Saturday, April 20, 2013

It's Record Store Day 2013! Go Out And Buy Some Records! Buy Yourself A Turntable! Find How To Do It Here!

 Look, only "gentlemen" have turntables and buy records!

Hello dear beloved yet thin readership,

Today's Record Store Day 2013! Meaning, if you are lucky enough to live in a city where there are still some independent record stores standing, you can go line up and buy some special issues 7" as well as some LPs that come with extras.
There's a bit of a grumpy backlash this year against RSD13 coming either from very small labels that can't afford to press the requisite number of copies for the event, some store owners who have trouble liquidating overstock in the months after the event (I mean, seriously, an Emerson, Lake & Palmer 7", who'd want that?), and regular vinyl collectors who complain that most of the stuff is snatched up by assholes who sell it on eBay for a nice profit - because alas many people don't have a record store near where they leave. More on that later.

Yours truly doesn't have any problem with the event itself. I've been told by some small store owners that RSD can make or break their year, and that if enough new customers come and peruse though the other stuff and buy records, they can stay afloat for yet another year. That's a good enough reason to support the event, in my opinion. Now, if all the people who wait in line on April 20 to get some beautiful wax (and ugly CDs, let's not begrudge them) would also buy records during the rest of the year, things would be much better. But everybody has to start somewhere, and if it is today I am all for it.

I hear vinyl sales are up, and it's enough to warm my old desiccated heart. However, I have a feeling they could go even higher if some issues were addressed by the entire music community and business. The points I'm going to raise are based entirely on empirical evidence as gathered by moi over the last 2 years, when I started to be re-interested in music again. If you've been following FBC! since its inception  not only you are a truly patient person, but you must have noticed we've been writing less and less about art and more and more about music over the last 3 years.
The root of this evolution has been purely accidental, as I've been confined home for a long time due to the consequences of a bad car crash (or two, or three). Less possibilities to go out to look at art, more time to listen to music and read fiction. Incidentally, my quality of life has dramatically improved because of that, so I suggest you try reading fiction and listen to music at home instead of going to stupid art openings or depressing art fairs.

Anyway, after evolving from watching music videos on YouTube to try music streaming services (I hate them all) and listen to mp3 on my laptop and iPod, I decided 2 years ago to get myself a decent stereo and start buying hard copies.
That move was motivated mostly by 1) witnessing friends losing their entire music libraries after a hard drive crash and finding the hard way their back-up didn't work 2) having a couple of bad experiences buying mp3s on iTunes that didn't download properly and being unable to get a replacement or a refund via their crappy, crappy customer service and 3) being tired of the horrible sound of the mp3s on whatever I played them. This being said, I am a big fan of bands streaming their entire record a week prior to release on a website, be it NPR, The Guardian or Pitchfork. That certainly made me buy some music.

vintage turntable picture found here.

Initially I wasn't particularly dead-set on vinyl, I bought a turntable as the cherry on top, so to speak, to buy the occasional used record when I couldn't find a CD. Used CDs were and are dirt cheap and actually cheaper than buying an entire mp3 album on iTunes, so that was primarily an economic motivation. What I didn't expect, aside from the warmer, ampler sound of the vinyl, was how I would love to care for my vinyl records. To clean them with a carbon brush before playing them, storing them in proper conditions, marveling again at how great the sleeves are, being overjoyed when they came with a set of printed lyrics, etc. CDs, on another hand... their stupid plastic case break, they do skip (ha ah, and we were told they were eternal when we were forcibly transitioned to that horrid format in the 1990s), they're too small to have properly interesting sleeves and the lyrics are printed too small if there's a booklet (yes, I am  that old).
That's how I ended up being a vinyl devotee, though not a purist. I occasionally buy some CDs if whatever I look for doesn't exist on vinyl, hasn't been reissued, is too hard to find, or too expensive (to the asshole selling the Walker Brother's Nite Flights original vinyl for £150 on eBay and Discogs: fuck you). I sometimes even get an mp3 if it's a one-off song by an artist whose other output doesn't interest me. Also, yes, I buy everything. I buy used records and new releases alike (and reissues).

So, now that you know the particulars of my music-buying adventure, let me enumerate the issues I have encountered that I think are an obstacle for the music industry as a whole to expand better.

1) Building a stereo.

If you want something decent, better plan to have a budget of $1,200 to $2,000. Yes, it seems like a lot. However, many people have a giant flat screen TV + Blue Ray DVD player in their home that cost about the same, and let's not talk about adding an Apple computer, an iPad and an iPhone to the mix (plus the giant crappy speakers for a home cinema system, the video game console + games, all the cables, external hard drives...).
 If you can afford all that crap, you can afford a decent stereo AND to buy your records. No need to steal crappy-sounding mp3 off the internet.
Also, you can have really good quality gear at a fraction of the price if you are patient: you can buy demo material, usually between 20% and 40% off, and the audiophile community being tech-obsessed and constantly upgrading, you can often get yourself a 2-year old CD player or amp for much cheaper than the original retail price (I scored a Creek CD player at 75% off from a guy upgrading to the next model, for example). A site like Audiogon often have good opportunities.

Basically the issue of getting yourself a decent stereo system isn't a question of budget, it's a problem of knowing what to get.  If you are a newbie like I was, it's better to buy new gear rather than used material that needs fixing up. You will need an amp, some speakers, a turntable, a CD player if you will, maybe a DAC (stuff that converts your horrid mp3s to sound like rich analog) and cables.
Where it gets complicated is knowing what type of amp (tubes are considered the best but they cost an arm and a leg), integrated or not, if not you need amp + preamp, what type of speakers (passive or powered? For ease of use if you move internationally, I recommend passive - they are powered by the amp), does it have a phono stage (what the fuck is a phono stage, I still don't know).
Then you will have to figure out where to plug the cables to what (I had techie friends doing it for me or I'd blown a fuse myself).  Many amps nowadays are made for home cinema systems and mp3 players, so it's not always easy to find one that has plugs for a turntable and even CD players, not mentioning a tuner (that you will need only if you listen to tons of classical music on the radio) or a tape player (if you're a total nutcase). The 2 brands I found that have affordable amps like this are Cambridge Audio and NAD (in the $200 to $350 range, less if you buy a demo model).
Another issue I hadn't known I'd encountered is that your turntable might not come pre-assembled and it's super delicate to calibrate a tonearm, not mentioning the manual is written in smurf. So you need to figure all of this out before you take the plunge, and when I did there weren't any simple website explaining what to do or where to get it.  I think it's easier now that more and more people are getting back to vinyl records.

Picture of vintage speakers found here (credit is embedded also in the pic).

And here, ta-da! You bump into the geeky assholes with an attitude at the audiophile store or on the audiophile website that are going to talk at you, belittle you for having such a small budget, and not bothering to explain to you what you need/can afford. It took me about 2 months to figure out what I needed, and 3 more months to assemble my gear.
 I was very lucky in that regard because one of my friends (hi Mike!) very patiently explained what I should get for my budget (an integrated amp with a phono plug, super important if you want a turntable), and more importantly where to get it for less money.
Generally speaking most brick-and-mortar Hi-Fi store clerks are condescending pricks to middle-age women like me, whereas I had the best experience online with this site. Excellent customer service as well. Their catalog could use less babes to pose near the gear, which will bring me later to the other major issue I've faced in my record-buying adventures, sexism (bet you didn't see that one coming, did you?).

Anyway, if you decide to build your stereo, it's going to be a complicated experience, with most places and sites having very technical descriptions of whatever you want to buy but don't always mention if it has what you need (phono input or not?).
Personally I think it's a hindrance for expanding the vinyl business: stereo retailers being willfully obscure and offering poor to no customer service (thank you so much, Polk Audio and Music Hall for not answering my emails when I had questions). I've rarely encountered such a poor business model.

The result is people buying really poor quality gear like the terrible Crosley turntables that look so cute but are in effect really crappy, and they have such bad needles they're going to destroy your records way too fast. They're not cheap to buy, so I can see people giving up on them and the whole vinyl records adventure because of a bad experience.
If there was a possibility of buying pre-assembled, good quality gear that is simple to put together, maybe more people would invest in a decent stereo. As I said, flat screen TVs are more expensive. But, you just have to plug them in, and be lazy.

2) Buying Records.

Now, that is the fun part! If you live in a big city, there should be a few independent record stores left, and if you live in a huge city (hello Los Angeles), you might even have 20 new stores that have opened since you started on your adventure. So you can buy used records, and most importantly for everybody to stay afloat, new releases and reissues.
 In a large city, your main sources for buying LPs and EPs  are the aforementioned record stores, flea markets, garage sales and thrift stores, and online resources (eBay, Discogs, etc.) Just avoid evil Amazon if you can.
Basically the main problem is the same as how to allocate your pocket money to buy candy when you were a child. I find that part the most enjoyable, also because it forces me to make decisions based on quality (should I buy the latest Scott Walker or The Knife? If you chose the latter, I think you wasted your money.) Also I am a big fan of delayed gratification, and it makes possibilities seem endless. There will always be something in the future to find and to listen to and I'll never get bored (that works with books, too, and I guess DVDs as well).
If you're skint, you can always find some fun stuff for under $3 (and usually just $1) in used bins and flea markets. Like movie soundtracks (often a good introduction to contemporary classical music if you find records from the 1950s), spoken words records, world music, novelties, or even the mainstream things you wouldn't be bothered buying new.

Some of the stuff you can find when you go to Wombleton Records in LA (photo snatched from their site)

In general, aside from budget considerations, I think the main issues about buying records depends on where you live. Someone who lives in a small town and has no record store/flea market etc. nearby has all the good reasons in the world to download mp3s on their crappy system (except often in rural communities you don't even have broadband access). You can find pretty much everything you want online, but postage is expensive and in many instances because shippers are abroad (in the UK, or in the US for the best ones) if you are on the wrong continent you can't afford it, especially if customs duties are to be added. So, you're forgiven your crappy mp3 and I feel very sorry for you.

The other problem about the location where you live is that even if you have access to a record store (or several) most of them make their bread and butter with used records (profit margins being higher) and have a very anemic selection of new releases. It is problematic here in Brussels (I'm told record stores in Antwerp and Ghent are better) because the handful of stores that stock new releases are mostly specialized in dance and electronica, not my thing (I'm a rock girl). So, if you want to support musical acts and get their new releases or their reissues, often you have to order them, which is OK, but that is where small stores can't compete with Amazon.  And speaking of musical genres: it is very difficult to find good classical music on vinyl outside of the mainstream standards in the US. Here in mainland Europe, for the time being I'm having trouble finding blues records outside of compilations and samplers.

About used records: condition is often an issue especially if you live in Europe. In the US, absolutely every record store I've been to sells only clean records that play, and they put post-its on the plastic outer sleeve to signal if there's a problem. In Europe... you can't count on that. In the UK you actually only look at sleeves, then you go up to the counter and they show you the record and you have to decide if you want to buy it. Major waste of time, I understand it's to prevent shoplifting but that's not super customer-friendly. Anyway, you want to invest in record-cleaning fluid and accessories if you buy lots of used vinyl (and you will).

In general record stores are made for people taller than me and with longer arms: it can be very uncomfortable for me to reach up to the end of the bins to see what's in them. If one day I had my record store, I'd lower the tables by an inch or so and I'd make the bins a bit less deep. For normal giant other people, just remember that even when all the records are in plastic outer sleeves (like they do in the US, I love that, you get to take them home with you), you will end up with very dirty, sticky fingers after you're done crate digging, so wash your hand after, you dirty people.

3) Sexism.

Now I think this is THE major issue that affects vinyl (and maybe CDs) sales everywhere. I am in possession of a uterus (sorry about that), I'm middle-aged and I'm not a babe. Even when I was young I wasn't one, so that hasn't improved with age and it's all downhill from now on until my inevitable demise. It's not only "gentlemen" who own turntables and buy records.
Also, I go to gigs and I buy records, and I read music reviews and interviews. I have a bit of buying power, not immensely so but enough that my favorite record store owner (hi, Ian!) in LA knew my face. Therefore I use it by systematically boycotting the stores where I'm treated like crap because I'm a woman. And don't throw at me the "oh but record store clerks always have an attitude regardless of gender"  because, as I am often the ONLY woman in the store where I browse (and buy) for a long time, I can see the difference of treatment between me and the youngish hipster dudes hanging around (and who don't buy anything. That happens a lot).

It can go from talking down at me with stuff like "we don't sell mainstream music here" (as a matter of fact, you asshole Brooklynite from Iowa, you do, I saw some Foreigner and Yes in your bins), to totally ignore me if I ask a question, "what was it you were playing right before that song"? (I'd have bought that record, you idiot) or even not saying anything at all nor looking at me when I buy something (after chatting with some dudes in the store bout how business is slow). I can tell when I'm totally invisible because I'm a woman and not a "chick" (you're not exactly Daniel Craig yourself, you obese pimply bearded guy working that hip Silverlake store). I haven't spent more than 4 decades on this planet not to be confronted to ordinary sexism and not notice it.
So, er, you're not customer-friendly, your selection is weak and your prices not so good? My uterus says bye-bye. My uterus belongs to the same body as my brain, so I know how not to buy new releases off Amazon, but the penis that belongs to the same body as your brain, dear record store owners and clerks, it just made you lose a new customer.

That same customer goes back again and again to stores where she's treated like a normal human being, hence my eternal love for Wombleton Records (not cheap, but amazing selection and so friendly) and Amoeba in LA. I've always had great experiences at Amoeba no matter which part of the store I was in.
I'm not mentioning the names of the LA or NYC record stores where I've been treated like shit, but they're all in Silverlake or Silverlake-adjacent in LA and in or near Williamsburg in Brooklyn. They're kinda hip. They stock CDs, the horror, the horror.
I've yet to find my favorite store in Brussels but I'm leaning toward Veals & Geeks at the moment.

The problem with ingrained sexism in the business music at large, and it concerns also music writing (look at that headline in the picture on top of the post, only "gentlemen" buy records?), musical equipment  buying and music marketing in general, is that it puts off half of humanity as a customer base.

Not all women love Adele, Rhianna or Beyonce. Many women are put off by sexist lyrics, or blatantly misogynist ones (hip-hop being the classical case in point). If you read music criticism, and you will eventually if you want to buy new music, 90% of it is embedded with sexist clichés - a notable exception is The Quietus, and I also enjoy John Freeman's writing wherever he publishes because he's very careful to avoid sexism.
 But most reviews of musical acts where there are women always mention the sexiness (or not) of their members. There's always an adjective or two to discreetly underline their sex-appeal.
 When Susan Boyd irrupted on whatever that TV show was called, most reports focused on the discrepancy between her looks and her voice. Now has anybody looked at Tom Jones recently? or Engelbert Humperdinck?
 Articles about Adele like to point out that she's fat but nevertheless beautiful, never mind we've photoshopped her to death on our magazine cover to make her look thinner. I'd like to see some reviews about her focusing solely on her music, for example. She's incredibly young and talented, and even if her music is too bland and mainstream for me, I'd like to see how she will morph in the future (I'm always hoping for a female equivalent to Scott Walker's trajectory).

Another cliché is that to be interesting, if a female musician isn't classically pretty, she has to be crazy/wear weird outfits/make eccentric videos. Hence Lady Gaga (who cannot sing, has anybody noticed that?).  The opposite is also true: Lana Del Rey isn't a super interesting musician  but she's packaged at a sexy retro kitten with just that hint of vulgarity to visually appeal. Her music is very mainstream, full of clichés and it goes very well with a late-night drink at an expensive bar. Whether she's going to be able to be taken seriously as a musician in the future remains to be seen.

Another aspect of the music world at large that is off-putting to this woman is the serious geekery going on where you're berated for not knowing what members of which obscure band went to found other even more obscure bands, that this 1993 song is actually a cover of a 1967 one, that in 1974 this musician went on a Buddhist retreat and that influenced 1 verse of the B-side of the Japanese test pressing of his 1977 come-back flop, or that of course the gig that was cancelled by this other band in 2007 wasn't due to "visa problems" but because the replacement bass player had ODed prior to the plane taking off. That kind of stuff. Not knowing this really prevents me from FULLY enjoying the music, right? Right.
I mention it here because each time I've encountered it it was uttered by males, and often to belittle my taste ("nah, you CAN'T like this record, that's only his second best one, you HAVE to get that one, it only cost $500 on eBay because only 100 copies were pressed before the mastered were destroyed"). It tends to be super prevalent on fan sites or fan pages on Facebook (the kind where someone goes "and in this 1971 picture the singer made this hand gesture which is universally acknowledged to mean this in Japanese culture, I swear it has a profound implication for the lyrics of this cover version of..."). And, er, bloody tedious.

Whatever else you do, don't store any records like this. Image found here.

Of course, it's not only sexism that destroyed the music industry (and people who say that isn't the internet either, I'm waiting to see how e-books are going to destroy the book industry after mp3s destroyed the music business and Dvix damaged the entertainment industry and then we can talk about how it's only all the fault of the majors - I guess Amazon and iTunes will be the only remaining ones).  But if music businesses in general - labels, store personnel, music critics and the musicians themselves - were attentive and trying to eradicate it, maybe they'd see more female customers buying their wares.
I have a few female friends who would like to go back to vinyl records. But in the absence of a customer-friendly attitude toward women in the audio equipment business, in record stores, and in the music medias, it's going to be a much longer way toward the ongoing recovery of the business. Women have jobs, they have buying power, and they have their own taste. They can help you sustain your business model, if only you treated them right. I see middle-aged men treated much better than me at record stores, so it's not a question of ageism.

Meanwhile, may this not prevent you all from buying yourself some records today and every other day of the year. You just need to get yourself the best equipment you can afford and then the record store you gonna like. And it will be the beginning of a beautiful adventure.


Anonymous said...

This is a great GREAT read. Although I don't have a uterus I do share and appreciate your views. It's the experience & community (& arcane knowledge & rituals) of all the parts of music (hi-fi shops, record stores & live events) that helps make it special. So making sure ALL your customers have a positive experience should be common sense.

Frenchy but Chic! said...

Thank you! I realize there are lots of typos, not sure when I'll have time to fix them. Anyway, aside from the sexism thing, I think the big hindrance for everybody is the lack of easy to use, good quality, just plug-it-in Hi-Fi material.
It's not doing the customers nor the businesses any favor.

Also I really wish more record stores would stock new releases and reissues!

Popeye said...

Thanks for calling me thin!
Your Readership

Kat said...

Loved reading this. As the wife of a musician I can't tell you how often I feel invisible at gigs, record stores, and other music venues. I have such great stories and such interesting opinions and I'm a swell listener too--their freaking loss.