Notes From Behind the Counter
It’s summer, 1999, and I spend my days working behind the counter of a small family-owned record store. The city streets pass through and I just listen to music and sell the people what they think they want to hear. It’s been three years working in the same store, and patterns emerge, sales shift and slide like the tides or the shapings of the moon.
This year I watched as people devoured the music that was hyped the most, without paying attention to what the music sounded like. Buying up everything the media listed, while the media bowed to the desires of the major labels, and even more, the desires of an entertainment industry outside of music… Hollywood.
Even more than all the radio-pushed one-hit-wonder bands, which sparkle and fade on a monthly cycle, the soundtrack has become a new tool that is too often tainted by the need to make a sale. There are a few exceptions to this, but the mass of soundtracks holding hit songs by hip bands that had very little to do with the actual movies presented became a little disappointing. Working a block away from a movie theater, it seemed almost too easy at times to predict what would be the next big thing.
Customers, in the past couple of years, seem to have gone through a lot of changes in their listening habits. More scattered, more in tune with what they think they are supposed to like, and less sure of what they do like. One person will grab some mainstream hip-hop, some post-grunge rock, and some mellow indie pop, while the next will go for a hipster jazz fix, a Cuban swing, and the latest bad club mix. The lines get more and more vague. The most popular so often fades without a trace. Time is speeding up, and as soon as you get what everyone is listening to, you’re supposed to get something else, and it makes me so tired.
I suppose it’s always been like this, and perhaps I’m just noticing it more now, but from my viewpoint, behind the counter, there’s a different feel to it now. There’s desperation in the inquiring voices of the customers. There’s a desperation in the thinly veiled sales of the endless stream of label reps. Every week a new display goes up, every week another comes down… bands that were selling last month are now just fading memories in the free poster box. Hot titles on sale for $11.99 become used CDs at $9.99 as soon as the fact that the band isn’t really as good as it was supposed to be is discovered.
There’s more music now than ever… but not all of it is good, and still, as we draw closer to the end of the century, the music industry is trying to hold itself together in a vicious circle of supply and demand. The next big thing is always too far away, and as soon as it’s gotten, something else is wanted. The beast is hungry, and sometimes I feel like it’s my job to feed it. I wonder if anyone has the time to listen to music, or they just buy it so it looks like they know what’s going on, so there is sound in the background when they are doing what they do. The years dealing with people who don’t know what music is seems to be turning me bitter, and I don’t want that. Turn the stereo up.
I’m tired of people asking me who did the song for that television commercial. I’m tired of people asking me to recommend a good grunge band. I’m tired of people assuming that I bother listening to the radio and getting upset because I don’t know the band who does that song with the chorus that goes ya ya ya baby oh yeah.
The other day a rep from a major label called me and asked if there were any good local bands… I asked what he meant, if he could narrow the question down a bit. His reply was, “You know, any bands that could have a hit… that would sell…”
It’s 1999, and in this city, music is suffering because people buy what they hear on television, on the radio, at the movies, and they don’t go out to find what is really happening. The nightlife slows down, and bands play their personal psalms, preaching to the converted, because there are less people willing to take a chance. Every night I try to go out and support local bands, other bands, and local clubs that play live music. Live music being the opposite of dead music. Every night after work, tired. Every night after band practice, just wanting to go home… I don’t. I go out, I pay my cover, I pay for the beer, I sit and watch the show, and I enjoy the music.
I’m not going out to pick up chicks, I’m not going out to send flirtatious glances across the room from underneath my fedora… though watching someone attractive is a possibility… it’s not the main reason I’m going out. I’m going out for the music. I’m going out to see bands play. I’m going out to hear music being created out of thin air.
Every night that you sit at home saying, “ahhh… maybe I should go out tonight,” and you don’t… every night you sit at home and say, “man, I wish I had gone to see that band last night”… every night you do that, you are creating another bullet hole in the heart of art.
Electronica, goddamn buzzword of ’97 and still going strong now, has created a lack of support for live bands. Electronica has its place, there is talent within the spinning of the DJ, but there doesn’t need to be this turning away from other forms of music. Extinction is a crime. To quote a friend of mine, “since when does music exist for entertainment value only? What the hell is that all about?”
Music is art. An art that is still being created… nightly. With a keyboard, with a guitar, with a drumbeat, with a bass. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be too cool to see a band that plays with a guitar. This is creation in motion in front of you.
When I walk down the street towards home at night, maybe drunk, maybe just with ringing ears from another night at another show, sadly uncrowded, and I pass by some lame-ass cheesy bar packed full of sweaty bodies moving to the beat of ignorance… I feel sick. This is not how it should be. You can take part in both worlds…
You can go out and see some technological wonder band breakthrough, sure, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore those people who sweat on stage in front of you for you. Breaking their strings on their fingers breaking their drumbeats with their bare hands. These drumsticks mean something, these rhythms live in them in you, and the performer is nothing without an audience.
I think I’m done. For now. I hope somebody heard me, and if so… well, perhaps I’ll see you in the shadows some night, I’m sure, swaying to the rhythms of a band live on stage, swaying to the rhythms of music.
It’s 1999, and I’m working at a record store, and there is so much good music being made. I just wish more people could hear it.