Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Electric Cinema At My Eclectic Record Store

In a story about country radio the other day, The Tennessean quoted country musician Clay Walker.
Then, nearly 20 minutes into the hour-long discussion, after not having said so much as "hello," country musician and panelist Clay Walker casually piped up.

"I miss payola," Walker said. "When I came out in 1994, you could take a guy out to a ballgame, buy him sneakers and pay for his kid's private school and you'd form a great relationship. These days, I mean, it's become holier-than-thou at every radio station you go to. They can't accept anything."

Immediately for me, one album comes to mind: Robin Crow's Electric Cinema.

Back in my record store days, we all felt like WKRP's Johnny Fever when it came to deciding what tapes and CDs to play over the in-store system. We played what we liked and it often helped to sell the under-appreciated artists that our ears usually gravitated to. Because of co-workers Tina and Elena, a lot of customers (and me) knew how good bands like Nirvana and The Flaming Lips were months before the rest of the world did. I made sure to play Jellyfish as often as possible when I first discovered them, and am proud to know that I expanded their fanbase by a good 15 people or so.

The power of in-store play is awesome. Customers usually suspect that at least one of the record store employees is a fan of the music playing and will sometimes seek out that worker to talk about what he or she is hearing. It often translates into a sale but it feels very organic amidst all of the commerce. My favorite part of it was when that trust in taste part of it came into play. More than a few regular customers would eventually just come to me, ask me what I liked, and buy it sight unseen (or sound unheard).

Anyway, it was just a matter of time before we had our Dr. Fever mojo taken away. That Cincinnati disc jockey successfully resisted having to play songs from a list not of his choosing, but we record store employees weren't so lucky. In May of 1992, an excellent album of instrumental guitar was released by Robin Crow. It wasn't unlike a Joe Satriani record. It had a lot of fire and energy and sounded amazing. There was only one problem with it though. It was decided by others that we had to play it. Daily. Three times daily. And there was money involved. If someone from some marketing company called and asked us what we were playing, and we answered "Robin Crow," we got paid.

Some of us resisted more than others. Regardless, we heard that CD a few times a day. It could have been worse. At least it was a good piece of music. Although I think it was tougher for the girls who had brought me Nirvana and the grunge scene. Our district manager used to tease the staff at our store as being the most bohemian of all of the Nashville stores. I think he was mainly referring to the girls, but it was true that most of us bristled at the thought of corporate interference. Never mind that we were here as much for the paycheck as for our love for music. Regardless of any bristling, we still managed to play that CD a few times a day for however many weeks the promotion ran. Some of us answered that phone call for its coming reward, while others of us listened to that disc play for free.

Remembering back to those days after reading the Clay Walker quote, I can't help but wonder if I was a sellout for playing the disc for some possible cash or if I naive for not holding out for sneakers and a private school education for my kid.


Scott said...

"I will now sell four copies of the 3 E.P.s by The Beta Band."

Lynnster said...

I will never have to write a post about my days working in the record store ever, I'll just link to here. Minus the pay-for-play bit - thankfully we never went through that, at least not while I was there - you captured the experience perfectly.

Except for one other thing with me - I usually got overruled on the in-store play (or else I was just too nice and/or wanted to keep the peace). The Gurus' Magnum Cum Louder came out that year but I only got to spin it once and someone coerced me into replacing it with something else before it was over.

Before I ever worked in a record store, though, as a customer a whole lot of my purchases were made solely due to in-store play, and many some of my very all-time faves... such as Gang of Four's Entertainment!, picked up the first time because it just happened to be playing when I was in the store. (Naturally it was the cassette I bought that day, which has of course been replaced with the CD now.)

Anonymous said...

i remember payola from back in the
early '60s and also, as you said,
in the late '80s. it's truly an
awful thing. i would imagine that
bobby could have told you a lot more bad things about it than i ever could. don't know if you ever
knew this or not, but Clay Walker
has MS as well. he's working very
hard with the MS society. with all
the new medicines out now, people
who have recently been diagnosed
have so much better of a chance of
living a much longer time than bobby ever did.