Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Interview: Brendan Toller
(director of I Need That Record)

Brendan Toller's I Need that Record! is a fabulous documentary that explores the changes in the music business over the last two decades, with a focus on independent record stores. Independent record stores are closing in mass numbers, while a new generation is discovering new music on the internet instead from a clerk. While it would be simple to say that file sharing is responsible for these closures, Toller's film shows that the issue is much more complex, with major labels deserving much of the blame. I Need that Record explores this period of change in the music business while also examining their potential survival. We conducted an interview with Toller and it made for a rather thought-provoking discussion...

What's your background in documentary/film?

I made some short films in high school and went to Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. It's an alternative school where students design their own majors and carry out a massive project their senior year. For me that massive project was I Need That Record! But I interned on a lot of wacky films - Six Niggaz In A Cadillac, Hoop: A Revolution of Sorts (Doc. on the hula hoop), and Where the Fuck Are the Democrats!? that taught me a lot about what to do and what not to do in film production. I also took a ton of filmmaking, writing and music classes honing my skills.

What made you want to focus a doc on independent record stores?
Around 2002/2003 the press was starting to cover record store closures. All the articles were incredibly one-sided blaming downloading as the end all be all. I knew there were a host of reasons as to why these stores were closing and that it was a lot more complicated. I also felt no one had made a film about how much the music industry had changed in the past 10-20 years. Good indie record stores have always been interesting places with incredible people, awesome posters, and great discoveries. I felt someone needed to make a doc. about how the industry's cave-man like mentality was screwing these people over. Then when Record Express, the record store I grew up with closed shop and became a tanning salon - I had no choice!

As a record consumer, what choices do you make?
I felt like I helped kill Record Express for a while. Until a few years ago price was always what dictated where I bought my music. I think in this whole debate the press and a lot of other people forget that price is a huge factor in how people get music. For whatever reason I had no qualms about getting most new releases at Best Buy for many years. Now it makes me sick just to set foot in the store. You have to realize that you vote with your dollar. Sure you might have to dish out a few bucks at an indie store but every time you spend money in an indie store whether its a local book, clothing, hardware, coffee shop etc. you help keep them there. Who wants to live in a world where the same strip mall is in every town and city, where everyone who
helps you is in a stupid blue uniform? Good indie stores have great people and great selection. They should be able to turn you on to amazing records that leave all the Walmart/Best Buy selections in the dust.

For independent record stores that want to survive, or even for those who want to open them, what are key tips for survival?
You need to focus on the local music community and be a resource for local arts. Gone are the days where you can berate your customer for buying a Rod Stewart album or something like that (and if its so terrible maybe you should think of why you carry it in yr store). You have to focus on getting people to come in your store. They can make CD at home, download almost anything they want- maybe even find stuff that isn't in your store. What makes it worth the trip? Do in-stores with bands that are in town, contests, listening parties, music trivia nights. Make it a fun experience. People like to go places and see other like-minded people. Pricing is key. Mike Dreese from Newbury Comics has built his 75 million dollar company on having amazing computer tracking systems that allow him to sell titles for low prices at high volumes. No one should have to pay $16 for a single CD in this day and age. And forget the CD its all about vinyl...

Is vinyl the future for indie record stores? Is that enough?
I think they'll always be a need for a good place to congregate, talk about, and discover new music. Owners just need to find ways to get people to pay for this. Everyone who runs an indie store tells me that the CD has been tanking in recent years and that its all about vinyl. Vinyl has so much that digital doesn't have- the sound, the smell, the grooves, the artwork, the sense of history. You can also take a chance on something for cheap. I think people aren't always willing to take a chance on something that's $16 that they haven't heard.

So many people talk about the indie record store as a "community" - has the internet become that community? does that community exist elsewhere?
The internet is a community albeit a pretty lonely one. You can chat and email with friends all day but its not as warm as spending time with a person IN person. I don't think the same kind of musical gathering exists in person really anywhere besides shows these days.

Do you see the indie labels dwindling in the way stores are?

Are you kidding?! The majors are firing people left and right. They've continually shot themselves in the foot. They are the huge dying dinosaur while the indie labels are some sort of quick, agile, and adapting animal (iguana?) Newer bands realize that they don't need huge suits to sell records anymore. If anything I think we're going to see more and more indie labels and more DIY artists. There's more people making music, art, film than ever before and more and more labels or aggregators are going to pop up. This doesn't mean the majors will disappear though- never underestimate the power of money, monopolies, and connections.

What do you see as the future of major labels?
Everyone who runs a major business in the U.S. right now seems to be a huge idiot who just doesn't get it. The internet has provided a space for people to police major corporations. Its getting harder to screw people over for the alimghty dollar these days. The majors have done
this for so long to the point where its almost comical. Suing your customers!? Great business model. You have to think and act like you're living in a neighborhood with your customers. If the majors can turn their thinking around they won't vanish, but as I said never underestimate the power of money and the old guard...

The film is strong because (while it is supportive of indie stores) it does not take too many sides - it does not demonize file sharers, it does not claim to have all the answers. Was your argument the same when you started, or were there things you found in filming that were different from your expectations?
I talked with a few people who totally changed the way I saw things. I did an interview with the godfather of digital music, MIT Professor, Barry Blesser. We had opposing views on almost everything. He got me to think totally different about arguing about something like MP3s vs.
vinyl. I think a lot of people are quick to take sides in these debates. Its not necessarily a question of whether Mp3s or vinyl is better but to see what their value is and how they are two different forces that coexist with one another. Has email killed the postal service? Have no-flat tires put towing trucks out of business? File-sharing is a reality but people seem to still be selling
records... Filmmaking is a journey- you change as does your film and ideas.

What are some of your favorite records?
Guided By Voices "Bee Thousand"
Derek & The Dominos "Layla"
Paul Westerberg "Stereo/Mono"
Beatles "White Album"
Dirtbombs "Ultraglide in Black"

I Need that Record! has played at a number of film festivals - including the Noise Pop Film Festival in San Francisco - and continues to screen around the country. You can find reviews at the Boston Globe and The Bay Bridged.

1 comment:

Hillary said...

great interview! I loved the movie too!