RECORDS STORES: A LOVE LETTER TO THE HUNT AND MY TOWN SQUARE

On this record store day I though I should write something while I’m awake in the middle of the night because I’m not getting back to sleep anytime soon. And for me and many of my peers the record store was one of our, “town squares”. A place you went to hang out to get the news and gossip of the day and exchange ideas while also, of course upping your music quotient and possibly getting shamed for buying THAT pop album. And so here I am listening to my new musical obsession, Japanese City-pop (think AOR, light-disco, jazz fusion), recalling how much I loathed the dearth of Asian pop at all my local record shops growing up.

TBF there just was not a market for it where I grew up in the REAL east bay. That is the other side of the Caldecott tunnel where things get classic rock and country REAL quick. But in the 90s and 00s I was mildly obsessed with J-pop. Acts like Amuro Naime, Suzuki Ami, and the just exploding Hamasaki Ayumi. Yeah, I was into the girls more than the boys. This queer likes his divas.

In the mid 90s the internet was just starting to take a stranglehold on the culture but it was the wild west and sorting through any of it to find exactly what you wanted was a skill unto itself. And that skill has become even more necessary in order to dodge algorithms and things like fake news. YouTube and google weren’t even present yet so finding J-pop info on-line was… well… not easy. So I had to rely on physical stores. And living in the area I grew up in we only had Wherehouse music. For anyone who ever went into a Wherehouse music store you know it was um… lacking in variety to say the least. This was also where one went to by concert tickets and let me tell you scalper were not going to a Wherehouse music in middle of nowhere to scoop up all the Dave Matthews tickets. It was just a lot of people waiting in line.

However, my local Barnes & Noble, two towns over, did have a “world music” section. It was tucked in the corner back by the section called “new age”. It was not a big section but it was one of the first places I went on the off chance something from Japan would be waiting for me. Also, I just liked browsing by country because you never knew what sort of cool world sounds or a diva from a non English country you might come across. *Waves at Laura Pausini* And it was 1998 that my searching, somewhat paid off.

Usually what one found under the Japan section was Taiko drumming or some shakuhachi/koto zen-yoga music. But there it was, Modern Tokyo Connection, a snapshot of Japanese pop music of the time with some classics smattered throughout. Out of all the names I knew not a single one. And you could preview the abum either you had to take a chance with your time and you money.  But I didn’t care, if this got me even one song that was hyped up idol pop I’d be in heaven for days. Alas, it did not. It would be some years later before I would recognize that compilation was actually VERY well curated and that idol pop was not it’s goal. It was trying to present the broadest picture of the Japanese mainstream music landscape not just deliver me hit bubblegum bangers or theme songs to Japanese animated shows. Anthologies and anthology curation is a whole other topic I’m working on.

Being that it was a snapshot, many of the artists and songs were of their 90s era. But also some like Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, and Matsutoya Yumi were legitimate Japanese icons. And others like Hotei Tomoyasu and Karashima Midori would go on to be icons. Of course I didn’t know that then. All I knew was I was disappointed. But it was a start, I now had names. And many of the songs I really like now. Here is a favorite from that compilation:

It all basically sounds like various genres of western music from punk to disco to power-pop just sung in Japanese.

Coincidentally that same Barnes and Noble shop had a listening station where the staff had recommended not ONE but TWO artists I would come to LOVE. Jazz pianist Keiko Mastui, and musicologist Loreena McKennit. Neither of whom I would have discovered outside of that living in an area where The Steve Miller Band and Grateful Dead were kings. And people like Garth Brooks and Dave Matthews took over all the car speakers at my high school. And discovering those two artists led me down other paths.

If I was lucky enough to travel to a different country like Berkeley or San Francisco -Ha! Ha!- I could go to Amoeba and Rasputin’s. Both places with a modest world music section but again sorely lacking in Asian pop. It was mostly Brasil and Africa that got slots because the hippies and Peace Corp crowd were big in Berkeley. And frankly, it just seemed like people treated African music as some I’ve got a higher consciousness I’m more worldly and woke kind of thing. The music was amazing, but some of the people who were into that music were insufferable, dressed in clothes made from “natural threads”. Hispanic music had some real estate too of course considering the Bay Area’s demographic. I like Latin music for sure. But at that time the hunt was for Japanese pop! And at that time it never occurred to me to go to Japantown.

But the ability to physically browse is where a record store like Amoeba wins over Spotify and Amazon HANDS DOWN. You can’t accidentally stumble on what you are looking for on Amazon. You have to know what you want. And this brings me the dying art of “the hunt” and the used Vinyl/CD section. I would spend upwards of three hours going through these used bins just seeing what caught my eye. And in a place like the Bay Area, which is such a melting pot, people are always bringing in stuff from all over the globe. I once found a two disc compilation of Greek pop music from like 2004. I was SO DAMN excited. This is also how I discovered one of my ALL TIME favorite bands Kassav’ who invented the genre of music known as zouk.

But when it comes to Asian pop (and much of non-western music) unless you can read the language or know what you are looking for… even the used section is not too helpful unless you just take a shot in the dark (which I have been prone to do). And again you can’t take that shot in the dark on-line.

Side Note: Taking chance on music you find at a record store WAS and IS a huge deal. This is not Spotify or Youtube where you can click away for a monthly fee. You are laying down serious money, especially as a teenager or 20 something. And it may be an album you will not even like. However, I do believe this often forced you to give the music 2, 3, 4 or more chances unlike today where people just skip after 30 seconds. So the ability to grow into something and like it is also being lost. If I don’t like it right away it can’t be good so why bother giving it another listen.

So my shot in the dark that day was, “Sweet 19 Blues” by Amuro Naime. Months and months of going through the bins and FINALLY a name I recognized. But what really sold me was I actually recognized two names on the album. For on the track, “Body Feels Exit” was the name Sheila E.! OMG! What?! What was local Latin funk queen Ms. E doing on a 90s J-pop album?

It didn’t matter. If Sheila was willing to lay it down for a Japanese album it had to be at least decent. Now the thing with J-pop as I said is that it sounded like western pop but… Not. Quite. At least to my ears back then. It is hard to explain and it is not just the Japanese language. It is like Japanese know our music, they love our stars (and oddly LOTS of our jazz, rockabilly, and surf rock) but when they try to copy us it is just not quite the same. That is not a criticism it just explains why at that time I still had to “learn the language”. And I don’t mean Japanese. There is a whole discussion to be had on why one would ever listen to music in a language one does not speak, despite the fact people have been doing so for decades. *Opera enters the chat*

So that was the beginning. And then came Napster… and suddenly I had access to more J-pop than one would have time to consume! But I had NO idea how to look for it or even really who listen to outside the big three at the time; Utada Hikaru, Hamasaki Ayumi, and Naime Amuro. Though users who had J-pop at all generally had more of it. So I was able to find some more stuff. But that just led me back to the record stores, now knowing exactly what I was looking for. And in some cases to on-line record stores, like YesAsia that dealt specifically in Chinese and Japanese pop.

Around the time I found YesAsia in I think 2000 I went to China a year later and being the totally naive traveler I just walked out of my hotel and started strolling around and found myself in an outdoor market with an outdoor CD shop. If I had no idea what to look for in Japanese pop at the the time. In 2001 one I knew even less about Chinese pop outside one name, Teresa Teng (think the Linda Ronstadt of China). So all things being equal I went for the cutest girls on the cover, A-mei and Sammi Cheng. Both of whom would go on to be major stars. And as a lover of anthologies I came across what was labeled Ten Year Good Box. Lots of cuties for one price! This turned out to have the song 至少还有你 (At Least I Still Have You) by Sandy Lam. A ballad that was EVERYWHERE in China at the time. So owning that musical memory takes me back to certain places I was visiting when I heard the song overhead or the video on a screen at a bar. And as a result is one of my favorite songs ever.

Later in the trip while naively walking out in another market (this time in Lhasa) I heard a stereo playing The Vengaboys of all things. I followed my ears and wound up at another outdoor music stall. This was far less organized and I still wonder if it was a bootleg shop. But that is where I snatched up what I thought was a two CD music anthology of more Chinese pop hits but in fact was two discs of Chinese pop music videos of the era! It is quite something to tell people you own music videos for early 00s Chinese pop and rave music. Again, like Japanese pop, Chinese pop sounded western just in Mandarin or Cantonese but… Not. Quiet. And I couldn’t read any of the text. So I didn’t know who, what, when, where or why. It’s only in the past couple years thanks to Shazam and other such sites. I’ve nailed down the artists and song titles.

There is just something about stacks of albums or CDs whether organized neatly or just a total haphazard mess that makes record stores an integral part of being a music fan for me. Browsing through it all and just seeing what pops up into view. Even in the $1 bin. The amount of artists and albums titles I’ve written down over the years just because an album cover looked cool or an album title sounded cool would fill a note book. All things that caught me eye and made me curious to further expand my pop knowledge base. And if you get away from the chain stores (even the smaller chain stores) record stores get real quirky REAL fast.

While in Belfast I came upon a record store where the first floor was decked out like a psychedelic bus selling colorful trinkets and funky hats. It was like an Irish Burning Man superstore. But all the music was on the two cramped floors above. Walking up the stairs the store went from trippy to barren walls and a dimly lit space REAL quick. And soon it was just crates and shelves of records and CDs filling the tight space in your basic genres of rock, soul, pop, jazz traditional Irish… There was the owner talking to another customer who, judging by what little I overheard, was definitely on the hunt for something specific. The owner clearly the type of person who knew exactly where every last record was.

Going to a record store in another country is a gold mine of stuff you can’t get where you live. But I had limited funds at that time and limited time. So in a weird twist I left with a two-disc compilation of American funk dressed in pink packaging. Chosen largely because it had Irma Thomas singing a cover of, “Lady Marmalade”. As a huge Irma fan I did not know she ever recorded that song. But I also wanted it because it was curated by somebody from Ireland, so it was their take on our funk genre. Now every time I look at the pink cover of that anthology I get sent back to Ireland.

I’ve have an anthology of Afrikaner music I picked up in Cape Town at a mall (that compilation is um… If you know what schlager is… yeah…). All these little snapshots of eras of another country’s pop music pulled from record stores. And this matters. I would not have been able to have these and other experiences on-line. When I go to Italy I want to browse Italian record stores. I want to see what is on their shelves and you can’t do that on Amazon it just doesn’t work, especially if you can’t read the language. And definitely cannot do that if records store all go away because people just don’t support them anymore.

And these stories don’t even scratch the surface of the communal aspect of talking with other music fans, often strangers, you run into at a record shop and having great debates or being turned onto something new just by asking questions. Record store music snobs can be insufferable but they do have their place (looming over you in superiority). And everyone has their grand wizard who gave them their first real musical education. For some it is an older sibling, for me it was local radio DJ Dave Morey, for others is it the women behind the counter at the basement bin bonanza telling you that if you like Joni Mitchell you better buy everything Laura Nyro ever did. There was a period in my late 20s and early 30s where every time I bought something at a record store I would ask the cashier what they were listening to and write it down to check it out later and now I know who Flaco Jimenez is just to pull one name out of a hat. Asking these kind of questions on-line now seems to result in expected answers because people live in echo chambers and their music palettes are less diverse than those of previous generations (despite access to everything, everywhere, all at once).  If just seem like we got exposed to wider varieties of sounds by way of record stores, radio DJ, and even variety shows on TV.

I am glad vinyl is having it’s moment again. Yeah it’s often a cash grab and the quality of the pressings are questionable but those reasons aside I am just glad to walk down my street and see teenagers walking out of my local record stores with one or two round magic discs in their hands, whole sonic worlds contained on two sides of wax. Because I know first hand when you go into a record store, even if you have a specific game plan to get in and get out… you don’t. The space compels you to browse and hang out a little longer if nothing else because on the way to your chosen target something on shelf or on the all the wall calls you over and you stare with a What the **** is that?! Or even maybe mocking glace at the outdated fashion choices artists were wearing on the album covers.  But you buy it as joke anyway and then get home and put it on and suddenly you are now in the arena of Luther Vandross’s satin sheets or some Sun-Ra adventure into space.

I mentioned the listening stations before as another place that helped me get outside of my own lane because they were often curated by the staff. In fact, listening stations were where I first heard the debut by Norah Jones and The Chicks Wide Open Spaces (and at the time declared both would be HUGE records). But also important was the music the staff chose to blast over head throughout the store. So while you were shopping you were forced to consume somebody else’s music tastes. Usually, but not always the choices of the insufferable snob. And that’s another thing Amazon or Youtube or Spotify doesn’t do- force music on you that is outside your comfort zone. For me, it was another way names and albums got written down. There were also walls decorated with pin ups, concert posters, t-shirts or little post cards stapled up advertising upcoming local shows. Just more bits of musical information to consume and inform you.

I feel like record stores are now simply thought of as just some place that sold records you wanted to buy, be it new or used. But for anyone of who visited a record shop on a regular basis you know that getting the record you wanted may not have even be a priority. Many times you just went in to browse and see what was there. But many other times you went in with one record in mind and came out with three records except the one you came to get. Because for me at least more often that not I went to get the record I didn’t know I wanted. And many more times I just went to say, “Hi”, see what was going in the music world, and get some news of the day. All this while drinking my soda and being told Madonna sucks and I should go listen to Radiohead. I never got around to Radiohead. But I did finally get around to Japanese pop and was told by some record store sensei Ayumi Hamasaki sucks and I should listen to city-pop for, “real musicians”. That’s just fine by me. I like city-pop and Ayumi at the same time because I browse all the isles in the record store not just one. And so should you.

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