By Allen Michie
“Every record can have its own unique sound, depending on who has owned it, who’s touched it, where it’s been. That’s really important to me.” This movie makes you realize that these things should be important to you, too.
Can you name one thing that you have had since you were 10 years old that you still use? Not something that you store in the attic or place on the doodad shelf as a memento, but something that is still in active use from time to time, something that you still enjoy as much or more than you did when you were 10? It’s probably not a book. It’s definitely not anything you wear. But what about your records?
The first one I bought with my own lawn-mowing money was either Venus and Mars by Wings or Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy by Elton John (I can’t remember which). Yes, there is some “surface noise” that has accumulated over the years, just like there has in every other part of my life. But both of those records are still in active rotation at my house, and both still sound good to me, because by now those records are about much more to me than just sound. There’s something rare about this, something worth appreciating, nurturing, and passing on to the next generation. This is the subject of the new documentary Vinyl Nation (directed by Christopher Boone and Kevin Smokler), available for streaming for a limited time (through September 25) from the Brattle Theatre here. Half of the proceeds benefit the Brattle.
A radio producer and DJ with bright teal hair named Ashleyanne Krigbaum takes a record out of its cover and says, “It smells good.” (And you know, she’s right.) “Every record can have its own unique sound, depending on who has owned it, who’s touched it, where it’s been. That’s really important to me.” This movie makes you realize that these things should be important to you, too.
I was completely unprepared for how emotional this film would be. It’s a movie with an expansive and generous depth of feeling about how people build upon what they love to become fully themselves, and how this helps them mature in their capacity to build relationships with one another. I was expecting a movie about quirky nerds rhapsodizing about the joys of crate digging for obscure foreign releases and limited editions. Instead, I found a heartfelt documentary about how people get through their lives using the simple tools of music and community. This is not a film about materialism — surprisingly, it’s about exactly the opposite. It’s about humanism.
The documentary includes a diverse range of people: men and women of different races and ages from across the country (Florida, Kansas, Texas, California, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Michigan). This is powerfully demonstrated in the final sequence before the credits. The directors are at pains to point out that hanging out in vinyl record stores isn’t just for white, balding, middle-aged, nerdy men. There are a few of those in the movie, but they’re in the minority.
“More attention has been paid in recent years to reaching an audience where the default setting is not White Dudes of a Certain Age,” says Stephen Thompson of NPR Music. For example, the film interviews Claudia Saenz, founder of the Chulita Vinyl Club, a group supporting young Hispanic women breaking into the male-dominated enclave of DJ culture. Now the Chulita Vinyl Club has 55 young women in seven different cities. “Girls who meet at the Chulita Vinyl Club are best friends now.… it’s an awesome sisterhood,” Saenz says.
The movie also takes children and teenagers seriously, as well it should. It may be an instinctive reaction for some vinyl snobs to sneer at cheap Crosley record players and expensive new pop LPs for sale at department stores, but the filmmakers flip this particular broken record over. Without irony or disrespect, they interview a buyer for Urban Outfitters about how she discovered that colorful Crosley portable record players and Britney Spears LPs would work as “lifestyle products” Urban Outfitters could sell to teenage girls. It was a risk, and it worked. Then they interview a teenage girl, sitting in her bedroom at home, and lets her explain what it means to her: “If I really enjoy a band, and I listen to their whole albums on streaming services, I will definitely make a point to buy the record, because I do feel passionately enough about them that I want to support them in some other way.” As audio store owner Chris Livengood puts it, “The big struggle that the high-end audio industry has identified for itself is this evolving discussion about how to reach out to women, people of color, all sorts of youth, minorities, all of those sectors that they’ve never touched on before. And ironically they continue to do the exact things that are not helpful in that pursuit, and that is to treat women like children, young people like they’re idiots, and people of color like criminals. If you want to change things, you have to just do it.” The same is true of many record dealers, and this film shows them doing it.
For example, there is a telling scene at the spectacular Austin Record Convention. An older African American record dealer is selling a Freddie Hubbard jazz record to a skinny, nervous-looking white teenager with a trendy haircut. There’s a look of uncertainty in his eyes — uncertainty about this format, this genre, and whether this jazz record can be part of who wants to be. “Take a few minutes. It’s like wine,” the dealer says, without patronizing. “Get the bouquet. You sip. You listen. The next thing you know, WHOA! Just like that. Surprise!” The teenager lets slip a cautious smile as the dealer hands him the shiny black disk. “You put that back in the sleeve. That’s your album.” They shake hands. The movie doesn’t just talk about these moments of generational transition, it shows them. It’s not only effective for conveying a message, it’s also powerful storytelling.
There’s a classic, foolproof narrative that weaves its way through the anecdotes and interviews. It’s the story of how the hero (let’s call him Vinyl Records) was once on top, got kicked to the bottom, struggled at first to make a comeback, then with luck and a little help from his friends, vanquished his enemies and came back on top. It’s an irresistible narrative, regardless of the subject matter.
The high point for Vinyl Records was around 1983 with Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Then the collapse was fast and brutal as consumers were dazzled by shiny new objects flooding the market. CDs promised better sound, portability, and never another scratch. People couldn’t get rid of their bulky LPs fast enough. But our hero had his allies, and they went underground to organize the Resistance. According to Marc Weinstein, cofounder of Amoeba Music, “Vinyl wasn’t perceived to have much value in 1990. People would bring in all their records, and on top of the pile would be their turntable…. So we used to go to different cities across the East, and we would basically stand in a hotel room buying records for 10 days straight, box ’em all up, and ship ’em to California. It was a formula that worked right off the bat.” If you laughed at struggling used record stores then, no one is laughing now. That LP copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors that you (or your parents) were happy to sell for .25 cents back in the ’80s is going for $25 or more now.
During the low point of vinyl sales, hip-hop DJ culture kept vinyl culture viable through the ’90s. The DJs were enormously creative with the physicality of the vinyl, scratching and mixing records together by varying the speeds. There’s a clip in the movie of a DJ scratching with her forehead. Try that with a CD.
Now the Villain makes his dramatic entrance: walking on stage in slow motion before his adoring minions, dressed all in black like a music industry Darth Vader, is Steve Jobs. He holds aloft a small device with one big button, like a remote-control detonator. It’s the first iPod. Surprisingly, it wasn’t so much the easy availability of pirated MP3s on Napster that killed the record shops, it was the motives that drove Napster’s millions of users. “I think that music fans took out their anger or their distress with record labels on our shops,” says Sandy Bitman of Park Ave CDs. “We were the natural go-to for people to express their dismay with pricing, with availability. As a result, we were easy prey.”
Vinyl Records held on, but our hero was weak. The year 2007 was the nadir. The entire industry sold less than a million units. Every time young people packed up and moved, as young people will do, they got rid of more and more of their fragile, heavy, melty records.
Then, in the same year when things are at their worst, comes the turning point in this narrative: Vinyl Records stumbles onto the road that brings him back to redemption, the ragtag group of underground rebels launches their surprise attack, and a small event snowballs and becomes bigger than anyone imagined possible.
Bryan Burkhert, the co-owner of a record store in Baltimore (as he says of his employees, “We don’t care if you have a drink while you’re working, or high on weed, we don’t really give a shit”), picks up the story. “Back then, we were all in media stories for going out of business and our businesses failing, and I was like ‘that’s a horrible story to tell, we’re like telling people we’re not cool any more, and that’s all we have, is being cool.’ So we held a conference for all the indy record stores called Noise in the Basement. We were talking about how we can perhaps change the perceptions, just change the story.” Cut to people standing in line overnight outside of neighborhood stores, children wrapped in blankets from the cold. Scenes of packed record stores and customers carrying LPs to the cash register by the armload. Live bands, DJs, and hundreds of self-possessed shoppers cooperating and enjoying the sense of tribal community.
Record Store Day. It is talked about in hushed tones of delighted wonder by some of the retailers and original planners interviewed in the film, like it’s a magical spell that could easily be broken. “The idea is that it’s limited, and what format lends itself to that? Vinyl,” Bitman says. There’s no such thing as a limited-edition MP3, is there? “We started six years ago, and we had only 30 artists participate. Now we have 350 artists participating, it’s world-wide.… we’re kind of cool again,” says Burkhert with a deserving smile.
The happy ending of the story has a satisfying twist. Streaming services are alive and expanding, so the Villain is hardly defeated. The Hero and the Villain learn to coexist peacefully. It turns out that people are using the streaming services to browse and test-drive music they might enjoy, then when they are ready to commit, they are going to the record store — and they are buying it on vinyl. As record label executive Billy Fields says, “This is a different experience that is weirdly in complete harmony with streaming and also the complete opposite of streaming.”
The denouement is that independent record stores have retained their scrappy and eccentric character. The rebels have not replaced the Evil Empire with a new version of the same thing. They have no inclination to do so. As one Orlando store owner puts it, “I feel like if you walk into my store and you can’t find something you like, then I have somehow failed in my mission to be a record shop. I want the kid who walks in, if she’s eight or nine years old, to find her favorite record, and as she develops her own musical tastes over the next 10-20 years, she can find everything that she likes here at the record shop.” Notice how he isn’t saying that he wants a huge inventory to accommodate as many customers as possible looking for all kinds of musical products, like a Walmart or Amazon. The owner’s instinct is to have the right inventory to serve one customer at a time, over time. That’s the difference in a nutshell.
At the end of the movie, one of the filmmakers, Kevin Smokler, asks this question of Krigbaum, the young DJ with the teal hair: “Tell us what you think would be a happy next phase of life for your records after you’re gone.” The question first makes her smile, then sigh, then laugh with embarrassment, then cry. I’m not going to reveal what she said, but it brought a tear to my eye as well. What she said was perceptive, imaginative, and sensitive. While I had never thought of it quite that way before, it felt profoundly true somewhere deep in the marrow of my bones. We’ve never met, but we are kin.
This is the best film I’ve ever seen about things. You need to see it, and you need to let it rekindle your appreciation for the things that you own, have kept for most of your life, that you still love to shop for, and that have played no small part in making you the person you are. Maybe for you it’s books. Or stuffed animals, or motorcycles, or souvenir postcards. It doesn’t matter — this movie is about those things, too, in its way. And if you’re not into vinyl just yet, this movie is your official invitation. You will always be welcome at your local independent record store. I’ll see you there.
Allen Michie has a PhD in English and works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. He is a white, balding, middle-aged, nerdy man.