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Monday, January 30, 2006

Indie Rock at Big Box Prices

A fascinating debate on the business and ethics of independent music has been raging for the past week at the Merge Records message boards and the Saki Store Blog, which is run by Carrot Top Records and Carrot Top Distribution founder Patrick Monaghan.

Monaghan threw a fit when he saw this Best Buy circular, which advertises "20 impress-your-friends selections" from "indie heroes" like the Arcade Fire, Cat Power, and Antony and the Johnsons on sale at Best Buy stores nationwide for $7.99. That's less than wholesale. In other words, Monaghan is scraping by making a living on independent music, buying records from the likes of Merge (the Arcade Fire's label) and selling them to independent records stores around the country, only to see Merge cut a deal with Best Buy to sell the same CDs in their stores for less than they're charging him as a distributor. So he wrote an angry open letter to all the labels whose bands are part of the Best Buy promotion, and posted it on his blog. The upshot of it is: Dealing with big box stores is bad for indie music and indie record stores, for some tired-sounding reasons--they don't care about the music, man!--and some real ones--they bankrupt the labels by over-ordering something that smells like a sleeper hit, fail to sell it because they're not a music store, and then saddle the label with exorbitant return costs.

Monaghan's post sparked some very measured and thoughtful responses in the comments sections from the likes Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan, Matador Records co-president Gerard Cosloy, Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar co-founder Chris Swanson, and a host of other indie bigwigs and smallwigs. I won't summarize the back-and-forth, but it all makes for interesting reading if you care about good music and are at all curious at how the nuts-and-bolts economics of the music business play out in the ideologically charged, anti-corporate world of indie rock.

Two things worth noting: First, I was shocked at how heavily the specter of the snotty, cooler-than-you kid behind the counter at your neighborhood record store hangs over the debate. On all sides, the people who make, distribute, and retail independent music are acutely aware of how annoying the sales staff at independent record stores can be, and they view it as an actual problem for the long-term health of the business. As one anonymous label owner put it:
"Another thing that is going around in my head that needs to change is the indie record stores themselves. I've worked and shopped at many of them and have noticed that often when somebody comes in and asks about something new or even older/hard to find records that they need help finding, sometimes they are treated like idiots and given attitude for not knowing what the hip thing is at the moment. Isn't it the job of the indie store to turn people on to the next cool thing in a FRIENDLY/helpful way?" Half of me says, "Right on!", but the other half feels like steeling yourself for an onslaught of over-pierced condescension is part of the charm of walking into a place like Reckless Records (which isn't really so bad, by the way).

Point Two: The best record store in Chicago is the Virgin Megastore on Michigan Ave. There, I said it. You can bash the chains all you want, but Reckless Records does not have the Small Faces best-of I was looking for. Neither does Laurie's Planet of Sound. And they don't have "Greetings From Asbury Park," and they don't have "Something Else by The Kinks," and they don't have half the records I've been meaning to buy for years. But the Virgin Megastore does, and it has the Magnolia Electric Co. record I bought last time I was there, and my choice of three Okkervil River records, and "Zen Arcade," and every other record I've ever wanted in the last four years, plus well-displayed random records that I've picked up because I like the label, or I heard the band name somewhere once. It was only recently that I stopped even bothering to check Reckless for a record before heading straight downtown.

And that's not to say that Chicago's indie records stores suck. It's just that Virgin proves that you can actually run a shitty mega-retailer well enough to satisfy a lot of different people. Selection and shelf-space matter. Whoever does the buying at Virgin is clearly making an effort to appeal to the indie-store customer, and they're doing a damn good job of it. I hate to think of myself as the sort of person who shops at any retail outlet that un-self-consciously refers to itself as a Megastore, but having almost everything you want in one place goes a long ways toward tamping down that elitist impulse.