Interview – Brendan Toller

Guerilla film maker Brendan Toller’s feature length debut “I Need That Record!” is a poignant look at the uncertain futures that many record stores are currently facing. M3 couldn’t resist contacting Brendan to talk about the importance of the record store in contemporary culture…

M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Brendan – I’m a 25 year-old independent filmmaker living on the coast in Connecticut in North America with close proximity to New York City. Since I made my first feature I Need That Record! from nothing, I’m learning how to make a compelling film with the luxury of collaborators, nice equipment and funding (always looking; wink-wink, nudge-nudge). I should also mention my subject is dynamite. My next film will be a posthumous documentary portrait of Danny Fields– one of the most influential figures in rock n roll, punk, and alternative music and culture. Danny has discovered and nurtured some of the greatest talent of the past century: The Velvet Underground, The Doors, The Stooges, Judy Collins, Tim Buckley, Nico, MC5, The Modern Lovers, The Ramones. To be specific, Danny was a mover and shaker in New York City from the early days of pop music printing the Beatles “bigger than jesus” quote in the US, press agent to The Doors, US press agent for Cream, Warhol confidant, Co-editor of 16 Magazine, manager of The Stooges, The Ramones, The MC5, and Lou Reed (“for about ten minutes”). That’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s an incredible vantage point for rock n roll and cultural history. Growing up with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, REM (the list goes on) it’s been amazing to be able to link their key influences to Danny Fields, tastemaker extraordinaire. Right now we’re wrapping up interviews in New York, completing the digitization of Danny’s incredible archive and beginning grant/funding applications.

What inspired you to make ‘I Need That Record’? What is your own musical background?
In the summer of 2006, my local record haunt, Record Express in Middletown, CT closed shop. At the time, press easily pointed the finger at downloading and I knew that was bullshit. Most record retailers of the past and even today have ties to major label product. The majors hung these stores out to dry. Consumers and big box culture also left main street mom and pop businesses out to dry. In thinking about it now it’s very odd to think that the internet has allowed niche tastes to rule, but at the same time our local market places are becoming more homogenous and corporate. The collapse of the music industry was also a precursor to the financial meltdowns which all boil down to greed. Ever since FM radio was bought out by Clear Channel everyone has turned the dial. A dominant medium nearly eradicated. I wanted to take a look at the music industry from the angle of these record store closures and investigate what the hell went on to completely change the face of the music “industry,” culture and retail.

As for my own musical background I’m a basement player. I play guitar, some bass, some drums and a mean triangle. I’ve never really been in any serious bands aside from the legendary beer-rock band Thurstin’ For More.

Why would you say that the record store is worth preserving? What do you think it adds to a community?
The bigger question that our culture is currently debating and defining is– why is the local market place worth preserving? The marketplace was always the spot in town to buy product, exchange news/gossip and mingle with friends old and new. I don’t think that has changed much, but what has changed is the culture of the marketplace. In the US the culture of the marketplace is dictated by big box chain stores. The ideologies of these chain stores is abhorrent and totally fucked up. Chain store product mirrors their ethics- cheap and crappy. When Walmart bans some sort of muscle or swimsuit magazine you have to wonder if we’re living out Rick Santorum’s American wet dream?

The record store is worth preserving because its a beacon of alternative culture. A meeting place for like-minded people who are now sitting behind a glowing screen unless their out at shows or clubs. Record stores really take you into the culture visually and sonically. Great record stores are curated like art galleries. Taste in a record store can be boundless whereas major label taste is dictated by accountants who don’t know fuck-all about music. Indie record stores also provide a network for up and coming artists and musicians. After six albums the Black Keys just sold-out Madison Square Garden and they say in I Need That Record! that the first pillar of support came from indie record stores.

What do you think is the best survival strategy for record stores today?
Like any independent business that exists today- you have to be leaner, meaner and well-focused. How many of us have seen the same shitty records clogging up the bins? Who buys used Engelbert Humperdinck? REO Speedwagon? Carry the most interesting stuff that constantly has your ear pinned to the ground. Have the store be  a thoughtful presentation of your tastes and eccentricities. Get people to the store. Have listening parties, in-store performances, cook outs. I also think we’ve yet to see any brilliant record store combinations. I’m still waiting on the record store bar. The internet is also a reality so don’t quit your day job. Music and movies are so easy to get for free. Digital really is bare bones- quality and presentation are greatly sacrificed, but I don’t think people are educated about sound and visual systems which used to be a point of pride. Almost every time I go to the dump I see suckers throwing out the powerful preamps of yesteryear trading them for a tiny Bose system with tiny dynamic ranges.

What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
It all depends where I am. If I’m climbing Mount Everest my crank operated record player might be hard to manage. At home it’s the luxury of the best sound on a great system with CD and vinyl. I think it’s unfortunate that the CD has been on the decline since they really know how to make them sound great. The Nico Marble Index and Desert Shore CD reissues are breathtaking. There’s nothing like warm bass and a wide dynamic range with a good sound system. I have a Marantz tube amp running through some sweet JBL studio monitors. The neighbors complain. If you get the Eno speaker set up going (from Ambient 4: On Land) you can hear things you’ll never otherwise hear on record.  My tape deck is at Danny’s place for digitization, but I don’t collect many noise tapes that come in editions of 25 anyways. MP3 is my last resort when traveling or taking the train into New York City.

Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
The internet has made  the dissemination and availability of information so easy we should be able to define our tastes with more ease. I find that we’re hit over the head with so much these days. It would be nice to have a better aggregator than Pitchfork. I know there’s great music blogs out there, but it really can be a needle in the haystack type of situation. So I think our attention spans and our sense of trust is scared and limited. I’ll watch 2 minutes of this listen to two minutes of that. Why should we devote 40 minutes to a whole album when bizarre cake-fart videos are just a click away? Music is also everywhere- at the grocery store, dentist office (the worst), which subconsciously devalues it. Its nice to listen to the birds and bees once in a while.  I love listening to a great album and know many people that do. For younger people I think there’s other competing interests. Unless you really have someone show you around, the learning curve on finding music that moves or interests you is steep. Record stores used to provide an entry point for anyone to become immersed in the culture but so many are gone from small towns.

Do you think the popularity of limited pressings, coloured vinyl, rare releases etc. is in some way a reaction to the widespread availability and easy access of digital music files?
Absolutely. You can embrace the unique. It’s hard to embrace cold one’s and zero’s.

What is your take on the current SOPA/ACTA controversy?
I hope there’s a few documentaries in production on the whole controversy. If I was simply a thorn in the side of the major labels I’d be making that film right now, but I’m interested in furthering my approach and aesthetics as a filmmaker through different topics. While I Need That Record! is timely, I sort of feel like anyone could watch it twenty years from now and feel the same way about the music “industry.” It was always a con game, but today its become such a boring con game pushing culture to a sanitized catholic nightmare. It would be interesting to know who the key players in the “industry” and political arena have been with SOPA/ACTA. Really what happened was this legislation threatened the whole freedom of the internet. So while everyone was clicking away fighting facism the US government blindsided us and cleaned out all the file-sharing websites. The circumstances of a censored/limited internet were dire, but the loss of these file-sharing sites is a loss to the culture. Why the hell does the government or music industry care if I’m seeking out an out of print Jerry Lee Lewis box set or every one of Alex Chilton’s recorded breaths? They have better things to do like focus on their future. But the whole Megaupload clan is incredible too. Kim Dotcom is a perfect villain crossed between the Marshmallow Man and The Joker. All those safe-house chambers; and who rides around with license plates that say Hacker? Fascinating. I don’t know enough about Anonymous, but I thought the shut down of the FBI and RIAA sites was jaw-dropping. I can’t wait till someone makes this movie.

What would you say are the main challenges facing an up-and-coming musician/band in today’s cultural climate?
Finding a balance between paying jobs and time for art. The economy is rough for young people. I see people my age starving without the artist part. Other than that the world really is your oyster for an up and coming band/artist. Distribution and fan definition are easier than ever although most defined audiences are still controlled by big hands. Be true to yourself, keep an open mind and hope that others will follow you in your passion.

Finally, what does the future hold for Brendan Toller?
Lots of grant-writing, fundraising, producing and film crew assembly. And rock n roll of course…

For more information on Brendan Toller, check out his website. To find out more about his documentary “I Need That Record!” visit the official website and Facebook page.

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About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

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