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Wal-Mart Bashing Run Amok

By Matthew Yglesias

"Wal-Mart Bashing Run Amok"

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It doesn’t seem totally fair to pick on what may be the first professionally published work by an intern, but I feel like with Max Fraser’s lamenting the end of Tower Records in The Nation, anti-Wal-Mart sentiment has truly gotten out of control. The problem here, apparently, is that the relative decline of Tower Records vis-a-vis “big box” retailers like Wal-Mart and Target is bad for independent music, since said stores stock fewer unique albums than did Tower. To which I say, fair enough, but as Fraser himself notes the other side of the story is the rise of internet distribution of music. It’s impossible for me to imagine anything that will be more aided by online sales than independent music.

A place like EMusic that doesn’t require a physical inventory has every incentive to stock (virtually) any album whatsoever that a record label is interesting in having them stock, something that no brick-and-mortar record store could ever claim. Meanwhile, “discovering new musical acts while browsing the stacks and interacting with a knowledgeable staff” doesn’t seem like an especially optimal method. The online world features a number of useful discovery tools. At its most basic, lots of website will “recommend” albums purchased by other people who bought the same ones you bought. On a more sophisticated level, Pandora will recommend new things based on formal analysis of bands’ musical styles — it tells me, for example, that “Ode to Rock” by Manda and the Marbles features “meandering melodic phrasing, major key tonalities, and many other similarities” with The New Pornographers.

Last.FM also does recommendations, this time through a social-affinity analysis and lets you filter for obscurity when searching out similar bands according to what, exactly, you’re trying to accomplish. There may be much to fear in the bold new digital future, but this isn’t it. All that’s offered on the other side is “As Russ Solomon, the 81-year-old progenitor of Tower Records, remarked to Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle recently, ‘Who’s going to download an opera?’” Opera fans, I would assume. Why wouldn’t they?

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