Piss and Moan
Death to Corporate Record Stores

Yeah, I know, I’m late. You should see the first draft.

I’m a bit angry this week, and I feel that it’s important to get these feelings out while they’re still fresh. I find that if you let these little frustrations bottle up without spewing them out in some (hopefully) harmless way, then they fester inside and cause bleeding ulcers and painful, early death. It’s crucial, I feel, that one finds an outlet (like, say, a weekly column) through which to vent these venomous, bitter emotions.

Like I said, you should see the first draft.

What’s got me upset? At the risk of sounding like Michael Moore, corporate America. Here’s my stupid story.

As I promised last week, the new Jonatha Brooke album, Steady Pull, came out yesterday. I live in a town with two music stores, so I thought I’d call both of them a week in advance and ask, quite nicely, if they’d order me a copy of the album. Both stores (corporate-owned mall-type stores, by the way) said they’d have it on the release date. Neither of them did.

A trifling annoyance, you may say. To me, though, this is indicative of a larger problem, one that I don’t want to overstate, but which seems like a big deal to me. People talk about the increasing availability of music these days, what with MP3s and Napster, but the truth is that most people still go to the record store to buy CDs. Like most things, the record shops are becoming more and more corporate, with larger chains overtaking the smaller stores and driving them out of business. This is bad because the corporate owners don’t give two rat’s butt cheeks about music, just the financial bottom line.

This attitude extends beyond the ordering process. One thing that I’ve always loved about small music stores is that the owner(s) almost always work in the shops themselves. You don’t start your own record store unless you really like music. Just as you’d expect the staff at a car dealership to know more than a little bit about cars, I expect the staff at a music store to have more than a passing interest in music. In smaller stores, the owner(s) do the hiring, and they base their decisions partially on knowledge of music. That just makes sense. If a customer has a question about an artist or an album, the customer service rep should be able to answer it.

Not so in huge corporate chain stores. If you have a pulse and can work a cash register, you can work in a huge corporate chain store. This is because, if a particular title doesn’t sell eight million copies in its first week and get three-times-an-hour rotation on MTV, the huge corporate chain store doesn’t care about it. Not only did neither corporate store have the disc I specifically requested, not a single staff member of the four total that I talked to knew who Jonatha Brooke is. Now, while I wouldn’t call Brooke mainstream, I certainly wouldn’t call her underground either. She has six albums, two with the Story, and four of those are major-label releases. If you know who Aimee Mann is, you probably know who Jonatha Brooke is.

I should mention that I finally tracked down the album. I called Bull Moose in Portland, Maine, a small chain that’s privately owned (and where I worked for a few months). I spoke to Katie, who not only knew who Jonatha Brooke is, but knew her whole history. Bull Moose had several copies of the album on their hit wall, and sold me one over the phone. I patronized Bull Moose for eight years while I lived in Maine, and I’m afraid they’ve spoiled me against other music stores. If I wanted something, they ordered it. If I had a question, they could answer it. If more stores were like Bull Moose, Amazon.com wouldn’t be nearly as profitable.

The truth behind corporate conglomerates is that quality of service doesn’t matter as much as quantity of profits. There are people, believe it or not, who don’t care about Jennifer Lopez’s ass or which Backstreet Boy has the best-primped hair. There are albums, believe it or not, that are still incredible works, regardless of how miniscule their sales figures turn out. There are artists, believe it or not, who go 30 years without selling what Britney Spears does in an afternoon, and yet have the ability to change the world with one note and one turn of phrase.

There’s no doubt that I get too worked up over this stuff. I just wish the good stuff was more readily available. Ah well. Let’s see how hard it’ll be for me to get the new Orb album in two weeks.

I wanted to mention the Oscars, because I’m terribly disappointed. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Best Picture nomination was a welcome surprise, and even though I haven’t seen Traffic (my town’s one multiplex hasn’t opened it yet, even though they’re still wasting theater space on What Women Want), I’m glad it got nominated. No, I’m disappointed that the best movie I saw this year, Almost Famous, didn’t get a nod. That means it won’t get a re-release, and those of you that haven’t seen it will have to make do with the video and DVD release in March. I highly, highly recommend it.

There was one nomination I heard about this week that gave me a warm feeling all over, though, and it had nothing to do with the Oscars. One of the best comic book novels I’ve ever read, Judd Winick’s Pedro and Me, got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Literature. (The only comic ever to win was Art Spiegelman’s Maus.)

Pedro and Me is Winick’s examination of his time on The Real World in San Francisco, focusing on the life of AIDS educator Pedro Zamora. This has left him open to charges of exploitation in crafting this book, and if he needs any vindication (which those who’ve read the book can attest that he certainly does not), the Pulitzer nomination provides it many times over. Pedro and Me is one of the warmest, most human, and most accomplished graphic novels ever published. It’s hard to believe it’s Winick’s first novel. You can get Pedro and Me at any bookstore (or comic book store), and of course, I recommend that you do.

This is gonna sound familiar, but next week, it’ll either be Jonatha or controversy.

See you in line Tuesday morning.