SAM's Listening Room and "Record Store" are Painfully Out of Touch With the State of the Music Industry and Seattle's Unique Scene

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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 pursue: Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits are among the masses. On a recent visit, soul music was booming, and I noticed some writing on the wall that read: "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 obtained from a deceased retailer in Chicago that are available for the sampling. 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 are painfully out of touch, overstate the misguided notion that people no longer buy CDs and LPs, and are 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, which was once a stone's throw from the Record Store installation before closing in 2008, yet fetches no mention in either exhibit. But the experience that the Record Store eulogizes is not an anachronism. Sonic Boom, Easy Street, and Silver Platters are the larger of the area record stores that 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 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 signifcant 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." While the experience isn't thriving as it once did in Seattle, it's far from lost, as the installations suggest. If anything, the installations' perpetuation of the the idea that the record stores is a dinosaur -- which one local retailer recently told us causes "the public not to look into shopping at record stores" -- could be bad for the stores practicing the experience Gates is trying to preserve.

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.

 
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