August 15, 2009

Only in the Movies: Browsing Through Vinyl

When was the last time you did this? 1996?

Let me lead off by saying this: I love music, and I believe that finding a person who loves the same music as you can make a good relationship great. It's true, my fiancee and I bonded over music as much as anything else in the early years of our relationship. I made her mix CDs and we reminisced about the music we listened to growing up. Music is as important to us now as it was before when we first started dating five years ago.

But not once during this period have we ever strolled through a record store and browsed through vinyl. In fact, I don't even think we've browsed through the CD section of any store. We find music online, we acquire music online, and we listen to music online. I'm probably the furthest thing from an iTunes loyalist, but the pay-per-song model was one of the biggest-ever shifts in the music industry, leading to declining album "sales" and increasing song "downloads" (which increased by 30% in 2008, according to this year-end report by the Recording Industry Association of America). This begs the question:

Who still browses through vinyl in record stores anymore?

Assuming most people are, like us, primarily users of online music services, why are movies still stuck in the 80's and 90's? The "browsing through records on a first date" scene is one of the oldest and most used movie cliches of the last few decades (most recently in (500) Days of Summer), and I'm not buying it anymore. About as many people browse through record stores as Blockbuster stores these days, and in this age of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and iTunes, that's a dwindling group.

If you agree with me you'll be surprised by the following fact, and if you disagree with me you'll be standing on solid evidence: Last year, vinyl records sold at their highest level since 1990, more than doubling in sales from 2007. What gives? I can't explain it, and while it threatens to blow a gaping hole in my argument, I stand by my claim that people don't flirt across record store aisles anymore, and romantic connections through music are much more likely to happen online, or maybe at a live show, but that's about it.

I also don't accept the reality of Garden State and (500) Days of Summer, where lovers unite when one hears the music come from the other's massive, noise-canceling earmuff headphones. If both characters are big audiophiles, wouldn't they both be listening to music, and even then, don't most people use earbuds?

As with answering machines and free cabs, this is where you end up when you spend way too much time thinking about movie details.

Your thoughts?


  1. I guess there's a certain charm about couples in record stores or people listening to big earmuff earphones instead of earbuds in the movies. I don't even have a record store in my area that sells vinyl. If I want an album in the flesh, I need to head over to my local Wal-Mart.

    My hypothesis about vinyl sales increasing is that vintage is now cool. They see vinyl in the movies or baby boomers are getting nostalgic and just want to go back to the good ol' days.

  2. I was already getting my contrary comment ready before I got to the end of your post, but you beat me to the punch! Vinyl sales are up, but that doesn't necessarily mean used LPs. Loads of bands still release on vinyl with some releases being exclusive to vinyl. As a result, fans, enthusiasts and collectors are still buying new vinyl.

    When the band Sunn O))) released "Monoliths & Dimensions" a few months ago, the promo copies that were sent out to the press were vinyl. The reasoning was that the band felt to truly experience the record you needed to put it on a high quality stereo (which presumably everyone with a turntable has) and sit down and listen to it. These guys are pretty serious about sound, and in their opinion computer speakers and iPods just don't cut it.

    I do think this notion of browsing in the used record store is overused in the movies. It's probably the nostalgia of filmmakers in their 40s harking back to their own youth rather than any present day reality.

  3. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Marcy. I think you and Kathie are both right on about the nostalgia of directors and filmmakers who understand that retro (or rather, their good ol' days) is now cool, so you can run with these scenes all you want and young hipsters will go crazy.

    The earmuff headphones I'm not so sure about - I had at least one big pair in the 90's, but I don't know if or why those were ever considered cool, and I've just assumed that billions of iPod disciples (I don't have one, but I know they come with earbuds) would drive earmuffs out of business.

    Anyway - unlike you I actually have a ton of record stores around me in Minneapolis, several within blocks of me. I just don't think people go there or meet on dates.

    Kathie, good point about so many new albums being released on vinyl - my brother told me the same thing and I couldn't believe it.

    To that end, let me clarify my points:

    1.) I'm not trying to say that nobody listens to records anymore (the stats completely refute that), only that I don't think people browse and romance over records. I'd be interested to see how the numbers are for online purchases of vinyl - kind of a contradictory technological phenomenon, and one that would back up my argument about these scenes.

    2.) I listen exclusively to MP3s but I fully admit that vinyl offers a richer and warmer sound, and I was a musician, or if I had turntables and the space to use them, I'd probably check out vinyl records a lot more.

    3.) If characters are made out to be collectors of vinyl then the scenes would be totally appropriate. But in the case of (500) Days of Summer you have two people who we only ever see listening to music on their portables or on their computers. Why they would be spending time in a record store? It's a completely superfluous scene.

  4. Interesting piece. I for one am a vinyl junkie...I do indeed partake in downloading legal MP3's, and likewise pirate my fair share. However, when it comes to the hard copy, I much prefer tracking down vinyl than cd. Perhaps the hunt is part of it...vinyl is niche so you can only get it in certain spots, staffed by and frequented by others like you. CD's meanwhile are so easy to find you could pick one up with your morning latte.

    As for browsing and romancing, while I'll admit that such things don't happen as often as they do in the movies, I wouldn't say that they never happen. Matter of fact, most times when I go to my favorite record store, I'll usually see at least one couple come in while I'm there.

    See, even though music has gone digital, there's still a seperation between music lovers, and people who listen to music. Those oversized headphones are one such way to spot the difference. They make the music sound so much better - even when plugged into something as tiny as a shuffle. Only a true music lover would want to be toting around something so cumbersome to take their music with them to and fro.

    I know, this is a long comment...but given their love for slightly less than obvious bands, I fully believe that both Tom and Summer are the sorts of music geeks who buy and peruse vinyl, quote Belle & Sebastian, and listen to oversized headphones. My main reason for thinking so? Takes one to know one!

  5. Great comment, Hatter, with some really solid reasoning. I especially like your delineation between listeners and lovers of music. I like to think of myself as the latter, but here I am listening exclusively to digital, and having abandoned my earmuffs at that.

    In the case of Tom and Summer, their indie taste might give some reason to peruse vinyl, but even though that led to one of their first interactions (same with Garden State...guh), it was pretty much abandoned in the storyline after the initial stage of their relationship.

    But this wasn't really meant to be about that movie, it was just recently inspired by the scene. As it seems we all so far agree, it's still happening in movies more than in real life.

  6. Good sir you have inspired me. Take a look at my blog tomorrow morning to see the sort of geekery you have unleashed.

  7. Daniel,
    Your musings bring me back to my main beef about the otherwise very stellar Juno from a couple years ago. How is it that Juno and Mark, both lovers of music and both rebellious souls, make mix cds for each other? I mean, come on. Do they really expect me to believe she wouldn't use a flash drive or just send along electronically some pirated music to this guy? It didn't fit her character at all to me. I ended up chalking up that directorial decision to an industry that is very sensitive about piracy itself, one that wants to avoid at all costs portraying piracy with any sort of sympathy. Can you think of any movie that portrays piracy with sympathy? That's not a rhetorical question. I'm truly curious. Off the top of my head, I can't.

  8. I deserved that, Hatter...

    D, very good point about Juno that's also worth mentioning in the context of Juno v1.2 (Nick & Norah's Playlist), in which a mix CD also played a lead role.

    Two things:
    1.) I think there is some kind of romantic nostalgia or nostalgic romance attached to mix CDs, and I've already admitted that I've made them myself. I think the idea of presenting someone with a flash drive just isn't as endearing, even if it makes a lot more sense. I guess I'd presume that some kids these days are creating playlists on their or their beloved's iPods, instead of creating actual CDs that would require archaic technology to play.

    2.) Definitely think that Hollywood is in a tight spot with portraying piracy, and I cannot think of a movie in which its shown with any sympathy, or even shown at all. If and when they do, we can be sure that the character will meet his or her demise.

  9. The Electric Fetus just sustained some damage from the tornado that touched down. I blame this post.

  10. But Treehouse Records and Cheapo were untouched!

    Pretty decent video here. I've seen a lot of tornadoes around here, but it really is bizarre to see that funnel so close to a skyline (and a skyline completely shrouded in darkness at that).

  11. This complaint seems unwarranted to me. Hatter's subsequent post listed some (great) flicks wherein folks are listening to vinyl (and often not enough with giant headphones), but I can't think of very many movies at all that feature people rifling though records at a store. High Fidelity and...? Help me out here.

    I think the same could be said for the giant headphones complaint, save for Dazed and Confused, where there use was entirely justified, given the era the film is set.

    I'd like to submit skydiving: just saw The Goods and there was a handful of it. I've seen way more skydiving in movies than I have known people that have done it. Seems wildly out of proportion to me.

  12. Oh, you know, this movie and that movie... ;-P

    I promise there are more, but I admit I'm a little short on examples at the moment. It was really based on my reaction to (500) Days and thinking, "this scene again?", even if I couldn't remember exactly where I'd seen it before. Kind of like the answering machines, which, soon after writing the post, I started seeing in every movie.

    Anyway, good one with skydiving. That is pretty popular, but there might have to be a delineation between movies where it's shown as an action piece (Point Break, the second time) or fun (The Bucket List). Either way I only know a couple of people who have actually done it.

  13. Yeah, I've seen skydiving already in three movies released in 2009: Star Trek, Management, and The Goods. And there may be more!

  14. Star Trek was a crazy one. That movie's kind of faded for me - do I remember correctly that they jumped from space and landed in mid air on that platform?

    Didn't see the other two but am at a loss for why either would have skydiving, from what I know about them.

  15. The use of it in The Goods is kinda funny; Management, not so much.

    Though I looked it up; there's skydiving in two more 2009 films that I'd forgotten about: Monsters vs. Aliens and Angels and Demons.

    Maybe it's time for Terminal Velocity to be re-released. Or not...

  16. I don't think it would be re-released in this day and age; it would just be remade. Or "rebooted".

    Which, P.S., will probably happen with Point Break in the next decade.

  17. Yeah, let me know if you want a photo of how hard it is to browse vinyl in Amoeba Records in Hollywood because so many people are in there browsing vinyl. :) But I know you're already covered the fact that people buy vinyl.

    I think you may be right that people are more likely to meet/romance at live shows than at record stores, but here at least, they're all tied together, and (500) Days for Summer is set here. The local music scene is strong, the market for local/indie music is strong, the vinyl market is strong. Bonding in the record store seemed pretty normal/natural to me.

    The only thing that surprised me about the film's portrayal of music, honestly, was how old it was - The Smiths run almost twenty years back, the Feist song is at least two records back, the Doves song is like five years old, probably more. Contrast to Nick and Norah, where almost all of the songs were from 2006-2008 albums. It makes sense a bit because Tom and Summer are older than Nick and Norah, and I think the point with The Smiths is to indicate a depth of indie musical appreciation that doesn't buy into the hipster mentality of needing something brand new and undiscovered all the time. Still. Why not a newer Feist or Regina Spekter song, since they weren't integral to the plot?

    Oh, and re: mix CDs. I still make them for my friends regularly. Even when I distribute them online, they're basically mix CD form. It encourages selectivity (only pick 16-18 songs) and has a more personal touch. If I say "here, I picked and arranged these 16 songs just for you," that means more than "here, I dumped a bunch of .mp3s on a flash drive and gave it to you." Sure, you could just pick 16 .mp3s, but making a physical CD makes it that much more likely that people will listen in the order you chose (and I choose carefully) rather than just dumping the songs in their library.

  18. Love these thoughts, Jandy. Thanks for the local perspective, which is much better-informed than mine. Everyone knows LA has a thriving music scene, and I'll just have to take your word on it that vinyl is as much a part of the culture as anything else.

    I really like your thought about The Smiths and the comparison to Nick and Norah. My guess is that not that much thought went into it, and that Marc Webb simply chose some of the songs that HE appreciated, whether as part of Tom's character or as backing music for scenes. I'm sure the songs they sang at karaoke were carefully selected as well.

    I haven't made a mix CD in a few years, but as I said in the last comment I still think it's a lot more "romantic" than browsing through record store aisles. That's what I fully bought the Nick and Norah set-up. You're right, it's the personal touch and order of songs that tells the person something about yourself that you can't really convey in words.

  19. Daniel, you don't know what you're missing. There's noting more romantic to me then browsing vinyl at Amoeba or other stores or garage sales. I still buy records, not for hipster cred, but because I love analog. As do others here in LA. And there are plenty of hot women in the record aisles. I've met them! None have been Zooey though...

  20. Haha, nice, Christian. Maybe you and Jandy will lock eyes sometime across the aisle at Amoeba, or reach for the same record at the same time - think of me then!

    Also, I like the idea of romantic garage sale browsing, and possibly making a connection with the seller of an item. How come THAT never shows up in movies?

  21. Didn't you see AMERICAN SPLENDOR? That's how R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar hook-up!

  22. Yeah, but wasn't that set in the 70's, when vinyl was "new"? ;-P


Related Posts with Thumbnails