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Saturday, February 25

Is There Anything Else Left to Say?

Well, on Thursday, Round Two unexpectedly dropped out of the sky on us like a house from Kansas when Pitchfork ran their well-written news story/editorial piece by Mairead Case on this whole fen. I have to say that while the hits on our blog were piling up, Miss Gulch passed by our insular work environment much more quietly this time around, which was welcome by all at the office. We have a lot to do, taking stuff out of one box and putting it into another, after all. Being The Gatekeeper takes a lot concentration.

Since my thoughts on this topic seem to keep coming to me at 5:30 on Saturday mornings for some reason, and since I can't jinx a dog that's already gone by writing at this hour, I figure I'll take one last last crack at the final issue that's still eating at me.

I've spent a little more time this week reading what's being written about all of this on blogs and in some of the forums from people outside the music business. I would say that most people don't care. Fine. We're not talking to you. Of those that do, many people seem to get it and generally agree with where we're coming from. A fair summary of the arguments of those opposed would be something along these lines:

  • Who are you to tell me I shouldn't buy stuff for $7.99? How dare you!
  • You're just mad you don't get to tell us what we can and can't buy any more.
  • Records are too expensive.
  • Record stores suck.
  • Record stores are stupid.
  • I couldn't be bothered to read everything everybody wrote because it was so long with so many words but I still have an opinion and this here internet connection God gave me and I'm going to use it.
Let's try to address them, though not necessarily in that order as my brain's not that linear this early. Later probably, just not yet.

First, we're not here to tell anybody where they have to shop. We can suggest that there are long and short term benefits attached to where you do shop. And we can also suggest that the sale price point for the indie titles at BB was also a consumer imperative of where you had to buy those albums for the two weeks they were on sale at that price. That's about half of the point of my original open letter. Please keep in mind that my letter was initially written to other people in the music business. Because we're all in the business of music, it would then make sense that we'd all like to see that business continue along in as healthy a manner as we can all muster. We're very protective of it. It's what we do-what many of us have given our life to doing.

So if you really don't care about it, that's fine and dandy, but why have you read this far? Go somewhere else entertaining.

I suppose the next step up the ladder from not caring, is caring about the music, but not the way it gets to you. That's fine too. I don't know the cow that gave me my milk. I wish I did because I really loved Elsie when I was a little kid, but the fact is that life's SO fast and complicated these days that we all have to pick and choose our battles.

Obviously for those of us in various parts of the business of bringing you music, we care deeply about how that gets done and we'd all like for it to be as efficiently and cheaply as possible in a method that will continue to support itself for years to come. I believe we all realize that nothing is static except your clothes on a winter day in Chicago and we struggle constantly to figure out the next right move to make buying music as pleasant and easy as possible. It's also a really cool and I think unique aspect of this business that so many music fans actually DO care about where their music comes from. They have their favorite labels and stores, and the DIY ethic that has grown up from the early SST, Touch and Go, and Dischord days is still fairly strong and shared by fans and industry nerds alike.

If you read and understand my argument that this sale could be the tip of a very ugly iceberg, then we all need to talk about it and think about it and at least be aware of possible consequences going forward. The committed music fan is already doing a lot of their shopping at indies. We applaud you. And if the music fan who wasn't aware of where her milk came from suddenly has her consciousness raised a bit and changes her buying habits to support the stores who support the indie labels, then we may have gotten a net gain out of this and that would be cool and almost as pleasantly surprising as making that right turn light at Diversey and California.

And if you love music but either hate record stores or find them irrelevant, well then I guess I feel exceedingly sorry for you. Somehow part of the argument turned to the stereotypical Surly Record Store Clerk as the source of all of our problems. Crappy service in any business leads to a bad experience for the customer who may never come back. I've experienced that and back in my retail days I unfortunately probably unintentionally dished some of it out on a bad day in a store famous for bad attitude (which I actually almost never saw once our resident coke head checked out). In my experience, for every Barry, there are four or five Robs and Dicks who are just dying to tell you what they know and share with you the next Belle and Sebastian or old Jesus and Mary Chain LP. Indie record stores and small clubs act as incubators for little bands long before they get to a level where BB or Borders or VW are interested in them. I think we're way, way past them, or me, or us, being able to act as a "gatekeeper" for music. There's an enormous gulf between Gatekeeper/Protector of the Sacred Realm and indie record store's selling, supporting and nurturing music.

I promise you that no one, not even the owners of the largest indie shops, much less their floor clerks, are getting rich off of this endeavor. Not the indie label owners and certainly not the distributors and their 14% margin. If we can make a little money, that's nice. Most of the music retail people I know are more concerned that they and their coworkers make enough to just keep paying the business and personal rent, health insurance, light bill and taxes while they do their best to make as broad a spectrum of good music available to their customers in as welcoming an environment as possible.

The days of the stupid record store owner are long gone. If a store is open right now, I guarantee that the owner and their management team spend just about every waking moment figuring out what else they can do to get people in the door and provide them with stuff they want, from music to dvds and lifestyle products. To argue that they're too stupid to change means that you haven't been in a record store in a long time. They have and they are. But the crux of what they, and we, do is SELL MUSIC. The only reason that most of us got into this in the first place is because we love music. We spend much too large of a percentage of our paychecks on it just so we can have more of it with us even when we leave work where we've been around it all day. We live it and breathe it and think about it and have it around us just about every waking moment, even during Grey's Anatomy (which has terrific and frequently daring soundtrack choices, imho).

So if you say to record stores, "Adapt or die," I say they're doing that every day or else they wouldn't be in business, and if you'd been in one lately you'd already know that. But if your idea of adapting is expecting them to turn into a home electronics store, video game palace or nail salon, or perish, I think most stores would instead close up shop and hit eBay or the beach. And when something comes along that strikes at the core of what they/we do, perhaps damaging it irretrievably, then part of our adapting damned well better be to think through the ramifications very carefully. Make no mistake, Best Buy has the muscle and market penetration to force even the most progressive, well-adapted record stores out of business. Again, I don't necessarily think this is their goal, but I don't think they really care either.

And if you think the labels involved in the original $35,000 (as reported by Billboard) coop deal, the ones that bring you the music that you care enough about to read Pitchfork in the first place, don't think that the continued existence of indie retail is important, than you didn't read past my posts. READ THE COMMENTS and see for yourself in their own words.

On an upbeat note, the hip teens with whom I am in contact are buying vinyl. Yes, VINYL. You can't download that. And at least for now, you can't buy it in a chain store. Signs of hope are few but happy when stumpled upon.

The last thought of my last last thought is that we are sad we have not heard from any of the musicians involved. When people in Madagascar and the Baltic Republics are reading about this, I find it difficult to believe that none of the artists have seen it. I wish some of them had taken the time to comment on it somewhere, because in the end it's their art for sale and most likely at least 50% of their co-op ad to pay for.

Hopefully the next time you hear from us in this space, we'll be talking about our new, baby webstore, the bugs we're trying to squash out of it, and the records we love most that are offered on it. You know. Music (and commerce).

8 comments:

  1. oh god, not the danny miller blog. over at viachicago.org, the wilco message board, people go gaga over his blog. mostly just because they feel they can get a "non-stalkerish" glimpse into someone closely related to jeff tweedy.

    nice reporting on the whole issue. unfortunately, i am unable to purchase as much music as i used to, due to having a kid, but i would rather spend 15 bucks in an "indie" record store, and maybe have a little conversation with the guy behind the counter, then being asked if i want a free trail to entertainment weekly/sports illustrated when i make my music purchase.

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  2. What do you make of the idea that this is all, perhaps, just a progression of capitalism as pertains to record sales in the information/post-information age?

    It's funny, you know? Because small record labels play into the capitalist system, along with independent record stores, and then they somehow act like what's happening right now is an unexpected outcome. They say to Best Buy and its stable of indie label traitors "How can you do this to us?" How? Well, because that's how the system works. I don't think anybody can disagree with the notion that this outcome was inevitable, short of an economic revolution. And I think we can also agree that expecting people to model their behavior after some sort of "indie ethics conscience," under the powerful draw of capitalism, is pretty ridiculous. We can vent our indignation at these targets, but at the end of the day, that doesn't really get us anywhere.

    What people should have been doing, and likely (hopefully?) have been doing in the background, is creating alternate ways of doing business outside the clutches of big corporations. I think it's times like these when we have to begin to say "Sayonara" to the old mode (record stores), sit down, and use our ingenuity to come up with a new solution as regards getting product (that's what it is, after all ... you're not outside the system, regardless of what you may feel or believe) to people, for money.

    Capitalism isn't here to make peoples' lives wonderful. You can certainly benefit from capitalistic practices, but then again, Best Buy can come around and undercut you, turning your small business experience into a nightmare.

    I've thought about this quite a bit, and I've come to realize that, without the internet, this scenario would likely never have occurred. Post-"internet revolution," obscure music is pretty much at everybody's fingertips. You don't need to live in the vicinity of a small indie record store in order to get your hands on a Drag City record, for example. Moreover, you can get these records for, generally, far less cash than you would have to pay at a store. But indie record stores aren't the only places feeling the crunch from internet sales. The big chain record stores are also selling less music. Bring in the issue of filesharing and the situation becomes even worse for retail outlets. Right now, it seems to me that the only stores capable of maintaining this, frankly, outmoded method of sales are big chain department stores like Best Buy.

    I say let Best Buy (and anybody who wishes to compete with them) sink with that ship. Is this a time of turmoil for those who have built small businesses under the assumption that they'd be able to do it forever, completely without major competition? Sure. But they should never have come in with that assumption in the first place. If you're set up in such a way that you can only survive as long as somebody bigger doesn't come along to challenge you, then you don't deserve to survive. I'm not a capitalist, but I know how capitalism works, and if you've decided to play by its rules, then all I can say to you is "Best of luck." You don't have my sympathy when the corporate bogeyman comes knocking at your door.

    In any case, all I see right now is a group of people attempting to hang onto some faux-nostalgic system. "Things are becoming so corporate and impersonal," they lament. But if you thought that any capitalistic enterprise was ever personal, then you have, I'm afraid, fallen for the biggest myth of capitalism ... that it can actually interface with our "purer" notions of how society should work, and how people should act. Yeah, you may have made friends with the indie record store clerk. The two of you may have had hour-long conversations about the Elvis Costello reissues and how Calvin Johnson is a big asshole. But at the end of the day, the dude still charged you $17 for that b-sides compilation by The Fall, and probably didn't think twice about it.

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  3. "I'm not a capitalist, but I know how capitalism works"....oh master, thank you for coming down off the mountain and judging before teaching us from your sacred wellspring. Pretentous hoo haw...the usual capitalism is evil and you get what ya deserve hook.Yes,
    The systsem allows for this type of scenario (we are still talking about best buy, no?), but it's what the people do w/the system, and so it boils down to the company or individuals and how they work w/the capitalist system we find ourselves immersed in.

    That Fall b-sides cd for $17 was probably sold to the store for $12--$13 btw...and mark e. smith probably sold the same master tapes to two different companies to pocket each one's advance. Does that make Mark E. Smith evil, or the system?

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  4. "oh master, thank you for coming down off the mountain and judging before teaching us from your sacred wellspring. Pretentous hoo haw...the usual capitalism is evil and you get what ya deserve hook."

    Where did I say that capitalism was evil? I don't think it's inherently good or bad. Like you said, it's all about how people use it. But at the end of the day, anybody who gets into business with a head on his/her shoulders KNOWS how capitalism is and has been used by people over the last two centuries. Can anybody starting up a business in this country honestly say that they expect competitors to give them a break?

    This is not a positivist argument. I'm not saying "This is how it goes, so that means it's all good." I'm saying that people know (or should know) what they're getting into before they get into it. I may not like the fact that the ground rule double is part of the rules in baseball, but if I've decided to take part in baseball, then I've agreed to that rule. It may be a very long time before that rule comes along and fucks my team over, but that doesn't mean I didn't know it could happen, and it doesn't mean that I have a right to bitch about it and expect the rule to be changed. And certainly, if I'm a bystander watching something like this go down, I don't feel any sympathy at all for the little guy. Don't get me wrong. Small businesses are nice because the consumer experience is generally more enjoyable than at some big chain. I can talk to people. The owners are from where I live. That's cool. But once again, on the business end, all I can say to these generally nice people is "Best of luck to you." They've got some kind of drive that I don't really possess. That's why they run businesses and I don't. At the end of the day, both they and I know the risks of getting involved. They choose to get involved and I choose to stay out of it.

    So sure, it's about how people act within the capitalist system. You are right. But the bottom line in any capitalist system is profit. Are you really expecting anybody at Best Buy or at the traitorous indie labels to forego their primary duties (making money; promoting their bands) in order to make things "fair" for failing indie record stores? I think that most indie labels try to go out of the way to retain credibility and some kind of integrity, but it must become very frustrating, at some point, to realize that you are perhaps not doing the best you can do to promote your bands, in return for that cred and integrity. I'm not telling all indies to go out and join up with Best Buy or anything like that, but on the other hand, I certainly don't hold it against any of them for doing so when the indie record sales industry hasn't really been doing anything to make itself a more appetizing outlet for releases.

    My view on this, as I stated before, and which you didn't address, is that we shouldn't go down with that ship. Physical retail outlets for music are, by and large, disappearing. That seems to be the trend. Why should customers be expected to subsidize a failing enterprise? For nostalgia? For some indie ethic? That's a crock of shit. And unless you can argue coherently that physical retail locations are still the ideal places for music sales to occur -- and I don't understand how this could be argued, but I'll accept it as a possibility -- then I'm going to continue to believe that it's a crock of shit.

    But just to be clear, I'm not pulling the cynical, nihilistic card on anybody here. I really do believe that hanging onto the retail outlet as a means for selling/distributing music is a failing prospect and that clinging onto it just for nostalgia or something like that is really just a ridiculous thing to do. We need to think up new ways to sell music from outside the grasp of the Best Buys of the world. Clinging onto an old mode is, unfortunately, not the way to accomplish this task.

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  5. On the flip side, no matter what the store, be it an indie or retail super giant (Best Buy, Border's, etc), Fugazi cd's are always priced higher than the "Do not pay more that $10.00" tag on the back. I'm curious if that markup is part of Dischord's agreement with stores, if the markup is a result of Dischord only selling to stores at a price that's too high for the stores to not markup, or if it's just the stores trying to cash in a bit.

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  6. Most Dischord catalog titles are sold to retail at $7 (which at my store means they're priced at $10.99) with some newer titles at $7.50-$8.50 ($11.99-$12.99)

    I obviously can't speak for all stores, but here all prices are determined by the same ratio to cost (which really sucks when AEC expects you to sell a $10.79 CD for $13.99)

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  7. I hate to say this, mainly because it seems painfully obvious, but the problem here is not the sociopathic chainstores that stalk any dollar they can get, or the labels who are trying to find a way to make back their money and pay the bands (i'm talking about ethical indie's here, not the big 4), or capitalism (in which there's no inherent evil); the problem is in people.

    If you care about the music you listen to, make sure the artists are compensated.
    It is not helpful to a community to shut those channels down because your craving exceeds your ability to support them (ie: the i want the music, but i only have $xx.xx a month to spend).

    I am disappointed in the labels that sell their records in chain stores, and I am also disappointed that bands allow their records to be sold by chain stores.
    They should know what kind of community support will yield longevity, and they're not going to get it from appliance outlets.
    This is not snobbery. It's communtiy building. Each kind of music, aside from abstract arguments of what it SHOULD cost, or who SHOULD have access to it, does not appeal to everyone. It cannot be all things to all people.

    Find the channels that will get it in front of those who will appreciate it, and will be promoted in a way that will engender that community. Build it from there.

    Please.

    I can see why people thought they might be able to sell more copies in chain stores.
    Obviously this short term grab has yielded a long term fissure in the ass of independent music (if i can use that adjective in this context).
    Time to go back to the basics.

    You've done a great thing with this blog.
    Thanks for getting this stuff up for discussion.

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  8. The anti-corporate armband mafia is getting a bit stale. This argument has been going on for the past 10 years or more. Indie stores died off. Indie stores survived. The artists are not starving any more if their albums are sold at BB or an indie store. The prescient point is that it is a matter of economics.

    BB took a short term loss on pricing to generate revenue through moving quantity and get foot traffic into the building. This has been a long-time retail tactic. Look at where your pharmacy counter is in a pharmacy store: 9 times out of ten, it is in the back where you have to walk past a bunch of crap you don't need.

    BB doesn't care about indie stores as competition. Their pricing serves their own purpose because they know the competition is generally a small mom and pop shop. Indie stores aren't much competition for the price conscious buyer who has a BB next to them. Those who find value in an indie shop get what they want from an indie shop. Those who want the lowest price possible will go to the chain store.

    That being said, in the short term, it may impact the small indie shop. But in the long term, as pointed out in the story linked about the BB and CDBaby deal, BB realized their employees were sending buyers to the small shops and independent dealers. Obviously no one seems to be complaining about the referrals sent from the chain stores to the indies. Labels are smart about this and they know this happens. Having an indie store carry a bigger backstock at full prices serves as an advantage. A label may get the newest release of their hot artist into the hands of a buyer at X dollars but that is irrelevant - if the buyer is hooked on the band, guess where they have to go for more? Usually this is somewhere where they buy at full retail.

    In the end run, yeah maybe the labels were selling their albums for insanely low prices, but in the end, it pays off for the label, the artist and the distributor.

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Be nice!