With the annual Record Store Day coming tomorrow (April 21st), Jim Murray shares his thoughts on what's important when it comes to music: there's something in it for all of us.
Record Store Day April, 21, 2012
The Internet has deeply and irreversibly changed the musical landscape for everybody involved -- that's news to no one -- yet with all of the thought and examination that has been paid to the subject, there is definite hypocrisy at play. After all, it is commonplace for us as listeners to sympathize with artists strangled by the explosion of internet piracy in recent years, even as we guiltily race to download the latest leak. But while legislators push for SOPA and PIPA (or some updated versions thereof) and the debate on piracy continues, it's easy to forget about all of the wonderful benefits technology can offer the artist, not only in the ways in which it can disseminate its brand, but also in dictating when and how and what quality of its product reaches the masses. Radiohead, ironically enough a band whose magnum opus lamented the onset of computer revolution, was the first to figure out that running away is pointless, that embracing it can offer the most advantages to the artist: that the "us versus them" mentality founded by earlier artists not only was false, but would be challenged successfully.

Many bands today have likewise realized that an adversarial relationship with its listener does nobody any good. And with the tools now at their disposal, why not get creative? Many have since established an internet presence well above just employing websites, often using social media such as Facebook and Twitter and mediums like YouTube to control the content, quality, and timing of the material they want to release, usually at low cost, sometimes free of charge, and always with the consideration that granting the listener access and choice immediately strengthens and deepens that relationship.
Fan Manager is a digital marketing agency out of California that bridges the gap between artist and audience, namely, in promoting live performance. They utilize the latest social technology and the next generation of marketing tools to help their clients reach their goals. For many artists, it reflects the old adage, "work smarter, not harder." Fan Manager turns core fans into effective brand ambassadors, as volunteers work both online (posting music, tour dates, logos on social media sites) and off (postering in record stores, distributing flyers at shows) in exchange for a ticket or two to the performance. The artist and its organization can concentrate more of its energy on immediate needs while still enjoying robust crowds from the stage. Fan Manager is a hit right now and continues to grow, employing over 100,000 street team members on campaigns for such artists as Depeche Mode, The Crystal Method, Paul Oakenfold, and The Disco Biscuits, among many others. A band will still have to haul the miles, but this way, at least they're not playing to an empty room.
I recently volunteered through Fan Manager to help promote an upcoming Umphrey's McGee show at the House of Blues in Boston. I've done it a handful of times before and always look forward to spreading the word -- hitting up record stores, head shops, pizza joints, college campuses, and local shows -- and usually meet some good people in the process. It brings a certain joy and hopefulness that I can possibly pull in just that one person to their first Umphrey's show, in this case, a band I've grown to appreciate over the years. I suppose it's that primal need for music lovers to pass it forward -- and its miss more often than not -- that's for sure -- but when it hits, well, isn't that what the whole damn thing is about?
Of course, some of the misses can be upsetting, which I found out recently and got me really pontificating on the subject.
Halfway to the goal for this particular promotion, I approached the owner of a record store on the street outside his shop in Providence, hoping he'd pin up an Umphrey's poster for the cause. He grabbed the poster from me, scanned it hastily, and after minimal consideration, offered a casual "Nah," and turned to a companion, indicating my presence there was no longer necessary.
Rarely in my promotional experience do I experience such coolness. I have experienced rejections, but typically only by giants such as Barnes and Noble and FYE, whose denial accords with corporate policy. I don't necessarily agree with that but can certainly understand, and definitely empathize with local employees who must follow code.
But an independent record store? I was crushed. Despite their declining numbers, such stores remain meccas for audiophiles, even in the face of this Internet rampage. There is a spirit in these places, a subversive magic where one can lose time perusing for new gems and finding forgotten treasures -- a place far from relic status yet. As long as there is music playing there will be record stores, however small the scale. They are as important to the exchange of cultural ideas as the café or bookshop. It is a place of dialogue and discovery. While the corporate stores continue to fall flat, the independent record store continues to stand for something special, something that we are losing but desperately need to hold onto as a society. Its survival on some level is beyond important.
Which made it all the more depressing, as I pressed the Providence record store owner on the issue, to hear him respond, "What's in it for me?"
A curator of this wonderful convention he was not.
My heart sank. This place became suddenly unrepresentative of that spirit. There was nothing conversational here -- the windows might as well have already been boarded up, the doors, locked forever. It was clear immediately; there was no use attempting to get through to this guy -- his decision had been made; he was on that side of the fence, and I was not welcome.
Full disclosure, of course, is that I was on the guest list in exchange for my efforts. But I was doing it on my own time, using my own gas money, and the band was of course benefiting from the free marketing.
But incidentally, what was" in it for him" was at least a few minutes of my time, and because I'm a music junkie, most probably a purchase. As it was, I never even made it in the shop.
It is the same attitude that drives the world we live in: the salivation at what we crave, the dwelling upon what's in our interests, the fantasy of what we will reap in the end. It's what damns us; innocence lost. I expect that now -- most everywhere -- but not from music, at least at the independent level. Not from music, which if created, maintained, distributed, and shared the right way-- undoubtedly a monumental task but well worth the effort -- will always remain pure, a means justifying the end.
But this day, in that record store, that owner stole a piece of that optimism from all of us.

It's great to know, at least, that there are Fan Manager's and Umphrey's McGees's and plenty of other bands embracing this spirit of change and progress, working together to maximize the potential and potency of both the listening and live experience. There's much more to debate regarding piracy and control of content, some of it on a much larger level than just copyrights and illegal downloads. And in time, for better or for worse, all of that will sort itself out.