There's a record store in Pioneer Square that doesn't sell records. There's a small stage for musicians and DJs to perform and racks of LPs for "customers" to peruse, with Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits among the selections. On a recent visit, soul music was booming, and I noticed some writing on the wall: "Mourn, Celebrate, and Revolt?"
The Record Store, as it's called, is a traveling installation put on by the Seattle Art Museum and Olson Kundig Architects. It's "inspired" by Theaster Gates' The Listening Room exhibit at SAM, which features a long row of records, available for the sampling, obtained from Chicago record store Dr. Wax after it closed in 2010. In a promotional flyer, OKA owner Alan Maskin says the firm was intrigued by SAM curator Sandra Jackson-Dumont's idea that "vinyl records can be a catalyst and tool that people work with in order to understand other narratives and perspectives. We are also excited by the idea of bringing people together around the culture of vinyl record and record players."
It is not a subtle point The Record Store and The Listening Room are trying to make: Record stores are dying, and with them an experience that brings together community members for discussion and interaction. Unfortunately, both installations are painfully out of touch, overstating the misguided notion that people no longer buy CDs and LPs and ignorant of Seattle's unique musical infrastructure of clubs, bands, shops, and labels.
As listeners have migrated to mp3s (legal and otherwise), music stores have indeed struggled, and some have closed, including Seattle's legendary Bud's Jazz Records; once a stone's throw from The Record Store, it receives no mention in either exhibit. But the experience that The Record Store eulogizes is not an anachronism. The larger area record stores, like Sonic Boom, Easy Street, and Silver Platters, host in-store performances and feature significant vinyl offerings. And many of the records on display at both exhibits can be found in the bargain bin at Capitol Hill's Everyday Music.
Nationally, vinyl sales have seen a resurgence in recent years, and Seattle's Fleet Foxes is one of the medium's best-selling artists. Independent retailers count on the sale of new and used LPs for a significant chunk of their bottom line. And chains like Best Buy, Target, Hot Topic, and Urban Outfitters have gotten in on the vinyl game, too.
In his artist's statement, Gates says "The Listening Room, Juke Joint, shebeen, shack, and lounge have been important spatial types in the fabric of our cities that allow us room to engage one another. It cannot be lost." But while the experience isn't thriving in Seattle as it once did, it's far from lost, as the installations suggest. Mike Batt, owner of the local retail chain Silver Platters—which, by the way, is selling albums like Radiohead's OK Computer ($8.99) and Velvet Underground's Loaded ($6.99) for less than they retail for on iTunes—recently told me that he sees a "tabloid-like fascination with the struggles of the record industry and record stores. The more the press runs with it, the more it sets in people's heads as being so, and is possibly causing the public not to look into shopping at record stores."
In other words, if you want the experience of discovering new music and ideas over a crate of LPs while a band plays in support of their latest record from a nearby stage, bring the $15 it takes to get into SAM to a local record store. They'll be happy to sell you anything you like.