Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Last Days Of The Record Store AKA If You Want To Buy A Sam Cooke Album Where Do You Go?

This topic has been done to death in recent years. It’s been exhaustively researched and veterans in all aspects and fields of the music business have been interviewed at length. Artists have made their feelings on the subjects known as have those who owned the box stores and chain stores that have bit the dust. I’ll explore the one aspect that none of them have done yet...what it was like to work at a box store/chain record store just when they were on their way down and how I jumped ship before the end finally came.

As a kid, I used to go to the neighborhood record store, Skippy White’s (when it was still on Mass. Ave in the South End) in order to get the newest Rap tapes. The tradition was started by my older brother Dave when we were coming home from school every Friday (he bought tapes on Fridays so he could rock them all weekend long). We’d go in and check The Source (back when it was a yellow two sided sheet of paper, mind you) real quick and then tell dude behind the counter which tapes we wanted. Tapes ran from $8 to $10 dollars a piece and from 1986 to 1988 when we wanted to cop a new tape, all we did was trek those 1 1/2 blocks down the street to Skippy White’s...until we realized that the Tower Records on the corners of Mass Ave. and Newbury Street had a much bigger store, much wider selection and last but not least, the big draw....they’d put new releases on SALE!

My brother was pissed when he saw Ice T’s “Power” on sale at the new Tower Records store for $6.99 when he just paid $8.99 for it at Skippy White’s. “I’m gonna have to start hikin’ down here and see what’s on sale first” Dave said as he simultaneously scanned the store for scattered ass (that was the other draw). Once my big brother and financial backer graduated from high school and moved out to go to Northeastern University (which was a 15 minute walk from our house), the burden fell on me to support my own burgeoning Hip Hop addiction. How in fuck was I supposed to cop all of the Sources, Rap Pages, Electronic Gaming Monthly’s and pay for my Nintendo Power subscription? The answer was clear...Sell pause mixtapes that I made on my radio at home.

I had this ill radio that all of my family members bought me as a present when I did really well on the entrance exam that allows students to enter one of the exam schools in Boston. I was accepted for admittance into Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in America and one of the most racist (I meant “prestigious”). Needless to say, the only good things that came out of my 5 years in that hell hole were some lifelong friends, enough material for several books and movies and me learning every aspect of how to be a bootlegger/mixtape personality without ever talking over a track. My school was for grades 7-12 and damn near everybody in school would come to me to make tapes. I knew release dates and liner notes better than what they were teaching in class...While I had some classmates that dreamed of getting doctorates and had aspirations of writing for the Harvard Lampoon one day, I had aspirations of writing rhymes like the ones that would bang in my Walkman on the iron horse ride home.

My friends and I would take the train to the Symphony (dint da dint dint din!) stop on the Green Line and walk down Mass Ave until we got to Tower Records. There we’d browse the magazines, and spend mad time just going through all thetapes and the vinyl section. If you asked the employees a question, they knew the answer. If they didn’t the managers knew every goddamn thing else you needed to know. Customer service was a priority and the customer usually went home satisfied. About five years later I became one of those people. I was working overnight at a Super Star Market at the time back in the summer of 1998 and I went to Tower Records to cop a graf magazine and the Soundbombing CD.

I was standing next to a girl who asked an employee a question that he didn’t know the answer to. I answered her question, found what she was looking for and told her where to find the artist’s older work under a different name (I think it was Tricky/Nearly God or Bjork/Sugarcubes/Kukl or some shit). She went away happy and 30 seconds later that same employee just handed me an application and said “We have openings coming up because all of the college students are going home for the summer”. That was great for me because I was sick of stocking mountains of baby food and spending hours in an empty 18 wheeler breaking down cardboard boxes for recycling purposes. I filled that application out that day and dropped it off, picked up my last check from Star Market that Friday and left my two washed shirts, nametag and pricing guns in the break room with a note that said simply “I Quit” and crossed my name off the work schedule.

Back in those days the economy was so good that you could quit a job and get another one that same week! I haven’t been able to do that shit since George W. Bush got into office. One day after I cashed my last check , I got an interview from Tower Records for the video floor. I said “Fuck it, a job is a job” and went. I was interviewed by this huge dude named Joe who seemed like he stepped right out of the Big Lebowski. After about 5 questions he said “How soon can you start?” I said “How EARLY can I start?”. He told me that right after I processed my information I could start training. I had all my info on me so I went down to the basement to begin processing. I also noticed that on my way downstairs I saw a bunch of the people that I recognized from working there signing stuff, recieving checks and saying shit like “Bye!” and “It’s been real!”. I didn’t realize THAT many people would be gone, then I walked into an office and saw about 8 other people signing stuff already. Apparently we were all new employees that had been hired that day.

After my ID’s were copied and all of my information was processed and I had my sign in name and Employee Number (my store Social Security number) I could begin training. I was trained that same night by a girl named Jen. That same night right before we closed, this woman wanted preferential treatment for some reason or another and Jen told her “Miss, there are six people in line ahead you. Please be patient.” The woman claimed to know the owner and some big people at MTS Inc. and she’d have her job. Jen said “Well if you DO know someone at MTS Inc. then tell them that they need to have their asses kicked for paying their employees such low wages!”. The next day I came to work at 4 to work until closing and Jen came in right behind me. They asked her to go into office as soon as she came in the door, I mean the second she entered the store. They told me to wait outside before I came in to sign in.

About 5 minutes later Jen ran out the front door pissed off screaming “Those motherfuckers just fired me!” Apparently that woman from last night DID know the store’s general manager as well as the regional manager. She complained to them both and Jen was promptly fired. That should've served as a foreshadow of the shady shit to come in the future. I didn't care at the time, I finally had a job where I could actually apply all of the knowledge I'd acquired over the I get a free video rental account (3 at a time, 3 day limit) and an employee discount at a place where I didn't have to wear a wack ass bright blue company shirt to work.

When I went to sign in for the day I began to wonder what I got myself into. I didn't want to pop off at anyone and do anything to cause me to get fired so I tried to stay under the radar as much as possible. It was an exercise in futility and eventually everyone realized that I wasn't the average employee. I also found out that our floor manager (a woman named Bella) had a grudge running against Jen for a year because she called her the C word repeatedly for about 30 seconds in public after she denied her a smoke break (I heard the full story and it was warranted...I realized that it was REALLY warranted after my time at the store was done).

The store was doing well on all floors. We were selling a fair amount of DVD movies but we weren't renting them out yet. I was one of the proponents of renting them out because they were selling so briskly (we still had a Laserdisc section and we still carried the Laserdisc fanzine for God's sake!). In the summer of 1998, Pop music was back with a fuckin’ vengeance as the Spice Girls were moving a scary number of records. The age of Grunge Rock and Underground Hip Hop were done and now boy bands like the Backstreet Boys, NSync, 98º and Hanson were hot.

Not only that, but albums by Snoop Dogg, DMX, Lauryn Hill and Jay-Z all topped the charts as well as albums by Marilyn Manson, Alanis Morrisette, Jewel, Madonna, Ricky Martin, Lenny Kravitz, Usher, Master P (and everybody on No Limit), Brandy, Monica, Korn, A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, OutKast, Goodie Mobb, Wyclef Jean, Canibus, Destiny’s Child, KCi & Jojo, Natalie Imbruglia, Jon B, Cappadonna, Natalie Merchant, Timbaland & Magoo, 8Ball & MJG, Dave Matthews Band, Hole, Cher, R. Kelly, Everlast, Garbage, Dru Hill, Mya, Busta Rhymes, Flipmode Squad. Sheryl Crow, Jagged Edge, X Scape, Keith Sweat, Fat Joe, etc. all ended the year with RIAA plaques on their walls. The point I’m making is that people were still coming to the record store to buy CD’s and they wer coming out in droves to our video floor to rent VHS tapes. Little did we all know that in less than 2 years the end of both the box store and video store was looming around the corner like a hangman’s noose swinging slowly back and forth over the gallows.

I was getting paid $5.50 an hour but I got paid time and a half for Sundays and holidays (from Thanksgiving until January 2nd every employee made time and a half). To make matters worse, I only got paid every two weeks so I had to come up with ways to make that work for me. For my first four months working at Tower Records I was scheduled to work on the book s/magazines and video floor from 4PM to closing (midnight) every weekday for a full 40 hours a week. The thing was that every weekend my friends from the music floor that went to Berklee College Of Music always had a project to finish or someone had a student film to make or a show to do...I would cover all of their shifts on the weekend. It was then that I eventually learned all the ins and outs of the store and the managers all found out that I not only knew a shitload about films and movies but music as well.

The crazy part was that during the weekend people always had to leave and they were always shortstaffed. This meant that I could come in for someone that opened on Saturday at 8 AM and end up there until closing covering for other people and filling holes all weekend. I often ended up working between 100-120 hours every two weeks (especially during inventory). They also allowed you to get an $100 dollar advance on your next weeks check and they just subtracted it from your next check. I’d do this every week because that $100 dollars always ended up being my Sunday pay anyways.

We had these midnight sales every time there were big releases, it was then that you saw the corporate side of the record store as opposed to the fun side illustrated in movies like “Empire Records” (a movie that Joe hated). When Titanic was going to come out the following Tuesday, we received a truck full of promo standups and materials for it. We had CASES of the VHS in regular and widescreen (you’d be surprised at just how few widescreen VHS tapes were sold and the subsequent arguments that happened at the point of sale between movie buffs and regular consumers over them) versions all in these cardboard Titanics....We were ordered to play the movie NONSTOP on the video floor from Monday until midnight on Wednesday. We ended moving damn near all of the regular versions and we sent back about 80% of the initial widescreen order for credit towards future rental purchases.It was clear to the employees that it was all about making that money hand over fist while you could and striking while the iron was hot.

We were used as impromptu roadies for in store performances and in some cases crowd control and security for whoever did an in store. I was security for Jay-Z during his in store for “Hard Knock Life Vol. 2”, I was also security for Black Sabbath when they did their instore (I was put in charge of Ozzy Ozzborn and the guitarist...Ozzy took two puke breaks, he was trashed). I was made crowd control for Cher (which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone as a fulltime job), I had to be security for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones once (their lead single is an asshole), and once I was asked to be crowd control for Joey McIntyre during a photo shoot...I have been trying to erase that day from my memory since to no avail.

While the job did have obvious perks, such as some semblance of celebrity status amongst all of the people that visited the place (which was a LOT of people) regularly, we were getting EXPLOITED. The amount of work and the type of work we were often asked to do (like giving some poor schmo the resealer and sending them to the basement with no ventilation to re shrinkwrap a pile full of returns with no defects so they could be resold on the sales floor). I was able to get over because I worked all the goddamn time and I was caking had over fist. The one thing that irked me more than everything that Newbury Comics down the street ALWAYS had the CD’s that we couldn’t order for whatever reason...even with my 35% employee discount, CD’s ended up costing me 20¢ MORE than Newbury Comics’ sales prices for new releases. The discount worked much better for video tapes and vinyl. We were also allowed free magazines provided we subjected them to cover tears and signage by the person in charge of magazines....since I was really in for Hip Hop magazines (especially grafitti mags) I either had to buy my magazines or just become extremely friendly with the girls that worked in that department...needless to say I still have shoeboxes full of magazines from 1998 to 2001 and they ALL came from Tower and they all have covers on them.

At first, the store was into hiring competent, knowledgeable employees that prided themselves on good customer service. We all got along pretty well and they was a diverse group of kids and young adults working there. We had Goths working next to Hippies. We had Korn fans working next to Hole fans. We had Kevin Smith fanatics working next to Terry Gilliam fanatics. Company Flow supporters would file returns alongside Puff Daddy fans. Prince fans would alphabetize the porn wall right next to Michael Jackson fans. Nobody was wasting nobody. It was a miracle, and miracles are the way things ought to be.

I slowly noticed that things were changing in our little utopia because we kept being called in for these store meetings in the basement and management types kept showing up for spot checks periodically. Our managers told us to be on our "best behavior" when they were around. We were all like "We work in a fuckin' record store!". We couldn't wrap our brains around that concept considering that all we did was act up and wild out all day long. Then we were all asked to reign it in and focus on something serious.

We were huddled together in these huge rooms with no ventilation where the store art department usually worked and all of the shipping & receiving was done. The meetings usually started with a sign up sheet for a 401 K program which we all laughed at. Our store had such a high turnover rate that the average employee lasted only about 3 months (it was a mix between the overwork and the low pay that usually ran them off in the end). Then they began having these weird seminars about how to prevent loss. It involved stuff like moving boxes on the sales floor when someone leaves them behind and other petty shit like that. Then they wanted to start a program where instead of the Employee Of the Month being based on the person who did the best job and received the most praise from customers and commendations from managers and co-workers, it would switch to the person who prevented the most loss from happening in the store. I began sensing that something was wrong then.

Working at a record store is probably one of best experiences any music, film or pop culture lover can have. We experienced a level of freedom that you just couldn’t have at an office job. When I was ever in a office it often meant that a CD player was blaring some music that everyone in the office was singing along to. It was nothing to see 8 folks signing exactly like Bjork while “Joga” was playing. That usually lead to discussions such as “What song could you sing at a Karaoke bar that would make everyone in there uneasy or weirded out immediately?” (After careful deliberation we determined that a man singing “Total Eclipse Of Heart”, or Christopher Cross' "Think Of Laura" followed by a bout of intense crying would do the trick across the board).

It was the only place where D Nice could show up to buy a CD and everyone would recognize him and ask him for an autograph. T Ray would show up and an employee would recognize him and ask him to sign his White Boys album cover. Joe Strummer would show up out of the blue and start signing shit for people (R.I.P.). Once Steven Tyler showed up at the Skechers store down the street singing like he did in his Gap ad. When I worked at Tower I used to have these long ass movie talks with Rob Zombie whenever he came by with Sherrie (his brother Spider from Powerman 5000 used to work there years ago). To other people it was “Oh shit! That’s Rob Zombie!”. To me, it was just Thursday.

People began calling the store and showing up to the store looking for me specifically. It got around that I was doing an excellent job on both floors (that and some story about me memorizing SKU numbers from faded rentals where the barcode wouldn’t scan) and I was offered a promotion. I decided not to take it because at the time I would’ve made LESS money managing then I did working 7 days a week. Before I knew it, it became the holiday season and many of the regular employees asked for two week leaves so that they could go home but come back after winter vacation. I was offered yet ANOTHER promotion and a raise...this time with the general managers permission to continue working on BOTH the music and magazine/book/video floor and I could continue working 7 days a week. I thought I was in Paradise....little did I know that the shit was about to hit the fan.

Part One Of Two

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