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Feb 212013


I have nothing against Jack White. I don’t personally connect with his music, but I really respect and admire the depth of his knowledge on music recording. His record store, live venue, recording facility and now movie theatre Third Man Records is a Nashville treasure, and I can easily see it with time becoming hallowed ground.

But something about his post on being selected as Ambassador of Record Store Day 2013 really rubbed me the wrong way. You see, it’s not really about being selected as Ambassador of Record Store Day 2013. It’s a diatribe against non-tangible media masquerading as praise for tangible media.

After mentioning a survey someone told him about “years ago” which revealed zero out of 1,200 high school students had ever been in a “stand-alone record shop,” White goes on to say

 How can record shops (or any shop for that matter) compete with Netflix, TiVo, video games that take months to complete, cable, texting, the Internet, etc. etc? Getting out of your chair at home to experience something in the real world has started to become a rare occurrence, and to a lot of people, an unnecessary one. Why go to a bookstore and get a real book? You can just download it. Why talk to other human beings, discuss different authors, writing styles and influences? Just click your mouse. Well here’s what they’ll someday learn if they have a soul; there’s no romance in a mouse click. There’s no beauty in sitting for hours playing video games (anyone proud of that stop reading now and post your opinion in the nearest forum). The screen of an iPhone is convenient, but it’s no comparison to a 70mm showing of a film in a gorgeous theater. The Internet is two-dimensional…helpful and entertaining, but no replacement for face-to-face interaction with a human being. But we all know all of that, right? Well, do we? Maybe we know all that, but so what?

I’m not sure what annoys me most: the tired “back in my day” Luddism, the implicit assumption that format is more important than content, or the blatant hypocrisy. Since Jack White hates downloadable media, he surely did the stand-up thing and stopped selling his music on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon MP3, right? Or at least he donates his MP3 profits to charity?


And what about the survey that was the basis for the whole piece? Jack is a little scant on the details. I suspect he doesn’t know the details because he’s never read the survey. Someone told him about it. Years ago.

When and where was it conducted? Does “stand-alone record shop” mean a shop that sells records but not CDs or does it include all music stores? A number of things struck me as suspicious, especially the too-tidy-for-science zero out of 1,200 stat. I tried to find some shred of evidence that this survey even exists, but all I could find were countless re-blogs of  Jack White’s speech. I suspect he might be referring to one of the semi-annual Piper Jaffray “Taking Stock With Teens” surveys, but Piper Jaffray do not even ask that specific question.

But we don’t need a survey to see that chain record stores are dying out. And yet boutique stores owned by passionate and knowledgeable fans are appearing, and vinyl records sales are steadily increasing. And that’s a great, great thing … which brings me to another reason White’s post irked me. He needlessly spreads the false dichotomy that there’s one righteous path to experiencing media, basically arguing “This thing is great because that thing sucks!”

I’m not going to argue that experiencing media on tangible formats is a bad idea. That would be as wrongheaded as arguing that experiencing media on digital formats is a bad idea. The truth is we have a plethora of options catering to different wants and needs, and that’s wonderful. My roommate loves the tangibility of vinyl. I prefer the freedom that digital brings. Jack seems to think we should be dueling to the death in a Highlander-style sword fight.

He’s making the assumption that everyone has the same wants and needs he does, and if you take umbrage, you’re a soulless, cave-dwelling mouse-clicker. You may even … gasp! … play video games! But there are ways to write about why you prefer one content delivery over another without proclaiming others are doing it wrong.

I still occasionally enjoy hard copies of books, music, and film, but more often than not, I’m experiencing media digitally. My primary place for listening to music, podcasts, and audiobooks is in my car though my Android phone, connected to the car speakers via a dock. Digitally delivery means I can stream any song in my entire music collection via Google Play Music or listen to the latest episodes of my podcast subscriptions automatically downloaded via DoggCatcher.

Podcasting allows me to deliver my experimental improv music show Theatre Intangible instantly around the world with zero environmental impact, all in a mouse click. Podcasts are labors of love made by individuals who don’t have to answer to executives or advertisers. Lengths aren’t restricted by specific episode times. All of that means interview shows such as WTF with Marc Maron can have a level of intimacy and depth not possible on television and radio — episodes such as … oh I don’t know … this interview with Jack White.

Through Audible.com, I’m able to listen to a book while driving long distances, and through my Kindle, I’m able to take that same book into a restaurant and pick up right where I left off. It was an Audible audiobook, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking , that taught me not all people communicate best in social gatherings such as chance encounters at book stores. Some introverts like myself communicate best when quietly-typing away on a keyboard, enjoying the benefits of time and reflection to better articulate a thoughtful response. In fact, the digital distance empowers us to say things we might not have the courage to say face to face. Here on the internet, people will call you out on your shit. I can’t tell you how many skins I’ve shed in the comment-response cycle of denial, indignant outrage, self-reflection, heartfelt apology, and behavior change via Facebook and blog posts (and yes, Jack, amidst all the trollery, in forums too). These experiences can be exhausting or painful, but often, the call-outs were things I needed to hear, and I’m a better person for having my ideas /opinions /privileges checked.

And yes, browsing through tangible books next to tangible people can yield chance discoveries and personal recommendations. But browsing through the Internet does that too, except times a million. In web stores, I can sort alphabetically, by user rating, by release date, by author, by genre, by sales, by playlists created by my friends and more. I have the option of reading through dozens of user reviews and review aggregations that help me choose my next purchase. On my Kindle, I can bring 50 books to the beach. Or I can bring zero and select, purchase and download my book at the beach. Some people prefer the tangibility of turning a real page, the texture of the grain, and the mysterious scents trapped between the pages. And that’s totally fine. I’m just glad we have options.

>>The screen of an iPhone is convenient, but it’s no comparison to a 70mm showing of a film in a gorgeous theater.

I can’t argue with that. He and I are among the privileged few who live in a city with a 70mm projector. Still, I will concede that Nashville’s independent (35mm) theater The Belcourt is my church, and it always will be. But I also enjoy watching movies and shows at home on my television (not iPhone) streamed via Netflix, Amazon Instant, and hundreds of independent Roku channels. And with downloadable movies, I can support independent filmmakers whose films never make it to the local screens. The current streaming selection leaves much to be desired, but it will eventually surpass the selection available on any previous format. And instead of a DVD sitting on my shelf unwatched for who knows how long, I can make the decision to rent a film right before I watch it.

>>There’s no beauty in sitting for hours playing video games

This part really confuses me. He didn’t say “video game downloads.” He just said “video games.” Brick and mortar stores selling tangible video games still make up a huge chunk of overall video game sales, and you would think Jack would extend his support to independent video game stores. (Perhaps when boutique, limited-run NES cartridges gain traction …) Video game buyers presumably talk soulful romantic shop just like record buyers do. Ah, but I forgot. Video games are not “art.” He can slip this in without anyone noticing how out of place it is.

Clearly, he’s never played Portal 2, Bioshock, Journey, Fez, Limbo, or Braid. Just to name a few.

And though he didn’t frame his gaming argument on the basis of digitally-delivered content, let me just say that there has never been a more exciting time in gaming because of downloadable games. Four of the six games I mentioned above were released as downloads. Valve’s Steam, Xbox Arcade, the Playstation Store and mobile phone platforms have revolutionized the way gaming content is delivered to consumers and allowed individuals and small team to make masterpieces without the support of big gaming studios.  And OUYA, an open-source and truly-democratic gaming console that exclusively runs downloadable content, will be released in a few months.

So, yes, tangible media is a wonderful thing and Record Store Day is a worthy cause featuring a host of fun events, live appearances, and special-edition albums. Please by all means support it; and when buying tangible media, support your locally-owned stores. But don’t mistake your own personal preferences for the one true way.  And remember why you fell in love with music, literature and film in the first place: the content. Not the container.

  • Dave X

    On the other hand, there’s no such thing as a limited-edition mp3 in liquid-filled vinyl, which is the sort of “tangible artifact” Jack White seems to enjoy pushing. When it comes right down to it, the dichotomy isn’t between media, but between those who promote music as a commodity, and those who do not. Despite his obvious love of music, he’s chest-deep in soaking music fetishists for absurd amounts of money through artificial shortages, one-offs, packaging gimmicks, etc— all at a time when costs of music delivery could be falling dramatically. If this is all the record stores have to offer to the public, they’re good and truly fucked. Hipster dollars will eventually move elsewhere. With a bit of imagination, however, I can envision all the best parts of a record store– community, experienced employees, curated selection– existing hand-in-hand with digital media. They just to catch up a bit, and lay off the Luddism.

  • Thanks, Dave X. That is dead on the money, and I always appreciate your thoughts.