numbers.
    But sadly for all those who came on board for the passion of working at the record store they grew weary of Ticketmaster and moved on to other ventures. I being one of those people eventually moved on to Sony BMG in the early 90s. It was about that time the owner’s of the independent chain I work for decided to franchise their stores and let the franchise owners handle the headaches of the overhead, payrolls, insurance and Ticketmaster! With the coming of the Internet and growth in technologies, record stores began to dwindle. Be it an independent or national chain stores, by the end of the decade many of them were gone. Still over the years I’m always looking for a record store. Several years ago while in Daytona Beach I found an independent store where I unknowingly by not watching the time had spent over five hours just thumbing through countless vintage vinyl records. Record stores will forever be dear to my heart because the visual stimulation and the ability to actually hold a vinyl record or back in the days an 8- track, cassette tape and then eventually CD’s. I always loved all the great promotional material’s that record labels used send out with great band photos or incredible color graphics that created so much visual stimulation for the buyer once they walked into the store. To this day I am not a great fan of buying music online. I would much rather get in the car go to the record store and leisurely stroll through its inventory. For us “Boomers” the record store experience will forever live in or hearts and memories……

    Reply
  7. Nicky Knight

    You know there’s three things I miss from the High Street and Shopping Mall experience that I used to enjoy a lot.

    Record Shops
    Books Shops
    Electronic Hobbyist Shops

    Basically they’ve all but disappeared.. all you’ve got now are fancy clothing shops,
    fast food outlets and over priced cafes.

    Reply
  8. indie dude

    “It was part of the Record Theatre retail chain, an eventualy grew tol 24 stores, 4 state operation.”

    I used to go to Record Theatre all the time…as a music fan in my younger days and then to the one stop (back door) as a DJ in Buffalo…I miss those stores and that whole experience..

    Reply
  9. Nicky Knight

    Talking about record shops brings to mind the whole state of independent retailing and the fate of the High Street..

    Everywhere you go you’re seeing fewer and fewer independent stores and less and less variety..

    Rents are excessive and it’s forcing out retail diversity and so many shops have gone broke..

    Be glad that the recorded music business is largely a digital distribution e-commerce business because if you had to operate the old-world way of disc manufacturing, label/cover printing, warehousing, distributing, retail accounting and stock returns… it would be a nightmare..

    Especially all the stock returned for full credit ..

    The physical recorded music business was all on sale or return.. and often getting a distributor to even get your product into the stores was a major headache, let alone for them to account back to you and pay you…

    Today’s record business, although tough, is a damn sight better, especially for independents, than the old way of things..

    Be glad you’re not an independent record store with huge rents and input costs..

    Reply

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