Film Review: I Need That Record: The Death (Or Possible Survival) Of The Independent Record Store

September 3, 2009

A co-worker dropped off a copy of this documentary for me to watch at my leisure, and since I work in an independent record store I think I can offer a slightly more unique response to it than your average audience member. To put it succinctly, this is a film about record stores being shuttered across the country as a result of harsh economic times and a decrease in worldwide music sales. Using “talking head” interviews with folks like Ian MacKaye, Thurston Moore, Glenn Branca, and several store owners, the narrative follows the decline of retail locations in the wake of major label tactics and technological advances.

The “heroes” of the documentary are two store clerks who had to close their businesses, Ian Laforce (Record Express) and Malcolm Tent (Trash American Style). Their stories are given the most screen time, as they obviously support the film’s theory that the independent record store as an American cultural institution is rapidly disappearing. Juxtaposed to old television footage tracing historical moments in telecommunications and commercial development, these two characters are viewed as fallen soldiers in the wars against commercialism and the technological innovations that have left them unable to continue doing what they love. The major labels, Wal-Mart and illegal downloads are the evil villains in this documentary as they conspire to destroy local communities of music fans.

Unfortunately, Malcolm from Trash American Style comes off looking kind of like a self-entitled douche. Early in the film, he says the print shop that put him out of business had offered him money to sell the space, and he fought off their advances until it was too late, and was unable to renew his lease. The fundamental problem with his story is that if he felt like he was going to be strong-armed out of his location all along, and if he really wanted to sustain his store and remain a part of the music business as well as the community he helped to build, he would have taken the money and just moved. His inaction smacks of carelessness. While his customers lament the fact that they don’t have anywhere to go now to buy music, the guy is more upset that he lost his store’s location than losing the store itself. The business and the clientele would have remained if he’d simply taken the money he was offered and found a new retail space. Not taking the opportunity, posturing like he was standing his ground, and inevitably closing up shop and calling it quits…it hints at a lack of interest on his part.

Later in the film, Malclom states, “After 21 years my landlord pulled me up by my roots and threw me to the side of the road, but I’m not stopping. I’m still here.” His “Damn the man” attitude is as banal as it is unwarranted. He spends his time now driving around his records and CDs, setting up tables on college campuses and selling to young music fans. All the while, he carries this chip on his shoulder, like he is doing this just to get back at those who cast him out of his storefront. I cannot feel sorry for his loss.

For me, the most sensible and likable person in the film is Mike Dreese from Newbury Comics. He comes off as the smartest businessman in the film, and the most adept to run an indie store. Whereas some of the other talking heads speak about the ills of eBay and Amazon as destroying the independent retail store, Mike’s stores have embraced and adapted to the changing tides. Newbury Comics sells goods on both eBay and Amazon, and have to believe that — like the store where I work — his business is thriving as stores unwilling to change are forced to close.

This brings me to what I believe is an important facet of the documentary that is glossed over just before it concludes. The narrator states that digital sales currently account for 15% of music sales, while CDs still account for 85%. In that case, why not spend a few minutes focusing on success stories? I get that the common thread tying all these people together is that they lament the dying indie record store, but there are plenty of places across the country that are in absolutely no danger of closing, companies run by sound, business-savvy owners, who are open to change and not pressured by outside forces to “sell out,” like Malcolm says he was asked to do.

As far as the progression of the documentary is concerned, I found there to be some confusion over who or what led to this current struggle store owners face. To be honest, it almost felt as if the director has long been holding a grudge against government and large corporations. His anger at major labels, MTV and radio (as depicted through payola scandals and the Telecommunications Act of ’96) as being integral to the death of independent record stores seems misguided or unnecessary. His tirades against more “big box” retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and Borders reminded me of missives I would write for the high school newspaper about how Britney Spears was destroying music. I don’t think his frustration is juvenile, but everybody already knows about the homogenization of the music industry and has negative feelings towards the so-called “greedy fat cats” and “dinosaurs” running the industry. I’d rather he start the documentary by speaking about the Internet’s role in killing music sales — it takes 45 minutes to hear the first utterance of “MP3” — and spend the rest of the time detailing failures and successes of stores in the wake of the technological boom of the late ’90s and this past decade.

Lenny Kaye had that right idea. He makes the same argument that I always make when it comes to the ethics of file-sharing and the future of music retail. “There’s something about the artifact, and holding it in your hand…”. There will always be room for independent record stores in the marketplace because there will always be people willing to pay for the physical item. Even Apple realizes that they’re not making any money on digital album sales, just single track sales. And they will never make money on album sales, just as no online retailer has made money through full-album downloads. People don’t want to hear some low-quality versions of songs through crummy laptop speakers, with 300×300 pixel artwork on their monitor. People do still like reading liner notes or lyrics, dropping needles, flipping sides, and being an active participant in the music listening experience. So long as business owners can appreciate changing standards and technologies, we will always have independent music stores.

Most ridiculous Thurston Moore quote of the film: “It’ll have to come back, in a way. It’s really lonely and boring [shopping online].” Then he goes on to talk about maybe that’s why there is a newfound fascination with black metal, because it’s all “isolationist “and “cold”. Then he talks about how much he actually likes black metal. Yeah, we get it Thurston, you’re so hip. You’re on the cusp of all the hot new trends and you both hate and adore things that make you feel lonely. Can you please grow up now? You were never Kurt Cobain, you’re trying to be the beat poet of your generation but you don’t possess enough talent, and every time you open your mouth you say something unintentionally hilarious. Why don’t you go make another record for Starbucks, you hypocrite?

I Need That Record is a documentary that will leave some feeling nostalgic and others indifferent. This is an ode — a love song, if you will — to the indie record store. It is clear that much work and dedication went into this project, from the stop-animation title sequence to the footage taken from many, many visits to various record stores. There is no question about the creator’s loyalty or love for record stores. Upon completion of the documentary we are only left to question why the tone was more like a requiem than a reveille. Instead of lying down in the face of economic or technological innovation, the documentarian should have used his platform to issue a wake-up call to those in the business who are currently struggling to stay afloat. So long as store owners are motivated, they can thrive. Folks like Malcolm at Trash American Style fell victim to the same disease as the industry did — instead of freeing himself from a crummy situation, moving on and advancing his business, he sat around and worried and waited for disaster to strike. When it inevitably struck, he was simply left to rant about the unfairness of his situation. Store owners might be scared into change after seeing what future awaits them if they do not change (or learn to enjoy the change), but a total lack of success stories makes I Need That Record an unnecessary bummer. There is hope for the indie record store. Some little stores boast triumphs and accomplishments beyond belief. Sometimes you just have to be willing to look extra hard to find them.

Minor Threat – Good Guys (Don’t Wear White)
Minutemen – History Lesson – Part II
Glenn Branca – Lesson No. 1 For Electric Guitar

4 comments

  1. alpo
    |

    Fascinating for me to read your post. I couldn’t agree more on change or die in the music business. You are most correct on your assessment of Mike Dreese from NewburyComics. I used to go head on with him for a long time in the music business. He was the competitor I respected the most, because he could turn on a dime for both the merchandise and technological trends. The big boxes and the chains (and the Record companies for that matter) were stuffed with a lot of extra payroll and corporate accountability. It makes me happy when I’m scanning Amazon for CD’s and see Dreese and Newbury battling in those trenches. I’m sure you see similarities in the store where you work: Hire passionate people who know the trends and technology because they live and breathe it everyday. Then stand and deliver. Long live the indies.

  2. |

    great criticism here. just found this site & i like what i see…

  3. |

    Malcolm Tent = backed 100%.

    You’re more than entitled to think differently, though. I’m sure that people who don’t know me think I’m a dick, too.

  4. |

    […] dealers who have been working WFMU fairs for years, and even that guy from the documentary I Need That Record were on hand today. Our friend Pete bought some amazing records with him this year, including an […]

Leave a Comment