Skyscraper Magazine » Brendan Toller: We Need Those Record Stores
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We Need Those Record Stores
By Jared Thiele April 11, 2011

As music fans and independent record store supporters prepare for the fourth annual Record Store Day this Saturday, April 16th, we here at Skyscraper thought we’d dust off this previously unpublished interview with filmmaker Brendan Toller, who directed, wrote, and edited the documentary I Need That Record!.

With over 3,000 independent record stores put out of business this past decade, Brendan Toller couldn’t help but notice all his favorite places to buy music were disappearing. So, he grabbed his video camera and hit the road to find out why stores were shuttering their windows all over America and what it means for independent businesses as a whole. The result is Toller’s documentary, I Need That Record!: The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store, which was completed in 2008 and released on DVD in 2010 (MVD Visual).

The film features commentary from many notable music figures, including: Chris Frantz (Talking Heads), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Bryan Poole (Of Montreal), Mike Watt (Minutemen), Patrick Carney (The Black Keys), Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group), Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers), Glenn Branca, punk author Legs McNeil, political theorist Noam Chomsky, and the heads of several record labels. Also included are the employees and patrons of record stores across the United States.

In this phone interview dating to the first Record Store Day in April 2008, Toller talks about his inspiration for this self-produced documentary, what he wanted the film to center on, and what the filmmaking experience taught him about where Americans spend money.

Skyscraper: Why’d you choose record stores as the focus for this film?
Brendan Toller: I grew up in Portland, Connecticut, next to Middletown, which was a bigger city, and they had a record store called Record Express. It was an independent chain across New England with about 13 stores, but around 2003 they were down to one store, which was the store closest to my house. I was actually in Los Angeles for an internship when I heard they were closing, and immediately felt like I needed to pick up a camera and do something about it. I sent my dad down thereand told him to interview the manager, Ian. He got all this footage of the store closing, the manager smashing the CD racks. It was weird when I got back to see the place just empty; it looked like any other room, and not the place that I always saw it as. It was was shocking to actually see it closed, and then to find out it was going to become a tanning salon – it just felt like a low blow.

That realization got the ball rolling. So, I had the idea, and decided to push through with it. I came up with a dream list of people to interview. I remember The Evens happened to be coming through Hartford, so after the show I stood in line to talk to Ian MacKaye [pictured below], told him about the movie and asked if I could get an interview. He agreed, so I kinda lucked out with that, because after you bring up Ian to certain people they agree [to participate], because they feel like they can’t say no.

Skyscraper: What kind of people did you try to talk to for this documentary?
BT: I have about 50 hours of interview footage, which is about 30 to 35 interviews. It’s a lot of record store people, some activists, some artists and writers, label people. But mostly it was record store people from across the country. I just went city to city, store to store, talking to people whose businesses were closing, people whose stores were thriving, and just trying to get a sense of what was going on out there. I think people’ll say the obvious answer is downloading, but I knew it was much deeper than that. There’re tons of reasons why these stores are closing, you know? Big-box stores, the state of FM radio, music journalism, major labels. It’s all these different reasons.

Skyscraper: How do you feel big-box music stores are affecting independent shops?
BT: It’s a much larger issue than just record stores. It’s the homogenization of the business world. How many cities across America do you see the same stretch of stores? The same McDonalds, same Best Buy, same Wal-Mart? The danger is that it’s taking the character of America away, and it’s threatening independent stores of all kinds. It used to be a dream to start your own business, and now it’s very, very hard to do.

As far as record stores versus big-box stores, I think it’s Wal-Mart that sells one-in-five of the CDs sold in the U.S. But you walk in and their selection sucks; it’s like two racks of terrible shit. You can’t even browse. And I wonder, “Do people even know there are still cool record stores left?” You’ll be lucky to find anyone at those big-box stores that’s going to give a damn about the music they sell. I remember Best Buy had some deal with a Paul Westerberg release. When I got down there to buy it, I had to wait an hour-and-a-half for someone to fish it out of the back room, and this was something that was promoted in their Sunday flier. I would have much rather gone to an independent store where people know who he is, and where they actually care about that kind of thing.

Skyscraper: But Best Buy and Wal-Mart always have the lower prices…
BT: Well, price is a huge motivator. When the Middletown Record Express closed, I apologized to the manager [Ian, pictured above], because for years I had gone to Best Buy to get certain titles. But he said, “Don’t be sorry, that’s your money. You spend it where you want.” It was in that moment I realized each time we spend money somewhere we’re casting a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.

Title Card & Film Stills: Courtesy Brendan Toller/Unsatisfied Films

Visit: Brendan Toller | I Need That Record
Purchase: Insound | Amazon