For a teenage record geek like me, this was heaven: major-label catalogs to pore over; access to others who cared about reissues and B-side variations; the opportunity to hear bands that were never going to have radio hits. I still own records by The Plastics, Herman Brood, and Get Wet, music I discovered only because someone from their labels handed me a promo copy sometime in the '80s.

The swag was part of the fun. Back then, record labels lavished retailers with collectible junk made especially for us: buttons and T-shirts and limited-edition, laser-etched 10-inch EP samplers that weren't available for sale anywhere on Earth. This stuff was designed to make us feel special; like we were part of breaking a new act or an old vocalist with a new single. It worked.

Today? I may not need a special T-shirt to feel connected to an artist, but without a clerk talking up a new release, I also don't know where to start to find fresh music; to create a connection between myself and a new performer. I recently downloaded an advance copy of an album by a singer named Sarah Jaffe, but there was no cover art, so I couldn't tell what Sarah looked like (hey, it matters); there were no liner notes, so I didn't know Sarah's story (was she a teen prodigy, or had she been singing in saloons for 30 years?). Sarah's career was new enough that there was no Wikipedia entry on her. My computer had neatly tucked Sarah's debut album into my hard drive, but I found myself wanting to have had it handed to me by someone vested in its success, maybe someone who'd just returned from hanging with Sarah and her husband in Vegas. I listened to Sarah's album twice and deleted it; it didn't really belong to me.

"That's because the record labels have taken all the fun out of it," Angela Singer said to me when I dropped in at Circles last month to say goodbye. "The whole process of discovering and selling music has become utterly impersonal."

She and Leonard and I were sitting in Leonard's office, in front of the same big, dark mahogany desk I remembered from the early '80s. We reminisced about the good old days, when Clive Davis would show up at Associated with an artist he'd just signed, taking her from office to office to say hello and talk about her new record. We recalled those rare, unexpected hits — albums that sold and sold and sold, dozens of copies a week for a whole year; albums like REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity, which in 1981 we couldn't kill with an ax; and the first Men at Work album, which refused to die (although its follow-up was a total stiff we got hung with for months). Likewise Foreigner 4 and Kenny Rogers' Greatest Hits. And, of course, Michael Jackson's Thriller.

(I didn't tell the Singers about how my staff and I — young and bored with writing down the same title over and over again each day — entertained ourselves by making up silly names for the super-popular LPs. Emmylou Harris' Roses in the Snow might become Phlegmy Poo Hair-Ass, Noses in the Blow; Juice Newton's "Angel of the Morning" became Jews Knew Tons o' Bagels and They're Mourning. Nor did I tell them about how I once had to refund the price of the Urban Cowboy soundtrack, an album we sold boxes of each day, because I'd scribbled the words "Urbane Cow Flop" on the buyer's receipt — a quip that I found hilarious but the buyer did not.)

After I got home from bidding adieu to the Singers, I telephoned my friend Lisa Sutton. At the same time I was manager of Hollywood Records, Lisa — another vinyl junkie — was working at a Tower Records in Los Angeles. She went on to become a designer of CD packages and the author of hundreds of album liner notes; she currently works as a television producer. She reminded me that selling records wasn't all fun and games.

"Yeah, sure, at first it was a blast," Lisa agreed. "But you're forgetting that we got there just as things were starting to go to hell. Remember the Tipper Sticker, and the payola scandal, and death of the 8-track? Talk about the beginning of the end!"

I'd forgotten all that. The Tipper Sticker was what we retailers called the parental advisory warnings a group of women led by Tipper Gore forced the record labels to stick on the covers of record albums containing "objectionable language." The payola scandal of the mid-'80s was essentially a rerun of a similar mess from the '50s, in which record promoters were busted for bribing radio station program directors. (Because this was the '80s, most of the bribes were in the form of cocaine.) And the return allowances offered by major labels for all those outdated 8-tracks really gouged our budgets for most of 1983, the year that used record stores started popping up all over town, further driving our customers away.

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2 comments
Brad Myers
Brad Myers

I initially had reminiscent feelings of sadness when I was reading this, but by the end I realized that these record stores killed themselves off and I don't have much sympathy. Granted the record industry has changed a lot in the last 10 years; however, at the end of the day you're running a business. Sometimes you have to adapt, and sometimes you have to think about what you're doing and why you're doing it. You can't make fun of everyone who comes in to buy the new Nickelback or Lady Caca CD, because they are the ones who are ultimately keeping you in business. Nobody likes the cool guy at the record store who thinks he is cooler than everyone else even if it's evident that he's not. I guess if you're doing minimum wage at a record store you probably don't have business models running through your head though.

I've been buying most of my music online over the last 5+ years, because I don't want to drive across town and not be able to find what I'm looking for. Granted it's not the same as being able to flip through the inventory and find passed over gems, but that hasn't happened for a long time anyway. Maybe I just got lazy and got sick of losing "the hunt". It's real easy to find what you're looking for online (and I don't mean downloading). I hate to say these things, but that's the way it is.

Derrick Bostrom
Derrick Bostrom

Great article! I have a slightly different take on the record store clerk experience: that of being ridiculed by the staff for buying punk rock records in the late seventies. I rememeber waiting all afternoon and into the evening for the single copy of "Never Mind The Bollocks" to arrive at the Evolution Records (or had it changed to Rolling Stone Records by then?) on Camelback and Scottsdale Road. The clerks took their sweet time fishing it out of the box, and then they just kind of tossed it at me: "we don't want this crap; you might as well take it..." To think, these were the same guys who had lavished so much praise on me in previous seasons when I cbought Frank Zappa or King Crimson records from them...

Of course, over at the Tower Plaza Evolution, it was a different story. They always got good punk 45s in from the coast, and the lady at the counter would be noticably impressed when I marched to the counter with indie pressings by the Germs or the B-52s.

I guess it just serves to illustrate the point of how much fun it was to hunt for records back in those days. Even within the same chain, different outlets with different people would give you very different experiences. Record shopping was always an important part of my life, and I've got a room full of vinyl in my house to prove it. Thanks to all the Robrts of late-70s-early-80s Phoenix for helping nuture that addiction.

 
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