My 2011 EMP Pop Conference Paper
"Ebay, Light Of My Life, Fire Of My Loins, My Sin, My Soul – The Confessions of a Record Dealer, The New Vinyl Renaissance, the Impossibility of Supplying the Demand for Old Led Zeppelin Records, and the Essential Human Need for Objects" by Scott Seward
A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed a scarifying televised conversation between the vampiric Arianna Huffington, some robo-suit from AOL, and that old money-fucker Charlie Rose. Primarily, they were all there to discuss a synergistic merger between the dial-up tycoons at AOL and Arianna’s webpaperzinething. What got my attention before I passed out into a treacle-induced infomercial coma was when talk shifted to the curatorial importance of content providers.
This actually interests me! And I think about it a lot. The curatorial thing. I write a monthly column devoted to experimental music – well, I review music made by groups with names like Pus Drainer anyway – and my column is often the result of a haphazard mad dash on the day of my deadline. That’s what makes it into print, and my scatterbrained lethargy is now public record. And when I think about music that is written about , and music – old and new – that is presented to the public, I can’t help but think about the blind spots and biases of often extremely knowledgeable people who love music dearly. I think about everything that isn’t written and thought about or made available. Basically, I think about how random everything has become now that people have more musical recordings at their fingertips than in any time in history. How DO you sort it all out? Is it even possible to sort out? Maybe there is no point in sorting it all out. But it can get overwhelming out there for casual music fans, and god only knows why I care about *them*, but for some reason I do! They are, you know, most of the people on earth. And half of me might be an obsessive loner freak who wonders why more people don’t listen to City Boy or Crack The Sky, but I was also cursed with a love for American commerce and the real world marketplace. I think about shop-keeping minutia WAY too much for someone who has never had much money. Here are a few things I’ve learned. 1. People really like to buy stuff. And they really like to hold stuff and stroke it and squeeze it and look at it for a long time before they buy. 2. People like it when you try to sell them things. Not a hard sell or an obnoxious sell, but they enjoy the illusion that you care about them and their wants and needs for at least a minute of their dull day. 3. People like reliability and safety. Even when they tell you that they want something new and different. This is one of the reasons why the entire behemoth music industry in this country worked as well as it did for so many years. It was a business built on blind greed, thuggery, graft, intimidation, and hype, but it was reliable for the most part. And that’s really what most people want. From a drug dealer, their country, from life itself. An easy fix. A quick bite to eat. A record, book, or movie that will hit the spot with a minimum of fuss or muss. Record stores, both the mom and pop variety and the chains, used to provide this quick fix. They had something for everyone and easy to navigate displays and aisles. If you wanted to hear the hot new single that was played on the radio, you just ran into the store and grabbed that single and you were home and playing it over and over like a lunatic within minutes, and there was a true physical satisfaction in that that can’t compare to a download. ( It won’t be long before there is a Wii game where people drive Mario karts or jog to virtual stores in their living room and buy real items from real retailers with a real credit card, but it won’t be the same, will it? Or maybe everyone already does that, what the hell do I know?) *I remember the first 45 I ever bought. I had to take a trip into the big city – which for me was Hat City aka Danbury, CT – and go to the record store there where you asked a scary old man behind a long counter to get you your single by telling him the record’s Top 40 ranking that week. Prior to this you had to actually look for the number on a battered piece of paper taped to the counter. It was positively Dickensian! (This was the summer of 1973 and I was four going on five and the 45 I bought was a hardcore gangster rap song called “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by a young South Philly street poet named Jim Croce who died tragically a few months later. Respect.)
Things are, needless to say, different now. You can buy all the country music you want down south and find all the rap you need in urban areas, but the days when you could find a reasonably varied selection of new releases all in one reasonably comfortable space are long gone. If you do have a record store in your town, chances are it’s a cold soulless box that survives almost entirely on video game sales. The next time you hear a song you really like on the radio, IF you ever hear a song you like on the radio, see how long it takes you to physically track it down. Which is where the internet comes in. And it makes me sad! I can’t help it. I would love to be able to go into a record store and buy singles again. New gangster rap singles! But it ain’t gonna happen. I made the mistake of actually looking for a new album in a chain store last week. The new PJ Harvey album. I’ve heard good things. So I went to the FYE store in the town where I live. Big mistake. First of all, it just depresses me every time I go in there. Second of all, I knew they wouldn’t have it. So why torture myself? Third of all, every time I do go in there I have an irrational urge to grab the manager and scream: It’s not a sale if the sale is ALL YEAR LONG! Those are just your prices! There is no organization in this store. No thought. No human touch. Random piles of crap CDs and DVDs. FYE is owned by something called Trans World Entertainment. Trans World bought just about every loser mall chain that ever existed. Camelot, Coconuts, Record Land, Record Town, Strawberries, The Wall. Apparently they wanted to continue the grand tradition of terribleness that these stores represented. The Wall. Yeesh. Go into one of those places and you prayed that someone would put you up against a wall and blow your friggin’ brains out. Don’t get me wrong, there are still, miraculously, great independent record stores in this country, and we need them, and they are often run by archivists and scholars and these stores can be dizzying to normal people who see 500 Sun Ra reissues when all they want is a little Gaga in their life. So, its off to the mall. Or the internet where life is free and easy.
Across the street from the FYE in my town is an even worse store. It’s a used record store. The lowest of the low. It’s my store! For the casual modern music fan its nothing but disappointment if they even notice that I’m there. When people do manage to find me, I often feel like the shabbiest tour guide in the shabbiest museum in Massachusetts. “Oh, God, records, I haven’t seen these for years!” “You’re too young to remember these.” “Do people still buy these?” “Do people still listen to these?” “*Can* you even listen to these anymore?” “What is this place?” “Are these all yours?” “Where do you get all this stuff?” “You wouldn’t happen to have anything by Ray Lamontagne would you?” “Uh, Good luck!” And there is the reliable “I hear records are coming back!” This, courtesy of the zillion newspaper articles over the last five years about vinyl coming back. The New York Times runs one every month. My favorite headline has to be from a 2007 article in Wired entitled “Vinyl May Be Final Nail In CD’s Coffin”. Yeah! Screw you, compact disc! You ruined everything! Okay, that might not be true. But it feels like it. How could something that looked so cheap be so expensive? That revolutionary new technology should have come with a revolutionary price break. Music for the masses! (Cassettes, in case you were wondering, were the true proletariat medium of choice.) The only people who ever made CDs look cool and seem cool were the Japanese, but they can make anything look and seem cool. And I’ll forgive them all the tentacled demon school girl porn in the world as long as they remain obsessive enough to keep scores of the most forgotten fourth-tier 70’s dollar bin rock records in print and in lovingly re-mastered condition. Someone has to do it. I do listen to plenty of CDs. But the whole love/hate thing is strong in me. The tiny selection of used CDs in my store is placed within steps of the front door. I want CD thieves to have an easy and unobstructed exit. I just don’t care about them enough to care if they are stolen. My priority is the vinyl. And nothing but the vinyl. I sell used books too, but, eh, books…who has time to read. And books are everywhere. There are way too many books out there. It’s like some sort of race with trees. If they never published another book I’d be happy. Let’s deal with what we’ve got first. That memoir you wanted to write about that horrible thing that happened to you that one time? Yeah, let’s put that on hold. Pick up some Henry James. Relax. Have some tea.
No, records are my thing. I love them so. I’ve been collecting and selling and trading records for decades and I never tire of them. I’m THAT guy. The guy you made the mistake of going to a record store with. Oh, you’ll never do that again. You’re okay for the first hour. Hey, this place is neat! An hour and a half, and you’re getting hungry. After two hours you’re wondering where you are, how you got there, who you are, the mistakes you’ve made in the past. You question your existence. And I’m not even halfway done yet. I can look at records in less than ideal circumstances all day with no food, water, or break any day of the week. I’ve spent so many hours of my life on my knees in strange basements that the jokes just write themselves. It’s a strange feeling to get a call on the phone and half an hour later you are in someone’s basement on the floor poring through records and there is someone right behind you looking at what you are looking at and you can hear them breathing and all of a sudden you think: I have no idea who this person is! It doesn’t take long before you’ve heard their entire life story, but still… A tip for any budding serial killers out there: Looking for a population that will travel great distances alone at a moment’s notice and who will follow you eagerly into any desolate godforsaken shack or barn far from prying eyes? And who only have sporadic contact with friends and loved ones? Tempting, no? My collector scum moment came in the early 90’s at a stoop sale in my neighborhood in Philly. I knew the guy having the sale a little bit. I sold him his Merit Ultra Lights at the corner store I worked at. He was dying of AIDS. He was so thin. I could never tell for sure if it was crack and AIDS-related or just old styles being cast out in favor of the new, but there was a bounty of cheap 80’s house and disco records to choose from in Philly record stores in the early 90’s. The dollar bins were full of the stuff. I would say a silent prayer and buy as much as I could carry home on my back. I traveled many many miles of that city by foot with my pack filled to overflowing with Latin Freestyle and electro 12 inches. Just as Walt Whitman had before me. Anyway, this guy is dying and having a sale and he has some records out and I ask him if he has any more and he says that he has BOXES of records in the basement, but the door to the basement is barricaded by crap and there is no way to get down there. And he continues to talk to me about his health and all the medication he’s on and I’m nodding and saying uh huh and all the while I’m thinking to myself: How the hell am I getting down into that basement!? That was my moment. The moment that says: You better check yourself before you wreck yourself. I didn’t want to lose my humanity in a quest for more vinyl treasure. But I did get into the basement. I crawled through an outside window head first and I was bloodied and bruised. But, man, what a basement. I was in heaven. I don’t even remember what I found down there, but that was a great day. Sadly, if you were to ask me what my favorite moment was from the last few years I wouldn’t immediately mention one of my children’s milestones. The first day of kindergarten. The day they learned how to ride a bike. No, it would have to be the blazing hot summer day when I spent hours inside a dumpster filled with records and broken glass. It doesn’t really get any better than that! Needless to say, I’m still working on the whole “humanity” thing.
There’s really no good reason to open a used record store. Or any kind of music store. CD’s, used, new, whatever. It’s definitely an uphill battle. If you don’t love it you’re cooked. And if you really want to spend your day selling music it makes much more sense to do it from home. You can make more money that way and you never have to leave your couch. Gemm, Musicstack, Discogs, Ebay, and Amazon are the way to go in the 21st century. All the vinyl is back! articles make a big deal of the fact that vinyl is the only medium that has witnessed a steady growth in sales every year for a decade or more. Whereas CD and DVD sales have just gone down, down, down, year in and year out. Vinyl posted a 14% sales gain in 2010! The biggest selling new vinyl artist? Britpop combo The Beatles. But new vinyl sales are so tiny, about 1% of total music sales, and while sales may continue to rise a little bit more over the coming years, its never going to be much more than what it is, a niche. Ironically, the beast that toppled the CD is the same beast that makes the vinyl album a hepcat fetish object today. The internet. Ebay alone has created so much interest in records and styles and genres that nobody, and I mean NOBODY, gave the time of day to ten years ago. “Random rap”? This was dollar bin fare in the 90’s and it’s the same with electro, 80’s boogie, and a score of other micro-genres. Some of this can be chalked up to the passing of time. Something ten years old is not cool. When its twenty years old its magically cool again. But, privately pressed AOR records from the 80’s? Really? Do you know how many horrible local bar band records I’ve sent to Italy and do you have any idea what I was paid for them? Man, you don’t want to know. But, in obsessive fashion, Ebay has fed the archival and curatorial impulse in a big way. As have the blogs and fan-sites and Youtube. Anything and everything forgotten by time and neglect is ready to be thrown on 180 gram virgin vinyl and shipped to people who just can’t get enough. And we can’t forget the kids. The majority of the customers who buy records in my store are 30 and younger. Most of them never knew vinyl when it was the only game in town. And most of them want to collect the classic albums of a bygone era. 60’s and 70’s stuff. Classic rock. Tons and tons of classic rock. Pink Floyd up the butt. I’ve sold hundreds of Pink Floyd albums. Bob Dylan all day long. Beatles Beatles Beatles. And I cater to this as much as I can. I don’t sell new reissues, but I seek out the old boomer favorites and the demand is always bigger than the supply. The boomers, as it happens, are the people MOST incredulous that I choose to sell records. They cut that cord in the go go 80’s. They like to regale me with stories about how cool their record collections used to be. I grin and bear it. They hate rap. The only new rock artist they seem to appreciate is Beck. Meanwhile, their sons and daughters are feverishly searching for Townes Van Zandt albums. And Leonard Cohen albums. And college dudes in old men hats looking for Tom Waits. I am a curator. I am an archivist. And a booster of the long gone. The success of my store is based largely on what I choose to carry and my own tastes. Selling something that someone doesn’t know that they want is a large part of the allure of a used record store. But it can’t be TOO much of the allure. People don’t like to dig TOO hard. They leave that to me and that is my value to them. I sink or swim based on what I choose to display, like any store, but unlike any store, I don’t get the traffic that a normal retail store gets and if only ten people look at my records in a day I have to have stuff that will appeal to them or I’m cooked. Which is why I need so many Pink Floyd records. Got any? No, really, I need some right now. And some Bob Marley would be nice. Someone just came in my store ten minutes ago and asked me if I would “appraise” the beat up Blue Note records they wanted to put on Ebay. True story! I looked at the records. I tried to be helpful. Go with God. What I didn’t say to them was: Do you know how many hours I’ve spent on Ebay in the last decade? Thousands of hours. For real. In the time I have spent on Ebay I could have learned spelunking, Ju Jitsu, taken a year’s worth of wok cooking classes, and gotten my commercial pilot’s license. Years ago, I raised the money to open my first store, a basement space in Philly that was not long for this world, by selling old Blue Note records. Records I stole from my father when I was kid. Don’t tell him. Okay, you can tell him, he kinda knows anyway. He’s still got his Utta Hipp Live at the Hickory House LP, he’s happy. Deep groove mono Lexington pressing too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought records from people who bought them to sell on the internet. They had the fever for the flavor. Lotto fever. Antiques Roadshow fever. American Pickers fever. (I love that show, because old barns give me wood, but does anyone actually believe that those guys make their money by buying rusty chamber pots for 40 dollars and selling them for 60 dollars? Puh-leeze.) People soon realize that selling records is a pain in the ass. Most people. But for the dedicated few who do their homework there is definitely money to be made. The internet has opened up new markets, but it has also made record selling as volatile as life on Wall Street. Gluts. Corrections. Ups and downs. Trends. Dry spells. Don’t sell on Ebay in the summer. Sealed is king. (Sold a sealed Carpenters record for $112 dollars last year. Open, it’s a dollar. It’s enough to make your head spin.) When people rhapsodize about the warmth of analog sound and the tactile appeal of old vinyl I tend to fall asleep a little. It’s all true and I dig it and I love that capable enthusiastic people are keeping the flame alive today. I guess. Have you seen those Numero Group vinyl packages. Ooh la la. Hubba hubba. Sooooo sexy. Sorry. But, in the end, I don’t really care what happens. Excruciatingly, there are more records out there than I could ever find and listen to, and I’m an American and I have no interest in what happens after my death. Don’t get me wrong, digital technology is *amazing*. The internet is amazing! On the other hand, I like when teenagers come in my shop and get excited about old Kinks vinyl. And downloading music files is as dull as data processing and I can’t think of anything lamer than cleaning your weed on top of an ipod.