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The Record Store vs. the Search Engine

This past week I visited San Francisco. In addition to finally meeting my co-bloggers Matthew and Jennifer in person, I also made my pilgrimage to one of the best music stores in the country, Aquarius Records in the Mission.

The oldest music store in the city, Aquarius is not big, and it’s far from comprehensive in its selection. If you want the latest Black Eyed Peas or Bon Jovi albums you’re probably better off going to Ameoba. Instead, Aquarius specializes in arcane, experimental music, including obscure heavy metal. For most people the store would be inscrutable; to me, it’s heaven.

But it’s not just the inventory that makes Aquarius great. It’s that every CD and record in the place appears to be careful chosen, even curated. For a store its size quite a bit of space is given over to employee favorites and new releases. And every single one of those new or favorite albums has a paragraph-long write-up on the front describing the artist and album in loving detail.

Aquarius Records website features a long list of new releases and reviews.

Aquarius Records website features a long list of new releases and reviews.

You don’t have to go to the store to see this for yourself. Just visit Aquarius’ minimalist website and you’ll be greeted by a front page listing 20+ of the week’s new releases, each accompanied by a 50 to 800(!) word review. Amazon.com this ain’t.

So what the hell does this have to do with radio? I learned about Aquarius for the first time when the store’s owners Andee Connors and Allan Horrocks were guest DJs on WFMU’s Brian Turner show. I was amazed at Connors’ and Horrock’s deep knowledge and passion for all of this obscure music that I’m also a big fan of. I was also blown away by the idea that there was a real brick-and-mortar store out there specializing these obscurities. I knew I had to visit the first chance I could get.

What’s best about Aquarius Records is the same that’s best about radio. Great music radio is about passion and curation, like an auditory art gallery where the DJ carefully and meticulously shares new music that she loves, that moves her or intrigues her.

Like radio, the music industry–and record stores in particular–are supposed to be in their death throes. But a store like Aquarius seems to survive, and even thrive because it appears to be motivated by passion inasmuch as profit. Community and college stations like WFMU hold on because they, too, are fueled by this commitment to serving up what’s interesting and good.

When you can find the new Bon Jovi anywhere, why go to the radio or an actual record store when Wal-Mart will be easier and cheaper? The new 7″ from Boris or CD from MOEBIUS / PLANK / NEUMEIER may be more obscure, but the fan is likely far more dedicated.

I might find any of these obscure releases at Amazon, but I’ll have to look hard, know what I’m looking for and then there’s a good chance there won’t be a review. I’ve bought several CDs from Aquarius based on their review alone and never been disappointed. I think that’s because I can trust the guys running the store, the same way I trust my favorite noncommercial radio DJs.

This isn’t a commercial for Aquarius–they’re certainly not sponsoring us (yet?). I just think it’s important to be reminded about how valuable a little informed, passionate guidance can be in discovering new music in this age of file-sharing, Pandora and Amazon.com.


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One Response to The Record Store vs. the Search Engine

  1. Jennifer Waits November 24, 2009 at 1:09 pm #

    Aquarius is an amazing store and they are great supporters of college radio too. At least one Bay Area college radio music director works there and they also allowed KFJC to do a fundraising “Penny Pitch” event at the store a few years ago.

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