Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Indie Record Stores

During one particular phase of adolescence I determined that most of the music I had been listening to was crappy and needed to be replaced. I headed to Strawberry Fields with a stack of old CDs. Needless to say, the clerk (who appeared to have Parkinson's but actually just drank too much coffee) agreed with my opinion that all of my albums absolutely sucked. He dressed down my taste in music and held a firm line at $1 per disc (store credit only). I never sold a used CD again.

10 years later, I leafed through records at a store in Madison on a Friday night (my previous visit had resulted in the store clerk providing an analysis of how I would react to a live Hendrix album based on my musical tastes). A man in his late thirties walked in with a stack of CDs that represented a collection of "at least 1000 more." After about 30 seconds of review, the clerk quipped that he "cannot sell these albums, they are not even worth $0.01". Ouch.

It was clear that the man's ego was crushed... he felt the need to validate his musical worth by quizzing the clerk about an obscure Joey Ramone side project that didn't actually exist, according to the clerk's computer. Finally, the man asked if they had been able to locate a particular rare CD. Without even looking up from what he was doing, the clerk responded "I think we're still working on that for ya."

A waiter may pay more attention to the affluent-looking couple than the table of teenagers. A bike shop employee will take more time to discuss riding preferences if they know you have the potential to drop serious cash on a serious bike. These are examples of a financial incentive (tip/commission) leading to better customer service. Does the clerk at an indie record store have a social or emotional incentive to appear cool, thus leading to poor treatment of the musically inferior (and better treatment of those with "acceptable" taste)?


vw said...

I believe that the record store clerk does indeed have an incentive to, at the very least, appear 'hipper-than-thou'. Music is one of the foremost indicators of 'cool' particularly amongst youths. Without totally copping Chuck Klosterman here 'cool' is an amorphous and intentionally confusing concept. Those who are 'cool' must appear unconfused and calm. Those who wish to be cool look to certain arbiters of taste to emulate. Klosterman's theories are neccessarily reductive but illuminating especially in this particular case. Record store clerk (when we're talking about an establishment devoted solely to music or perhaps also dvds and books or the assorted hipster apparel) has become a paramount indicator of 'cool'. The clerk devotes his/her livlihood to knowing all possible about popular music. Why should anyone care if someone dismisses their musical taste, or past musical taste? If you consider the dismissor an expert on taste then it would be cause for alarm. From an economic standpoint one who concerns oneself with the 'expert' opinion may be induced to purchase items more in line with said taste. Perhaps the clerk is playing Vampire Weekend (last time I was in a record store) and said album is prominently displayed near the counter; for roughly $12 (exorbitant, but who can put a price on social status) any customer becomes that much more 'with it'. (to further complicate things while Boston may be giddy about VW, New York is 'so over' the same and where hipness is concerned there's really no contest here so keeping up appearances can become a damned impossible way of life)
In short, as long as people look to 'cool' experts to become 'cool' themselves there will remain a snobbery incentive for record store employees. (a record store I applied to in high school asked that you list your top 50 albums on the application indicating that this snobbery is indeed institutionalized...which is kinda lame...hmmm...)
O the other hand, as Klosterman points out, 'coolness' is really just having full faith in YOUR taste so the best approach is forget the clerk and just rock the F out. Vampire Weekend made a good album and it will remain a good album. They are not the next Beatles but there will never be another Beatles. VW is cool, but so's Billy Joel.

vw said...


further reading
sorta related