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This Saturday, hipsters nationwide will saddle up their fixie riders and head down to their local vinyl outlet for Record Store Day. The holiday, created two years ago by a coalition of well-connected romantics (presumably while smoking a peach hookah and watching Empire Records), celebrates the culture of indie record emporia in the face of encroachment from “corporate behemoths.” In order to participate, a store must be a “physical retailer whose product line consists of at least 50 percent music retail, whose company is not publicly traded and whose ownership is at least 70 percent located in the state of operation.”
The event is a fine idea. It promotes community and a healthy disdain for corporate homogenization, which is what a lot of good music is about. But big-box music retailers aren’t exactly going gangbusters these days. Trans-World Entertainment Corporation, the exquisitely evil-sounding conglomerate that owns Sam Goody, F.Y.E., and Strawberries, has seen its stock price fall by 92 percent in the last five years. Really, these stores and your local Championship Vinyl analog are similar inasmuch as they share a common foe: the iTunes Music Store.
Record Store Day implicitly condemns iTunes, and official event ambassador Jesse Hughes (from The Eagles of Death Metal) even goes so far as to liken buying music online to playing Guitar Hero instead of guitar. But as New York Times blogger Verlyn Klinkenborg notes in a 2008 post, iTunes, with its vast catalog of far-flung artists and user-generated reviews, is far from an indifferent, imperial merchant. Local bands can get their self-recorded album on iTunes just as easily as they can get it on the shelves of their local indie shop. Even artists are grateful for iTunes’s astounding ability to lure customers away from free-download sites, which seemed destined to cripple not only indie music stores, but musicians as well. Sure, a lot of them are using Record Store Day as an excuse to put out a bunch of b-sides; but how much you wanna bet those go right to iTunes, with the bands’ blessing?
Those who bemoan the decline of the indie music stores shouldn’t villify iTunes. If anything, they should be thankful, on an aesthetic level, that it has driven many of the big chain stores out of business. Indie shops, meanwhile, will always be around, just like vintage clothing stores and antiques dealers. They serve a niche market, and that market is entirely justified in gathering to celebrate them. But celebrants should not be too hard on iTunes: It may be a huge corporation that wants your money; but it may let you hang on to your soul.
Be sure to check out Jason Cherkis‘ upcoming roundup of local Record Store Day events.