I Need That Record! – [DVD]

Sunday, 27 June 2010

As a lead-off discussion about Brendan Troller's documentary, I Need That Record!, a bit of conjecture is required – it only to balance or temper the opinions expressed in the film. Ten years into  the new millennium, and there's no arguing that record stores of every stripe – both the indies and the chain conglomerate stores – are beginning to feel the pinch of annually depleting record sales. Simply said, records do not seem to be selling so well anymore – but how can that be? People are still listening to music, and trends seem to exhaust themselves faster now than ever before in history. With such rapid and self-evident consumerism occurring, how can the numbers be going down? The answer is simple: what's happening to the music business now is simply a matter of consumer frustration and dissatisfaction. Why? Well, that's a reasonable question easily answered: the music industry's parallel drives of greed and panic caught up with it, and the spontaneous assertion of power that the independent music community exerted in the early Nineties (which saw Sonic Youth become elder statesmen and Nirvana become the biggest band in the world, briefly) further accellerated the erosion of music's value in the marketplace.

You blinked – didn't you? Look at it this way: when Nirvana exploded in the early Nineties, they brought the thriving underground kicking and screaming into the mainstream, thereby ostensibly leveling the playing field in the music business from a two-tiered structure ('indie' and 'mainstream') to one. Suddenly the disparate groups of potential fans were all feeding at one trough instead of two so both David and Goliath were trying to draw notice and fanfare from a unified audience. That made things more competitive, but then the internet and pulled the playing field out from everyone. At that point, music ceased to be a community-driven interest and became a quality-driven one. Suddenly, it didn't matter how big or small you were, all that mattered was the quality of your songs and no amount of diamond-encrusted promotion would save you. Of course, this threatened the major label way of life because the big boys make more on the here-today-gone-tomorrow bands (they have a habit of defaulting on contracts, you know) than on the much smaller stable of tried-and-true producers under their umbrella.

At the exact same time, while the music industry was reeling from the internet, the rest of the world was beginning to feel the pinch too. Since the ground fell out from under Ronald Reagan's daydream nation around 1988 or '89, the United States (and the rest of the world, by extension) has suffered an unprecedented series of economic recessions that have caused the public (including patrons of the arts) to tighten their belts so far that they've begun to find new ways to get what they need. In the case of music, the solution was the internet; suddenly the mainstream method of floating a few good singles per record in a glass of forgettable tripe wouldn't cut it anymore, and understandably so; who would want to pay extra for the packing material they get their goods in? Because of the dismal economy, the music industry's greed and a low level of good product per unit, the public reverted to a singles-centered marketplace and the internet provided a medium with which to cut the crap easily. At that point, everyone would line up to support the arts, but not at the expense of personal well-being. After the business figured that out, the business dropped their 'per unit' prices, which made room for outlet stores, and so the concept of the 'big box' store was established; offering better prices than the little guy because they could buy in volume at reduced rates. As unfashionable as it is to say, some quadrants of the music sales business began to recoup – but not all of them. Small-time, independent bands as well as those one step up from them began using their records as the promotional tools they had always been and disseminated them cheaply and efficiently over the internet in hopes of putting more meat in the seats at shows. It worked; the little guys had figured out how to at least partially work around the system, but the real losers were the independent record stores that had once been the primary sales outlet for those bands.

And now, as they say, “On with the show….”

Eighteen years after Nirvana broke through and small-time record stores are an endangered species. They're falling like flies and, while everyone recognizes it, I Need That Record! Removes all doubt; even if the film takes a slightly skewed viewpoint on the matter. Ironically, the film attempts to take a counterculture viewpoint for criticism of commerce and business which isn't perfectly congruent with any known business model; all they see (and show) is the little guy going down quickly and the big guy at least passably enduring and the film attempts to pass that off as substantiative proof that the big guy is doing fine. The cast of characters that the director employs to support that story is certainly a unique, well-known and perfectly ragtag one too; fascinatingly, viewers are offered:

  •     Ian MacAye – the proud and outspoken subculturalist, happy to renounce anything and everything that looks pro-establishment.
  •     Lenny Kaye – the man that has played and succeeded on both sides of the “indie/mainstream” coin.
  •     Thurston Moore – The iron man institution with mainstream visibility and underground credibility. Throughout the film, he plays both the conscience and the devil's advocate for both sides of the presented argument and gets away with it because he knows he has the clout and backing on both sides to do it.
  •     Mike Watt – the honest heart of the film. Watt doesn't say a lot here, but what he does say is both very affecting and cathartic.

With those players on the stage, the film establishes and plays out the convenient syllogism of the big box store taking down the independent music store community one store at a time easily. Viewers are privy to the heartbreak of “great little music stores” closing and the stories of the owners and where they went next and it's all very cathartic to watch. Even the most hard-hearted audiences will feel for the owners of those small stores, but the whole thing also feels a hair contrived and begins to lose steam when the proceedings begin to feel overtly opportunistic and shameless. Sure – the independent store is in trouble and that's definitely unfortunate but trying to pin that downfall on a faceless (which is to say, “anonymous”) establishment is a soft option which feels a little insulting. Does that mean the film is worthless? No, it just has a few farcical moments, and a few that are overly melodramatic.

So, with that said, who is at fault for the impending doom of the independent record store if not their big box counterparts? To put it bluntly, the patrons are – but they can't rightly be blamed either. At some point, personal economy does have to intervene over community; that's just an inconvenient truth in this case. In the end of the film (not so shockingly), nothing is truly resolved because it is an inconvenient truth; until the economy continues to establish and maintain an upswing, the small, slightly more expensive places to shop will continue to suffer. All we can hope is that the upswing comes soon – before the local record stores utterly fall to downloading, lower prices, less than ideal product and limited availability.



I Need That Record! trailer.


I Need That Record! had limited availability on Record Store Day, 2010. It is receiving a full release on July 27, 2010. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

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