David Gracon. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C. Sickels. Volume 2: Popular Music. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
The House of Records is a place that focuses on everything outside of the mainstream. We try to cover all the bases that are on the fringes of society.
—Fred, employee at the House of Records
Other stores are definitely directed more towards retail. It’s a numbers game. We’re certainly not a number game—if it were a number game, we wouldn’t be open.
—Gary, owner of the House of Records
During a recent visit to my hometown of Buffalo, New York, the local independent record store Home of the Hits closed its doors after 25 years of service. What might appear as a minor event in a city familiar with the disappearance of heavy industry and blue-collar employment, the store’s closing had repercussions on a comparatively minor, yet culturally significant level. A writer from the local alternative weekly paper Artvoice claimed, “Retelling the story (of Home of the Hits), from my journalistic standpoint, feels a lot like what I’d imagine it would be like to write the obituary of one of my best friends.”
As a high school student, Home of the Hits was a place that drew me out of the homogeneous suburbs, and it was here I discovered a variety of political views with the aid of various punk and indie bands, independent fanzines, and a store atmosphere critical of all things mainstream. The store was more than a place of commodity exchange as it reinforced an independent spirit, and it taught me to look beyond the mainstream media outlets in terms of music, culture, and politics—which are ideals that continue to this day. It was a store that provided cultural difference, and people could learn to think differently about music and culture because the overall orientation of the store was built around independence and independent thinking.
Home of the Hits disappeared, and I returned to Eugene, Oregon, where I currently live. Eugene’s version of Home of the Hits is a few blocks away from the University of Oregon campus on 13th Ave, a street characterized by a variety of coffee shops, vintage clothing stores, and other independent businesses. The House of Records is a mom-and-pop shop situated in an old house that has been in operation since 1971—and the store has a deep historical and social relevance for those involved. Like most independent record stores in the country, I was curious if this store is also facing a precarious economic future and sought to gain a deeper understanding of what independent record store culture means to its employees and customers. If such a store were to close, which is a distinct possibility, what would be the sociocultural implications of such a closure?
This topic is significant because it is symbolic of independent businesses in general, vis-à-vis the dynamics of cultural hegemony and corporate power; whether it be a family grocery store, used bookstore, or an old house that sells vintage vinyl records. Such places have a variety of complex meanings for people, and when they vanish, something happens to the people and communities involved. If the independent record store were to close its doors, do we have less cultural variety (availability of alternative and obscure media) as a result? Do those involved in such cultural practice feel alienated or a sense of anomie when such independent gathering and consumptive spaces disappear? Does the culture become more homogeneous without such specialty stores?
In considering the role of The House and Records and its possible fate, a number of questions, each of which has repercussions for thousands of similarly independent businesses around the country, come to mind: What is the sociocultural significance of an independent record store such as The House of Records? Does this shop and their related communities reinforce oppositional thinking and an independent spirit? How does such a space challenge or create cultural alternatives to processes of rationalization and McDonaldization? In what way is the House of Records a form of anti-McDonaldization?
A variety of theoretical approaches are appropriate for an exploration of independent record store culture. Perhaps the most important grounding theoretical framework is Ritzer’s (1993) notion of cultural McDonaldization, which uses contemporary examples to build upon Weber’s classical research on rationalization. This will be followed by a brief exploration of hegemony and notions of cultural resistance. First, let me briefly discuss the nature of my fieldwork.
Fieldwork data was gathered through a series of in-depth interviews (semistructured) with all the staff members (a total of 7) and a variety of customers of the store (a total of 13). Ethnographic fieldwork (between January and July 2007) was also utilized, where a written record of observations, daily activities, and interactions were examined—as well as the atmosphere, decoration, and design of The House of Records.
Two main research questions derived from the literature and fieldwork guided this research project. These questions are: What evidence suggests that independent record store culture is a form of anti-McDonaldization? What kind of interactions, relationships, and community within the store act as evidence of anti-McDonaldization?
McDonaldization and Hegemony
Ritzer’s (1993) concept of McDonaldization explores processes of cultural standardization that occur when notions of rationalization, or the processes of the fast food restaurant, have come to dominate more and more sectors and practices of everyday society. Rationalization is the process whereby an increasing number of social actions and interactions are based on considerations of efficiency or calculation rather than on motivations derived from custom, tradition, or emotion. This standardization is characterized by rationalized processes of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and notions of control, which Ritzer claims lead to “irrational consequences.” The negative effects of rationalization are a sense of dehumanization and disenchantment, and as Ritzer claims, “A fully rational society would be a very bleak and uninteresting place.”
Here are a few concise examples to illustrate the concept of McDonaldization. For example, instead of eating a healthy home-cooked meal and gathering with friends and family to consume it, people may substitute this tradition by eating fast food alone, a practice that evokes isolation and the consumption of unhealthy food. Likewise, instead of patronizing an independent record store, people are downloading music (usually alone), buying it online, or going to a rationalized chain store to obtain music, a place with limited cultural variety and a rationalized atmosphere. While fast food and the downloading of music are convenient and efficient, and the CDs at a chain store are usually more inexpensive, such practices come at a social cost. My observations at The House of Records highlights a series of social practices that actively challenge processes of McDonaldization, as the store is a space that constitutes custom, tradition, and emotion. Perhaps a culture with little cultural variety and opportunity to find or learn about music outside of corporate manufactured paradigms also contributes to a kind of social disenchantment or a society characterized by sameness.
An example of McDonaldized culture is the strip mall. A strip mall is a social space that is replicated in countless geographical locations throughout the country, and the products for sale are uniform at all stores, while locality is sometimes considered in terms of product availability. In terms of musical product, a chain store such as Best Buy, or a big box store such as Target, are McDonaldized in that they sell a specific musical product (usually top 40, mainstream music) and exclusively only sell CDs, as opposed to vinyl records. The workers are less likely to have a deep knowledge of musical history or know about the fringes of independent music—and they are less likely to forge strong bonds with specific customers, unlike the possibilities of human interaction that take place at an independent store. The workers wear uniforms and are trained to work in prescribed ways, and the stores share the same aesthetic and lack a unique atmosphere. These aspects of corporate music retail are suggestive of the homogenizing processes of McDonaldization, which, for those invested in independent music culture and consumption, is an undesirable place to be.
In the context of The House of Records, a polemic focal point is the corporatization of the landscape and the hegemonic power that corporate media (i.e., powerful record labels, distribution, corporate synergy of musical products) and box stores maintain, while the independent record store actively defines its own specialized niche within the fringes of musical culture—vis-à-vis dominant culture. The independent record store struggles to exist amongst a variety of social forces (mainly from digital downloading and the corporate dominance of chain stores, major label pricing tactics), and many stores have already closed or are closing. In the first five months of 2006 alone, 378 record stores closed nationally, against 106 closures in 2005, and there are now 25 percent fewer music stores in America than there were in 2003.
Building on Ritzer’s concept of McDonaldization, it’s clear that the independent spirit, noncorporate attitude, unique aesthetic and space, and cultural variety within The House of Records promotes and reinforces a different kind of human interaction and community based on shared belief systems of independence (which entails corporate resistance and the support of locality)—which are ultimately active processes of anti-McDonaldization. According to Gelder, modern subcultures are in opposition to the banalities of mass cultural forms, and subcultural identity is juxtaposed against the conformist pressures of mass society and massification. This sense of massification evokes an aura of alienation—a symptom of McDonaldization.
Hegemony is the power or dominance that one social group holds over others and dominance and subordination in the field of relations structured by power. Its effectiveness depends on subordinated peoples accepting the dominant ideology as normal reality or common sense in active forms of experience and consciousness. According to Gramsci’s theory of ideological hegemony, mass media are tools the ruling elites use to perpetuate their power, wealth, and status by popularizing their own philosophy, culture, and morality. To place this into a context of late-capitalism, the dominant music industry, in all its forms of production, distribution, consumption, and general omnipresence in culture, constitutes a market reinforced by hegemonic structures—and this market conceals the fact that other alternative musical cultures exist. Thus, hegemony is an incomplete process as power is never totalizing, and hegemonic structures can be countered and challenged. The selling and purchasing of music, and the gathering of community that exists outside the manufactured channels of corporate media and distribution, is an oppositional act and form of counter-hegemony. An agent can actively choose to reject or oppose mass-cultural music, even though its influence permeates music videos, mainstream radio, soundtracks for film, and it is widely distributed and promoted throughout the culture.
Building on instances of counter-hegemony and the practice of anti-McDonaldization, Hall’s Deconstructing the Popular discusses the concept of resistance in further detail:
The cultural industries do have the power constantly to rework and reshape what they represent; and, by repetition and selection, impose and implant such definitions of ourselves as fit more easily the descriptions of the dominant or preferred culture. That is what the concentration of cultural power—the means of culture-making in the heads of the few—actually means. In our times, it goes on continuously, in the complex lines of resistance and acceptance, refusal and capitulation, which make the field of culture a sort of constant battlefield.
Accordingly, empirical evidence from The House of Records examines similar lines of resistance and refusal and views such spaces as a cultural “battlefield.” It is a place where anti-McDonaldization is an active cultural practice. Anti-McDonaldization encourages a humanizing nature, cultural variety and difference, unique and nonrationalized spaces, opportunities for critical thinking, and aspects of community and human interaction.
Independent Record Store Culture as Anti-Mcdonaldization
During the turbulence of the counter-culture era, Gary, the owner of The House of Records, began the store by selling vinyl records out of his garage and later opened the store on 13th Ave. in 1971. While playing in bands and engaging in drug culture, Gary claimed the rationale for starting the store was, “To survive, I needed to be my own businessman. I didn’t want to work for anyone else.”
The House of Records is situated in an old house. It is blue with red trim, and the appearance is almost carnivalesque, like a funhouse. The store is located midway between the University of Oregon campus and downtown Eugene—a location characterized by heavy foot traffic and a steady flow of bicyclists. The location suggests locality, as opposed to being located on the periphery of town where the chain stores, strip malls, and shopping centers are located (where a car is often required). Outside the entrance is a colorful array of flyers and posters, advertising everything from the hand-scrawled basement punk show to a local film festival seeking submissions.
What makes The House of Records an obvious example of anti-McDonaldization is the utter uniqueness of the space. The House of Records is one of a kind. This is remarkable when considering the corporatization of the landscape, where a chain store in one part of the country resembles countless other stores with an identical or rationalized layout and design. One customer enthusiastically commented on the inviting nature of the store and claimed, “It’s like hanging out at somebody’s house.”
On a sunny day when the store tends to be crowded (as there tends to be more foot traffic on the sidewalk), the narrow paths separating the rows of records become impassable, or difficult to the point where it’s impossible to not rub bodies with the other shoppers. During the more quiet hours, customers are sprawled out on the floor, sifting through records, or sitting on one of the small blue chairs situated throughout the space. It was common to hear customers, while holding up a record or CD, shout out from across the store toward the counter while competing with the blaring music. One man yelled, “Is this any good?” while holding up a vinyl record.
Inside the store, the ambiance was often described by the employees and customers with vivid enthusiasm. Common responses included the phrases “upbeat,” “funky,” “inviting,” “really fun,” “warm,” and most common of all, “comfortable.” Other responses were poetic in description. Respondents adored the musty smell of vinyl records, the warmth of the natural lighting, and the sounds of the creaky old door and wooden floors. It’s a place where older customers relive the 70s and can “take their nostalgia trips.” Customers sometimes would spend hours comfortably sprawled out on the floor leafing through vinyl records while engaging in “an intimate kind of experience.” Such descriptions suggest the humanizing appeal of the store.
The inside of the store is characterized by wooden paneling and floors and the remnants of a former house where an old fireplace can be spotted behind the rows of used CDs; the vinyl section is housed in what used to be the dining room. The arrangement of the handmade shelves and racks of music are slightly off kilter, and navigating the space requires movement through some narrow corridors. While rationalized shopping spaces are designed to move a customer through the space in a highly calculated and controlling manner, all with the intention to sell, this arrangement is reminiscent of a flea market or an estate sale in someone’s home. While the aim is also to sell merchandise at The House of Records, it does not appear to be so calculated. Sam, a store customer claimed, “It almost feels like somebody’s bedroom, with a lot of records in it, you know. There’re posters up, and kind of like homey and laid back. Organized but not overly organized. Not too meticulous, so it has that kind of organic feel to it.”
The wood floors evoke a cozy home feel as the racks of tightly packed vinyl records nearly reach the ceiling. Several of the employees refer to the space as a library, rather than a store, which implies a different relationship to the objects and space—a place that implies learning and congregation, as opposed to sheer commodity exchange. The layout of the shelves and the handmade racks of music are a touch off-kilter, and many of the signs and CD dividers are hand drawn. The space is not psychologically designed or manufactured to sell objects, and the space feels intuitive, organic, and unique. Greg, a store employee for 21 years, said, “Kids love it here, because they can run around and hide in all the nooks and crannies.”
The walls are covered with old LP records, from James Brown to Devo, and promotional posters advertising dated mid-90s independent acts such as Bikini Kill and Unwound. Virtually all the walls of the store feature some form of visual stimulation in terms of album covers or posters. Little to no attention is given to new promotional or major label advertising, and the posters on the walls tend to advertise independent acts, which are sponsored by independent record labels. This lack of advertising suggests a different orientation toward the music industry, and the ideal that advertising in the traditional respect is not important. Sarge, a store employee, claimed, “We don’t have much in terms of promotional posters and that kind of stuff because there is no room for it. Here a lot of our demographic are collectors, and they just don’t need that kind of enticement.”
The music played in the store is not part of a marketing campaign or a manufactured form of Muzak. The counter is like an ad hoc DJ booth, as the employees have the choice to play music they believe in, actually like, and can likely discuss in great detail. The music includes everything from classical and free jazz to experimental post-rock and anything in-between. During one observation an employee played The Cure’s “Killing an Arab,” a punchy track that politicizes imperialist interventions in the Middle East, which suggests this store is free to promote whatever it wants, even political material. Such an atmosphere is unlikely to occur in a chain store with rationalized Muzak, where the employees have no control over the music selection and hearing music of a political nature is highly unlikely.
The actual structure is a former house that was finished in 1918, and it’s one of the oldest houses on the block. Because the actual structure has existed in Eugene for such a long time, the store acts as a historical continuum. Greg, a long-time store employee, suggested the architecture and space itself plays an important role in defining not only the unique aura of the store but a connection to and appreciation of history. Greg claimed:
One of the things about our society now, that is really troubling is that old is out and new is in. And old buildings are imploded or destroyed, and people are just so into new, and I think old things are important. But as a place I think that this is very important that we do our best to keep something like this alive, fix it up and conserve. We’re in the business of conserving old things (in terms of records and the store), and making sure that they still stay alive for as long as they possibly can.
This connection to history suggests a kind of resistance to social change and the speed of McDonaldization, where old structures are destroyed in favor of new buildings that may lack history or context, or the countrywide pattern where inner cities and small towns are gutted in terms of local business in the midst of urban sprawl and strip mall culture. The House of Records evokes a sense of center within Eugene, and the store acts as a social marker and a connection to local culture and continuity. Chico, a long time customer commented,
It’s been here for a long time, and I think sometimes in a really changing world, we like some things that endure. Respect for the past and respect, and openness to the new, I think they’re good concepts. And I don’t think, and I think House of Records has endured in, and flourished on it’s own merit, and not because it was in a lucky place.
Greg later discussed the notion of conservation within the store, and by this he meant stocking an eclectic variety of obscure musical product that perpetuates historical and cultural continuation. The store is keeping certain kinds of music in circulation (especially music that may only be available on vinyl, is out of print, or is not available on CD), and this reinforces cultural variety and difference that otherwise is difficult to find.
The cultural variety and musical difference stocked at the House of Records provides an outlet where independent music can circulate that otherwise may not be available through other mainstream or commercial outlets. The House of Records stocks a wide variety of genres ranging from punk, indie, jazz, folk, reggae, world music, spoken word, and hip-hop that cannot be found elsewhere in town. This also means selling music with politically challenging or “dangerous” content that wouldn’t be stocked at a corporate store because the ideas may undermine the chain’s image and ideology of a “family atmosphere.” Because the store does not necessarily focus on what is new, there is a degree of spontaneity and a sense of unpredictability in terms of what you could find in the store. If the musical product is not predictable, it is suggestive of a practice that counters McDonaldization.
The House of Records provides more cultural variety and adds diversity to a world of increased media consolidation and cultural homogeneity brought about by processes of McDonaldization. Independent music releases are assumed to be more creative, more political, and more diverse than those issued by major labels, and to have access to such media is a form of resistance to the dominant forms or homogenizing tendencies of chain stores. A customer claimed, “Most places are so immersed in the pop culture, that if you have interests off the center stage, they can be hard to find.”
Another aspect of the anti-McDonaldization of the store is that employees don’t have to wear uniforms, nor must they perform their work in prescribed ways—whereas a corporation has specific protocols and rules that are applied universally to its workers at each store location. While the store has a looser sense of rules, the rather free and uninhibited nature of the employees (for example, swearing, joking, and the ability to share their honest opinions) sets it apart from traditional corporate structuring and renders the store “authentic” in terms of subcultural capital. The grounding idea here is how the anticorporate views of the employees are integrated into how the store functions, which connects to an independent store atmosphere that appeals to the customer of the store. Thorton claims that crowds generally congregate on the basis of their shared taste in music, their consumption of common media, and most importantly, their preference for people with similar tastes to themselves, and that vague opposition is certainly how many members of youth subcultures characterize their own activities.
Resisting Values, Noncorporate Attitudes
The employees and customers at The House of Records overwhelmingly disdain corporate culture, and this is evident with the harsh criticism given to mall and big-box culture. The community of the store tends to share an anticorporate value system, which is a form of resistance toward the McDonaldization of culture. Those interviewed actively compared corporate culture (in terms of mall and chain-store culture) as being “sterile,” “plastic,” and “homogeneous.” Greg claimed, “We’re turning the entire culture into mall culture, and that’s just ridiculous.” Martha, a store employee commented, “This store is not at all corporate, which is great especially these days where you have people working in cubicles.” A long-time store customer claimed, “Everyone of those [chain] stores is the same, and they assume you as a customer are all the same. That kind of anonymity and distance I can do without.”
Customers describe corporate music stores as being extremely limited in terms of cultural variety and obscure items; it is assumed their employees lack a specialized musical depth and knowledge of musical history. Corporate culture is viewed as a homogenizing force and an unpleasant place to visit, whereas an independent mom-and-pop store is unique, one of a kind, and resonates on a more humanistic level. A customer claimed, “I run into people here, I visit people here, it’s a marketplace.”
Community as Anti-McDonaldization
The House of Records fosters community in a number of ways, although community is not something actively sought out, it more or less happens organically within the space. It is a place where other like-minded artists, musicians, and audiophiles congregate and spend time leafing through records and discussing music. Customers form relationships with other customers based on their shared interest in music culture. Martha, from the counter, explained, “People exchange phone numbers because they’re interested in the same sort of music.”
The clientele at The House of Records is relatively diverse. It’s a mixture of many different musical tastes and demographic backgrounds. Customers have included university professors and students, high school kids skipping school, a man with a tattooed face, older women seeking classical music, and a baby-boomer who nostalgically recalled shopping at the store back in the ‘70s (“back when the students were demonstrating in the streets”).
Most of the customers interviewed noted the importance of getting “knowledgeable” and “informed” information from staff as being very important. This gives the store “a cultural edge,” and customers want to create a relationship with the store as opposed to engaging in anonymous consumption. Such face-to-face interactions can lead to more than customer service, as several customers considered the workers to be friends, or familiar faces within the community, or adding to one’s subcultural capital. Customers who frequent the store have commented how they enjoy seeing other customers that they know within the store, or as one customer commented, “It’s like a little community within the community.”
Thus, the interactions associated with visiting a place where you are likely to encounter people that you know contribute to a shared group identity and sense of community, as it is a place that other like-minded people frequently visit. Buck, a former store employee from the 1970s, recalls some memories from that era: “I mean it wasn’t catering to radicals or anything in particular, but you know, there were a lot of shades of philosophies and ideas at the time, and people expressed themselves in a lot of different ways, and I think this was kind of a home to them all.”
Because customers place much trust into the taste and advice of the employees, much information is exchanged (sometimes the flow goes both ways, from customer to employee and vice versa) within the store, and because everyone involved is so passionate about music, such advice can lead to breakthroughs in terms of finding something new.
The House of Records offers an alternative musical education through face-to-face interaction. Russ, a University of Oregon freshman eager to learn more about the history of independent music, stood at the counter as Aaron, an employee, suggested a number of different artists to compliment his recent purchase of the Wire box set. For about 30 minutes, Aaron rotated a series of records with the attempt to introduce Russ to something new, something he had never heard before. The “student” patiently stood there, deep in concentration until a small grin formed on his face, almost blushingly. The explosive sounds of Mogwai blasted through the speakers. Russ appeared impressed.
Russ clearly put his faith in the expert advice of Aaron and kept waiting until he heard something he liked; he ended up special ordering a copy of Mogwai’s Young Team. The counter at The House of Records is an exchange of ideas and a place where people can be exposed to music they may otherwise not have the opportunity to hear. In a way, this counter is an informal education in fringe culture. It’s a place where customers receive a great deal of personal attention, have the opportunity to listen and learn about new and obscure music, and selectively make a purchase based on this education. The customers trust the opinions and recommendations of the employees. Sam, a regular customer commented,
Since I know people here, it’s nice to come in, and see what’s new, and see if they have any new recommendations. There’s a different sense of ideals behind what they’re doing. They’re like propagators of fine art, instead of counter monkeys. I like coming down here and looking and doing, rather than sitting in front of a computer.
For many customers, shopping at The House of Records is a weekly ritual. Many browse through the used record bins looking for the latest trade-ins, which are constantly circulating. On one particular Sunday, several customers commented that this is what they do every weekend, and the space is valued in terms of identity and one’s relational community. Herman, a customer for several decades, commented, “If this were in other countries, this would be called a marketplace. I don’t mean a place of selling and buying, but a place of social activities, and people mixing and meeting, and being friendly.”
Chico, a long-time customer, discussed the store as a space beyond commodity exchange and music consumption. This could be framed as the social relevance of the space or how the store acts as a subcultural marker of sorts, where people congregate and a sense of community pervades. For example, Chico claimed the store is kind of “detox,” or “like stopping in for a beer after work,” as the environment is relaxing and is a place to unwind from the stress of work and happily disappear into the shelves of old vinyl. This community feeling relates to his comments regarding The House of Records as a “family” and “home,” citing an experience of the store in the early 90s akin to “Thanksgiving,” a kind of family atmosphere. He referred to the store as “House of Recs,” as if talking to a close friend with a special nickname. He also described a situation where he will at times field questions from other customers (as recommended by the employees), which implies a more active participation in the space.
Another customer commented on the social aspects of music collecting and the social importance of the store—and what this revealed is the collective nature of record collecting and the importance of independent spaces. This relates to what Maffesoli described as the social nature of group development and how group dynamics are learned: “The ritual perpetuates itself, and through the variety of routine or everyday gestures the community is reminded that it is whole, or part of a tribe’s collective sentiment.”
For such a place to close would mean a lot, and this “collective sentiment” was clearly evident. Jordan, a customer claimed,
Well it’s something that me and all of my friends relate to. My friend Joe lives in an apartment just right across the street, and so we’d come over here and pick up records, so it’s a lot of what we talk about, and we share records and sit around and listen to records. It’s a collective part of me and my friends lives. If this place were gone, it would be like part of our life was displaced or gone.
Another customer commented that such independent stores give the community an important flavor, and without such spaces, the city or town lacks a particular spirit. Dan claimed: “If you don’t have a store like this a lot of people would say, what is there to do in town? I mean there are a lot of social things, you can go to a bar, but a music store, there’s something about it. It just gives you a feeling.”
Gelder claims that subcultures are always in some way nonconforming or dissenting. Through such views, the group gains cohesion and identity. The idea of keeping local business afloat and part of the community as an alternative to big-box stores and shopping malls is also of priority for many associated with the store. Many feel a sense of social responsibility and sense of cohesion in terms of supporting local business. A customer named Buck claimed:
I’m really involved in community, and involved in supporting local business, and I’m a union leader where I live down in Medford, and I always try to shop with local people and especially people who treat their employees well. This place represents that to me. I’m always glad to come here and spend my few dollars that I have available, and I sometimes defer purchases that I want to make in music until I get here, for that purpose.
Numerous customers commented that they like shopping at this store because they enjoy the interactions with the store employees and have, in some situations, forged friendships with them. I observed several customers enter the store and chat with the employees for a half hour or so without buying anything. While researching this store, I was asked to be in a band, to play a variety of records on my college radio show, and was invited to several concerts and events, all while being mistaken as a store employee. I also made a few musical recommendations to customers.
In terms of a more general independent spirit, the respondents gave several examples that are evidence of opposition in a broader cultural sense. For example, vinyl records can be construed as a form of cultural resistance to new technologies, as it is often considered “obsolete,” where they have been cited as keeping the store in business in the face of digital downloading, CD copying, and iPod culture. A customer named Jeff discussed how vinyl records connect with notions of community and interaction:
There seems to be a lot of file sharing on the net, and I was into that for a long time. Then I got to the point where I missed going to the record store, leafing through records, you know, actually having physical album there, and the cover art, and talking to someone about the music. I think all of that is part of a healthy experience in general, and much less isolating than being on your computer. I wanted to get back to a more human experience. Something more positive comes out of it (by shopping here), rather than sheer consumerism.
Customers take pride in shopping at the store because they are supporting local business, and they are willing to pay a few extra dollars for CDs they could find cheaper elsewhere or download for free. To shop in the store and chat with the employees is part of the experience, which is the sort of interaction that can’t occur online via computer. Hebdige claims it is basically the way in which commodities are used in subculture that delineates the subculture from more orthodox cultural formations.13 For example, vinyl record collectors may have a different appreciation for the tangible musical object, whereas someone who downloads music may not have such an interest, which is a common theme in the store. Or perhaps the music contains ideological or even political messages that strengthen group identity, whereas mass-cultural music is generally apolitical and marketed to a mass population, or “radio-friendly.”
It is also important to note that the store reinforces other fringe media outlets such as independent music labels, independent bands, film/video, and magazines. Independent music labels such as Merge, Touch and Go, and K Records share a similar do-it-yourself and mom-and-pop attitude as The House of Records and seek to cultivate an alternative array of musical releases on the fringes of society. Thus, we have independent bands being supported by independent record labels. These labels then sell their records at independent records stores where a network of independent communities reinforce each other.
According to Straw, in their reliance on small-scale infrastructures of production and dissemination, these spaces are rooted deeply within local circumstances, a feature commonly invoked in claims as to their political significance. This relates to The House of Records as they stock music from independent artists and indie music labels, which are small-scale infrastructures, as well as operate as an oppositional space in terms of dominant culture.
While much evidence suggests The House of Records fosters community, it is important to note that it can also be viewed as exclusive and not inviting to some. Greg noted that the store could be “too funky,” that the very nonuniform look of the store may keep some people away. While The House of Records is relatively diverse in terms of customers, there tends to be an overwhelming presence of males. One of the few female customers interviewed replied, “Sometimes it can be a little bit intimidating because there’s all these male employees, and being the only female in there, and there’re all these guys, so you sometimes feel a bit excluded.”
Independent record stores such as The House of Records are culturally important and representative of processes of anti-McDonaldization on several levels. First, such stores provide an outlet in which independent and alternative music can circulate, which otherwise may not be easily available through other mainstream or commercial outlets. Independent record stores provide more cultural variety and add diversity to a world of increased media consolidation and cultural homogeneity. The unique aesthetic of the space is a form of anti-McDonaldization because it symbolizes something unique and nonrationalized. To many, shopping at such stores is a form of corporate resistance because it reinforces a sense of locality, community, and independence from corporate culture. The store also signifies a connection to history and acts as a community marker of independence as it has been in existence since 1971.
Second, the type of social interaction that occurs at an independent record store fosters an independent community, which for many of those involved is a humanizing experience. In the eyes of the employees, the store is like a library (or as Martha said, “It’s like a crazy, chaotic rock and roll library”), where customers can seek out information about music, and an informal education on fringe music often occurs. Not only is it a place of commodity consumption but also a place where people can learn new information, and customers and employees forge friendships with each other. The employees have a very specialized or even expert knowledge of music and often recommend releases to their customers. Yet, at the same time, it is important to note the exclusive nature of such stores and that all people may not feel comfortable in such an atmosphere.
For a small group of subcultures, music enthusiasts, and independently minded people who prefer the cultural fringes of society, such store closures signify the loss of authentic community space. While obscure records can still be found and purchased on the Internet, such mediations and exchanges do not have the same sense of human interaction and community. The resurgence in vinyl production and sales may be an indication that small groups of people prefer picking through stacks of records in the hopes of discovering something new or unique, while the space in which the records are bought is just as important as the records themselves.
While it is estimated the profits at The House of Records are about half what they were in the early ‘90s, Greg remained optimistic about the store’s future, especially with the “obsolete” medium of vinyl in many ways keeping the store in existence. While the future of such shops is ominous, the culture will likely adapt to new cultural practices by finding new spaces in which to obtain a similar sense of culture. At the same time, as long as a niche market exists and a core audience of consumers remains dedicated to supporting such stores, the independent record store will continue to exist. On the other hand, the closure of independent record stores leads to increased cultural homogeneity and the McDonaldization of society. It would be one less cultural space in which to explore a subcultural paradigm of consumption and connect a like-minded community oriented around ideals of independent, or noncorporate, culture. The House of Records as a form of anti-McDonaldization encourages a humanizing nature, cultural variety and difference, unique and nonrationalized space, and opportunities for critical thinking and aspects of human interaction.
These days, the employees at The House of Records view the future of the store precariously—yet, they see the struggle to stay in business as resisting McDonaldized culture. In terms of the store possibly closing, Greg claimed, “I think for a customer, some of them would probably be driven to tears. I don’t want it to happen, and we’re going to make sure it doesn’t.” This statement frames the store almost as an act of cultural defiance, that to keep it going is an on-going struggle on the cultural battlefield. Greg went on to claim,
If you eliminate a place like this, where people can go to find out about music, buy it if they want to, chat with other people who are into music, you eliminate that, you’re just alienating more people. You know, a lot of people would get angry if this place went out of business. And we’re turning the whole culture into mall culture, and that’s just ridiculous.
The depths to which these folks are invested in independent record store culture signifies an ardent interest in the vitality and sustainability of businesses such as The House of Records. For such stores to close only adds to an ever-increasing society characterized by processes of McDonaldization, and the struggle to keep it going is in many ways a labor of love (as opposed to earning large profits and wages) and a social act of defiance in terms of corporate culture. The employees of the store keep it going because they truly believe in what they do, and the products they sell and the way they sell them reinforces a vital and oppositional cultural space. The hegemony of the culture industries limits not only cultural variety but also vibrant and unique spaces in which a community of music consumers can gather and share a sense of cultural togetherness and collectively resist the dominant modes of consumer culture. As Greg mentioned previously, the loss of such stores is not only “alienating,” which is symptomatic of McDonaldization, but it further accelerates a culture predicated on predictability, sameness, and “mall culture.”
The overall social effect of closing an independent record store is difficult to accurately gauge. When asked what it would be like if The House of Records were to close (along with the disappearance of its related culture), Fred, a store employee, touched upon the complexities of the human condition and its precarious relationship within a McDonaldized world. He claimed, “It’s suffocating. It would be like a whole organ of your body has died. And I think everybody feels it in some way or another. They may not know what’s causing their discomfort, but they feel it.”