by Jon Scorfina
(The number of chain-record stores nationwide has dwindled. However, St. Louis has become an unlikely safe haven for indie record shops -- and for DJs who prefer to spin the black circle instead of scrolling their iPods. In this weekly column, we'll focus on personal portraits of St. Louis' record aficionados -- and the rooms where they store their treasures. Meet the last collectors standing. Know a collector who deserves the spotlight? Email us.)
How - and in what format -- we listen to music is a major focus in the study of today's ever-changing social media landscape. As the vinyl album fights to find a new market, avid vinyl collectors such as Andrew Allen Smith -- who teaches media literacy and history of film at Lindenwood University and Webster University, and is an ex-manager at the Plaza Frontenac Theatre -- are most concerned with the future of the LP. Smith celebrates everything pop culture with his joint collection of records he shares with his girlfriend, Sarah. We met in his apartment full of Ultraman figures and conversed about the Pixies' Doolittle and the cultural significance of the soundtrack album.
What is the first album you ever bought? Smith - The first piece of recorded music I ever bought was Nirvana's Nevermind on cassette when I was eleven or twelve. I mainly bought it because I had heard about it so much on MTV. I was just a kid. I didn't know what music was, or what a "scene" was. I just sought out whatever was the most popular, and it just happened to be Nirvana's Nevermind. I think that's what started me wanting to get interested in more obscure bands, and that's what led me to vinyl.
The first vinyl records I bought were ones that were easy to come across. I bought things like the Clash. I started buying vinyl probably in eighth grade, because I discovered Goodwill and Value Village. Records were like a quarter. I could buy any stupid record. Maybe it was good. Maybe it wasn't. I bought a lot of jazz records from the '40s because it seemed to be the collection that everyone in St. Louis had. That's where I also bought my first T-Rex album, my first Yes album. I bought them all for a quarter at garage sales and goodwill.
It wasn't until I finally found a rare record that I started wanting to go after them. Actually, it was when I was around sixteen or seventeen years old, I found The Pixies' Doolittle for seventy-five cents. Then I went looking for it in other stores, and I had never really listened to the Pixies that much. I realized that the Pixies were really hard to find. It's thrilling to find a record that you know is very hard to come across. That record was the first time that I felt that way.
Can you elaborate on the experience on buying an album or CD? How has that methodology changed for shopping for music? Has it been lost on newer generations? To answer the first part about it: Finding a record is much different than buying a record off the internet. People always tell me they found this super rare record and then [they tell me] they bought it off eBay for seventy or eight dollars.
I know in the hardcore scene in St. Louis there is this weird, obsessive vinyl collecting. It's sort of like a fetish. They need to own eight different versions of the same album, all different printings, and they'll never open them. I like collecting records that are rare, but I don't mind if they're damaged; it's just having it as a document.
Recently, I found two Minor Threat albums that I had never seen before. Whenever I find a record I've never seen before I have a tendency to buy it, because I know that if I don't want it maybe one of my friends will want it, or I can sell it. I found these two Minor Threat records, so I decided to go online and look up what editions they were. It linked me to this hardcore website and a message board of a label called Bridge Nine. [The message board has] the most minute data about the different additions, and how obsessed people are with finding all six printings of one record.
When I talk about this to my students, they don't care. They really like the fact that music is really easy to acquire. We were just talking about music piracy in class a couple of weeks ago, and I was trying to tell them [that] because of music piracy the industry is radically different. Twenty years ago, you could tour as much as you wanted to, but if you weren't a part of a major label you'd never get discovered. No one would ever know about you. Now, people just get picked up on YouTube, or they post a couple of songs on the internet and send it to somebody at Spin and it becomes this huge thing. Look at somebody like Vampire Weekend. So [students] don't really care about albums anymore. They just want tracks, and then they can customize to do whatever they want with it.
For you personally, is this a better experience or a worse experience? I go back and forth with it, because I love records. I will always love records. It combines so many things. It's music, but on top of that it's art. I buy a lot of records based on album artwork alone and hope the music sounds good. And it's tactile. You have to put the record down. You can slow it down or speed it up. It's a lot different than just loading and shifting data. That's what I feel like music has become.
We all just access the Internet and move data around. We move it from our computer to our iPod to a CD. Maybe we burn it for somebody or email it to somebody. It never actually exists in any tangible form, but records do. They have liner notes. They have photographs of [the band], maybe in the studio. All of that stuff is lost now.
In teaching media literacy, have you encountered students who have never played a record before? It's interesting. Now, records have become this new kind of... I don't want to say it's a trend, because people have been collecting records for years. They've never stopped because of trends or popularity. It is kind of like a weird rebellious thing. Like in the '90s when everyone was obsessed with the '70s. They think the record player is this really ancient piece of technology that looks cool in their house. So they go to Urban Outfitters, or Best Buy now, and they buy a record player, and they'll even own one or two records. Really, its not like they actually use it. It's more like a piece of furniture, or piece of art. I only have a handful of kids who actually buy records.
Considering that music is a popular social media, what do you think the future is for music as a commodity that we buy and collect? Do you see an end for that? If the trends in information technology and entertainment technology keep going where they're going, we're not going to need to collect anything. Everything will exist on a website or some sort of provider, and you'll pay for it like cable. You'll pay thirty bucks a month and you'll have unlimited access to this label, and that label. That's how we'll listen to music. We'll have the option of putting it on our iPod or our phone, our whatever is out then, but we're not going to need to collect or possess anything.
It's already to the point where on an iPhone you can listen to Pandora, which is a free radio website. You can just search an artist and listen to virtually their whole catalog, without ever having to buy or download anything. Having worked at Frontenac Theatre for eight years, were soundtrack albums popular? Did they sell directly from the theatre, or has the renaissance of the soundtrack passed? One of the coolest things that Landmark did while I worked for them, was that they started offering soundtracks for particular films. Landmark really saw the opportunity of cross-promotion. For instance, when we had [the film] Persepolis, we had the Persopolis soundtrack and the graphic novel. When we would get films in based on popular books, we would have the books so you could buy it afterwards. Soundtracks became a really big part of it. Frontenac gets a pretty distinguished film crowd. They were people who respect film and the art of film. We were able to sell things like the score, not just the popular soundtrack with just a bunch of fun songs. When we had Pan's Labyrinth we sold the score, and it sold very well. Same thing with The Fountain, the Darren Aronofsky time-travel movie.
Still, I think pop songs sell way better than music scores. We had Slumdog Millionaire, which had M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" on it. It was becoming a very popular song. It was on the trailers, and people were hearing it day to day. Then they would see Slumdog and the song would be in there, and they would leave the theatre and immediately go over to the CD and in big letters it said, 'featuring M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes." We sold a ton of it.
What's a soundtrack that you think has a lasting cultural significance, or that just has significance to you? I think the Juno album made a real impact. I don't particularly like Juno, and I don't particularly like the soundtrack that much, but it really does encapsulate this weird time period in the 2000s, kind of similar to Ghost World. The idea of the independent teenage girl who is rebellious. That is a trend that will sum up a certain portion of the 2000s when people look back on it. I think the Juno soundtrack really embodies all of the music that a girl that age would listen to if she acted that way.
My girlfriend Sarah buys soundtracks. I tend to only buy soundtracks from classic films that I want the score. She bought Marie Antoinette, Advetureland, Juno. She loves soundtracks, because she gets to listen to a mix of her favorite music on vinyl through the stereo.
What was it like when you combined your record collection with your girlfriend's record collection? It was fine. Honestly, she owns a lot of records I would've bought myself but never bothered to. The problem with buying new vinyl nowadays is that if you wait it will go, and [the label] won't do another pressing for five or six years. That's when you're on eBay spending seventy-five dollars for a record that came out three years ago.
Sarah was really good when she went to concerts she would always buy whatever band she saw on vinyl. She has a lot of early Flaming Lips that she bought at the shows.
When Sarah and I moved in together and combined our collection, [it] didn't happen immediately. We moved in and we had the records sectioned off into three sections. The records that her and I bought together, the records that were mine exclusively, and the records that were hers exclusively. Then about a year later we combined them. I guess at that point we realized that this was for real, so it was okay to do this. Now I don't even know what records are hers and what records are mine.
What's with the Ultraman collection? [Laughs]Ultraman is a really interesting figure in Japanese history, if you think about it, because all of those giant monsters are a reaction to the bomb in Hiroshima. Godzilla is awakened by nuclear experiments. All of these characters are mutated in some way, shape, or form. Ultraman is humanity's attempt to stop what this horrible war has done.
In America, we had reactions like that, too. We had all of that really socially conscious science fiction after World War 2. Japan just went the opposite route and went for giant monsters! That was the way they decided to deal with it.
Ultraman in Japan is like Mickey Mouse. He's a pop culture icon and I'm obsessed with popular culture. He's just the aspect I've decided to focus on.
With the way media has changed, do you think music will still be able to be a cultural cornerstone for newer generations? More and more media is just combining itself together. What's not to say that the music industry will merge with a visual component, to the point where we don't even download albums anymore, but will download collections of music videos? I already feel like it goes that way. Some of my students don't even download music, they go on YouTube and that's how they listen to songs or that's how they listen to entire albums.
Part of the big problem with where the music industry is right now, and if people want to disagree they can, but it all has to do with technology. Our want for more technology has made the industries have to adjust to us, and we all have a really short attention span. I don't think bands like the Beatles can happen anymore, because things move so quickly and now there is access to so many different bands, artist, labels, everything all over the world that nobody has a chance to really cement themselves. [A band makes] an album, and it's a really big hit and everyone is waiting for the second one, but in that time period a dozen more bands will come along and places like Pitchfork and Spin and Rolling Stone discuss [them] like they're the most important thing in the world. So that [original band] gets forgotten about. A lot of these new bands have careers of about two albums, and then they disintegrate, and they form some other band.
In a way it's good, because we can stop looking at musicians as idols now. We can start actually seeing them as people. Maybe the money will get shifted around better. It's a weird place, but I do feel that a lot of bands don't have time anymore to make a career. You have to be good on that one album, or you have to show enough promise on the first album so people will remember you for the second. After that, you should hope you have fans, but by then they've probably moved on.