October 18, 2006

Save Our Independence

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Right smack in between the non-holiday that is Fall Break and Thanksgiving came a glorious Saturday of Big Red Debauchery known as Homecoming — a momentous excuse for alums to rip off their corporate cloaks and retreat into the shell of their former selves, when everything was oh-so-college and awesomely fratastic. However, while most of Ithaca was (intoxicatingly) enjoying the spirit of Cornell’s legacy, downstate in New York City, another legacy had officially crumbled over the weekend due to skyrocketing Manhattan rent: CBGB’s.
In case you live in a box, CBGB’s was one of New York City’s oldest nightclubs, a relic of the ’70s punk scene and an architecturally and culturally renowned landmark throughout the globe. Yet, what made CBGB’s such an important piece of American pop culture was not the physicality of the space itself — the club was about as dingy and dumpy as it came — but the special symbolic universality equated with it. The grungy, graffiti-splattered club launched the careers of prolific groups like The Ramones and Television, while simultaneously providing a forum for less-renowned acts to try their hands at the fast-paced, cutthroat live music world.
Although the current owner of CBGB’s, Hilly Kristal, is looking to reopen the venue in far away phony Las Vegas, the departure of CBGB’s from the NYC landscape nevertheless sets a frightening precedent for the future of independent music establishments across the country. In our Clear Channel, Best Buy and Wal Marticized world, it is a rare treat to stumble upon an independent establishment with a working, profitable formula and rich history.
Up until this past year, Tower Records appeared to fit that mold. Founded in 1960 as a mom and pop record store in Sacramento, Tower quickly spread across the country to New York and by the early ’80s, had entered the international marketplace. Despite its gigantic, corporate scope, Tower managed to hang on to its homegrown feel, for it prided itself on being a gold mine of hard-to-find releases and obscure imports. More importantly, Tower provided a laidback, welcoming environment for the casual shopper to discover new acts through live, in-store performances and conversations with knowledgeable, personable employees.
Unfortunately, with the arrival of the digital music revolution and the subsequent wave of piracy that ensued in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Tower Records began to experience severe declines in sales and heavy debt. On October 6, 2006, a California judge agreed to allow the Great American Group to liquidate Tower’s assets (but not before a gigantic going-out-of-business sale!).
Yes, it’s true that one of the most-photographed Hollywood icons, the Tower Records on the Sunset Strip (where celeb run-ins are about as routine as blacking out in front of CTP), will never be the same again. But, more importantly, what will happen to the future of the music purchasing experience now that the globalized economy has turned its back on the historically-rich Tower franchise, in favor of digital music and impersonal chains like Wal Mart? Why is it that such a rich piece of architectural and musical history, CBGB’s, could not be protected by the City of New York against the tentacles of high rent?
Although it may seem that here in Ithaca we are removed from the dramatic waxing and waning of the independent music scene, this is hardly the case. Right down the hill from us on the Commons, there is a blossoming independent movement that is boldly reversing the stigma against local, homegrown establishments. No Radio Records, which opened only three months ago, and Volume Records, which has been around for a year, are already proving that despite what the music industry gods seem to think, the music-buying experience has not deteriorated into automaton-like downloading and purchasing from Wal Mart.
The same is true for independent venues in town — down the road, the State Street Theatre’s longevity and stature in the community shows that with direct help from the city, historic concert venues don’t have to go the way of CBGB’s.
So, the next time you think about grabbing the new Game album off Limewire before it drops, why not wait to pick it up from your local shop — you might hear something new, walk out with your favorite record of the year and help save independent music, all at the same time.