[Record Peddler is an occasional column by Sam Lefebvre on life and music as viewed from behind the counter of an independent record store.]
I've continuously worked in record stores since I was 16 years old. For nearly a year, I lived in the back of one record store while working in another, and working for a record label owned by the operator of yet another record store. At that point, record stores provided me with shelter, a menial income and, well, records. That was the height of record stores being intrinsically connected to my life. I don't live in one anymore -- the record store/home was closed by the Oakland Police Department for reasons I can't divulge -- but I do obediently show up to 1-2-3-4 Go Records in Oakland two days a week. I suggest anarcho-punk to a Mormon missionary, nod to the clever scammer yanking quarters from meters out front, and wonder why bands exclude their name from album covers lately.
It's a vocation. "Profession" is too self-aggrandizing for a guy whose assets include a memory bank of record catalog numbers and an uncanny ability to decipher the white-out spills that constitute black metal band logos nowadays. "Amateur," being etymologically derived from the Latin word amatorem, which means "lover," isn't accurate, either. Record store employment is a self-inflicted jugular slash for saps who love the music, not the job.
The vocation provides a lens into the far-flung demographics who buy music, though, especially what formats consumers prefer and why. For example, we sell CDs as often as we field questions about what 45 adapters are (one is free with a record; two cost $2 if you're going to make earrings). A customer asks whether we have the new Nick Cave album, Push the Sky Away. It was curiously released on the new Bad Seeds Ltd. imprint and it seems the fledgling label produced too few LPs, so it's languishing on back order. But, I inform the customer, we have the CD. In fact, we have a deluxe edition, including reproductions of Cave's hand-typed lyrics -- the writing process of Cave's enthralling psycho-sexual dramas strewn in raw form across each page. Yet, the customer scoffs at the mere suggestion that he consider purchasing a CD.
A simple "No, thank you" wouldn't have alarmed me. The intensity of his sudden sneer at the thought of a CD, his scornful deriding of the format at its very mention, illustrates the near future of CDs reputation, I suspect. It's known that they're fading away, but the customers at our primarily vinyl record shop perhaps represent the physical music buying demographics' advanced stage, where CDs are met not with indifference, but outright hostility.
As CDs become laughable, cassette sales surge. There's the hesher metal crew, eager to scoop up Testament and Dokken tapes for the old deck in their jalopy. A dapper elderly man hollers from the door that he's after Otis Redding on cassette. His lit cigar wafts inside and a boom box rests on his shoulder. He's in luck, but I can't do the transaction at the door, so he stubs the cigar on our carpet and commerce occurs at the counter.
It's not only Luddites with dated technology habitually buying old cassettes, though. More often than CDs, local artists consigning music arrive with boxes of cassettes -- and they sell. In hip-hop, a "mixtape" usually means a digital release. For punk, especially in the Bay Area, "demo tape" indicates precisely that: a band's early raw recordings committed to cassette to build hype and gauge interest. Some customers search for new demo tapes first. When one sells out, I call bands and encourage them to restock.
The demo tape of scrappy new San Francisco punk trio Scrapers is long gone, and whispers about proper vinyl releases on trend-setting local imprints abound. Scrapers' demo tape isn't solely responsible for their buzz -- unhinged live shows help. But, the demo tape contains seven fully realized songs with no production value to speak of. Arguably, it's how Scrapers should be heard. Each instrument is completely separate in the mix and vocals soar above a primal thump and feedback caterwaul. "Liquid Lips" is a surreal, fever-dream lyrical spasm of sickening and evocative imagery. "Third Wheel" builds social ineptitude and self-deprecation into a violent outburst by its fiery climax. Vocalist Billy Schmidt's harsh monotone is present, intelligible and unadorned by effects. In this sense, next to a live show, the inherent low production value of a demo tape is the ideal vessel for Scrapers. Soon, of course, a label will suggest a studio for Scrapers, a maverick engineer will impose his signature tones, and "proper" records will see release. Yet, even following the debut EP, I might ask Scrapers to consign some more cassettes, because the format and recording methodology of a demo tape highlights their assets wonderfully.
The demo tape isn't valuable because of its innate sound quality, size or artwork options. Rather, the recording technique and production style employed to create one captures the uncalculated urgency of a live performance. Of course, even larger record labels are keen to the cassette resurgence and zealously capitalizing on the format's renewed commercial viability. Thus, repackaging older releases on cassette and selling them for nearly the price of a new LP is an alarming trend. It threatens to destroy consumers' rediscovered affinity for the format, much like the exorbitant cost of new CDs in the late '90s betrayed buyers who then began to download everything guilt-free, because why should greedy record labels exploit fandom?
We recently relegated CDs to a small shelf. There is now more space dedicated to new cassette tapes alone than the shimmering plastic discs, and I've learned not to suggest CDs to customers who don't ask for them. Analog loyalists' disdain is fearsome. My role is ultimately to peddle physical music, though. If doing so requires constant adjustment to consumers' preferences, I'll rearrange the shop and try not to offend anyone by suggesting a passé format.