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Die Fidelity

I Need That Record! (2008)

Brendan Toller/Unsatisfied Films

Independent record stores — as with most independent retailers — are dying out. Small chains simply can’t compete with big-box or Internet retailers on price or the “long tail” — the ability to stock small amounts of the majority of items, which sell only very small numbers. But what they lack in mainstream success, the smaller shops make up for with a synesthetic shopping experience that simply can’t be replicated elsewhere. Some call this heart, others authenticity, still others community spirit.

Director Brendan Toller taps into the longing for this experience in “I Need That Record!” via the owners of Record Express and Trash American Style, two shops near his hometown in Connecticut. Record Express’s closing was the impetus for the film, in which Mr. Toller went on a road trip to other small record stores in Illinois, Ohio and Massachusetts to discuss how the music industry and retail markets have changed, and what small store owners are doing about it.

Pleasingly, Mr. Toller punches above his weight with talking-head interviews including Noam Chomsky (whose admirers should stay after the credits), Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Ian Mackaye of Fugazi and Lenny Kaye of Patti Smith Group. Various shop owners and customers explain how the American radio market changed the music market. Their bile is saved for the bottom-line focus on profits that has gradually but permanently altered how the major retailers and record labels view their artists and the products they produce. But in an entire film about music lovers and shopping for music, only two women appear. Speaking briefly, they are both co-owners with their husbands of different independent stores. Not one female musician or female shopper is spoken to, and Patti Smith and Amy Winehouse are the only female artists even mentioned. This is an appalling omission, and Mr. Toller should be ashamed for so thoughtlessly promulgating one of the industry’s most serious drawbacks in his film. Why pretend there aren’t any women in or interested in the American indie scene?

It seems Mr. Toller is so in awe of the old-boys music networks he grew up around, that he’s forgotten to wonder why those ways aren’t relevant anymore. Most of the film is narrated by Mr. Toller himself, drawing on statistics about the music industry over archive cartoon and TV footage and cheerful image collage to make his points. But it’s tricky to make a call for justice for small retailers when saying that it’s also perfectly understandable people want to save money by buying albums cheaper somewhere else or downloading them for free.

When the main argument for keeping independent stores open is to provide people with somewhere to go, surely Mr. Toller could have put forward a proposal for a new business model. Rather than moaning about what’s been lost, wouldn’t it have been more fun to work out a better way to go forward? There’s a golden opportunity for some inclusive community spirits to create a new way of bringing music to their towns, but not in this film.


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