April 1st, 2012 marked the end of an era. Sundance Records And Tapes in San Marcos, TX closed its doors for good on that day after 34 years of business.
First, let me back up just a bit and tell you a little bit about myself. I’m a movie geek. I went to film school and learned all I could about directors, actors and writers while I was there. But I didn’t start there. I started learning all of that stuff while working at a video store. Yeah, it was a corporate store, but my co-workers and I did our best to make it not feel that way. I would say that 75% of what I know about movies, I learned from watching movies and talking to other movie geeks about what I had just watched.
Before that, though, I was a music guy. I basically did the same thing with my music, just without working at a music store. I listened to records, read the liner notes, found out about the artists’ influences, listened to those records, figured out what I really liked…all without the help of the internet. (That really came along a few years later.)
I never had a true “local record store” growing up. The closest thing that I probably could have had was Austin’s Waterloo Records, but they’ve always been a little expensive and, honestly, a little impersonal for a local store. I, unfortunately, went to Best Buy to get a lot of my music back in the day. I only wish that I had grown up with a place like Sundance. It took me until about two years ago to truly realize how awesome this place truly was.
The moment you walked into Sundance, you knew that you were walking into a Record Store (capital R, capital S). Not only did they have posters and cardboard stand-ups from bygone eras all over the store, but they had a “Wall Of Death” where they put obits of entertainment figures (including a pretty big one showing Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown and Stevie Wonder singing at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s funeral). The carpet was soft, but definitely trodden down by decades of music lovers. First and foremost, though, was the smell. Sundance smelled like a Record Store. That kind of patchouli incense smell that, at one time, probably tried to cover up another strong smell familiar to record store employees.
And here in lies the true difference between a record store and a Record Store: the employees. We have plenty of record stores in Austin, 20 miles north of San Marcos. Austin is one of the towns where they do really well. (I can think of five record stores just off the top of my head… even two real homegrown video stores.) Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find any that I liked as much as Sundance. While I never really got to know any of the employees there, I had good conversations with just about every one of them, whether a college kid, a 20-something music lover or the 50-something manager who, after a brief stint of working there in the 80s, uprooted his new wife from Houston in the late 90s so that he could manage the store. As soon as I walked in the door, I would always be greeted with a big, “Hey man! How’s it goin’?” One time, while I was digging through their treasure trove of 60s records, the manager tapped me on the shoulder and waggled his finger for me to follow him. He then pointed me towards a bunch of records that had just come in. “I haven’t had a chance to put these out, but go through them real quick, see what you can find.” I ended up finding a copy of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life With The Bush Of Ghosts, a vinyl treasure if ever there was one. When I brought that to the counter, he and I had a pretty good discussion on what all has come from that album.
And that, my friends, is what will truly be missed. As I said, there are a lot of record stores in Austin, but I’ve never had that kind of conversation with any of the employees at any of them. They definitely know their shit and, occasionally, they’ll comment on my purchase, but they’re not all that interested in what you know or getting into a real conversation. The folks at Sundance would always say something like, “The Decemberists! Man, they’re awesome. Ever hear of Fairpoint Convention?”, or when I bought The Lovin’ Spoonful’s first album, “Oh, man! Did we have Hums over there? This one’s great, but Hums is where it’s really at! Have you heard John Sebastian’s first solo album?!”
As much as we like to say that the internet has brought the world closer together (and I believe that it has in some ways), we’ll never get this kind of true interaction here. Not really. Sure, there are plenty of music websites that sort of do it, but not with personality or, well, ANYthing but clicks and links. All we will truly ever get from a website is a call and response sort of “If…then…” statement. A true Record Store or Video Store will never be replaced by a website.
It’s really sad to me that these stores are slowly fading into memory as people stop buying physical media. Sure, we’ll get the music however we can, whether it’s digital downloads or, in the future, some sort of holographic brain uplink. Who knows? But gone will be the days of actually talking to someone about music and having a true interaction with someone who has the same, but slightly different, taste as you. Instead of taking a record or tape or CD to a person who may have an emotional response to whatever artist you’re buying, you just click, click, click your way to new music. No true personal interaction needed.
That being said, the really interesting thing about Sundance closing is this: one of the employees told me that the vinyl sales were actually doing pretty good. It was the CDs that were draining their resources, taking up so much space that they couldn’t afford the rent where they were. That’s when I realized that I buy very few CDs these days. I mostly buy vinyl. (And, no, I don’t really download music, either. Most new artists I listen to on Spotify or some other online source. Yes, I’m part of the problem, unfortunately.)
Here’s my plea to you: don’t let these valuable resources die. Support your local Record Store anyway you can, especially in small towns. Maybe you only download music, but find some way to support these guys. Buy vinyl. Just go in and look around. Ask one of the employees for help finding more people like your favorite artists. BE INTERESTED IN MUSIC AGAIN! Don’t’ just listen to the top 40 bullshit and not pay attention to artists. That’s not what they want and, really, it’s not what you want.
Small, independent record/video/comic book stores are disappearing at a pretty alarming rate these days. It’s up to us to do something about this. Netflix and Spotify are all well and good, but we NEED to support the little guy, too. Without them, it’s all just ones and zeroes.
I leave you with some of the last words that the manager of Sundance said to me as I left his store with a stack of records: “Fuck yeah! You got some GREAT shit!”
You can’t get that from a website.