A Look Inside the House of Records: An Interview with Dr. David Gracon

A Look Inside the House of Records: An Interview with Dr. David Gracon

Interviewed by Samuel Lamontagne

 

 

Trailer for "Walls of Sound"

Full movie here.

 

1. Walls of Sound: A Look Inside The House of Records (2012) is a documentary you made about a record store in Eugene, Oregon. Can you introduce the documentary and its general perspective?

 

Sure, I’ll pull from some of the promotional information I constructed when putting the film out. This provides a concise context.

 

Walls of Sound — A Look Inside the House of Records (2012/63 min.) is a feature length documentary video that explores the House of Records, a brick and mortar independent record store based in Eugene, Oregon.  The store has been in operation since 1972 and it currently struggles to exist in the midst of digital downloading (both legal and illegal) and the practices of corporate retailers (in terms of corporate big-box and online stores and their selling practices). It also struggles against forces of nature (the roof being impaled by a giant tree, fire and flooding etc.) and thieves. The video is an ethnographic study that combines interviews with the owner and employees and various customers of the store. Their stories and observations are often imbued with a quirky sense of humor, biting intelligence and a deep admiration for the store and its culture. The video addresses the cultural significance and various folkloric narratives of the store on a number of levels. It explores how the store provides cultural diversity and alternative media, as they cater to the musical fringes and a broad range of musical styles not widely available at other retail outlets. It is argued the store is akin to a “library” and acts as an archive of obscure and out-of-print music, where the store-workers share their musical expertise with the customers (and vice versa). The video also addresses the importance of the vernacular (or handmade) design of the physical space (the store is situated in an old house) and tangible musical artifacts, especially the “resurgence” of vinyl records. Lastly, it addresses the importance of face-to-face interaction as the store acts as a community gathering space between the store-workers, customers and local music scenes — one that is ostensibly anti-corporate, fiercely local and subcultural in scope.

 

2. You wrote your Ph.D. dissertation on independent record stores (Exiled Records and Over-the-Counter-Culture — A Cultural Political Economic Analysis of the Independent Record Store) - what inspired you to switch to this visual medium and make a documentary film?

 

I came into my doctoral program at the University of Oregon already with a documentary filmmaking background. However, at the time I felt that I was done with filmmaking, and wanted to pursue traditional writing and research instead. During my coursework, I took a qualitative research methods class and for an assignment we conducted field interviews. So I interviewed the folks at The House of Records and recorded them on video. I really didn’t think at the time this would go beyond a class project and learning exercise. When I showed the clips to the class, the response was very positive and it seemed people wanted to see and learn more about this record store subculture. It also helped that the people I interviewed are total characters. They are very funny and they have a very sophisticated and critical view of culture.  After all, this was Eugene, Oregon. All of these essential ingredients were right for a documentary film. So I continued filming the store and interviewing people related to the store as a class project.

The folks at the store were really the ones who encouraged me to push the project further into a larger documentary film. Without this encouragement, the project probably would have died with the ending of the course.  

 

I see the dissertation and the documentary as two separate projects. Of course, there is overlap between the two. They inform each other. However, a documentary film can do and say so much more than a written dissertation ever can. For example, the folks in the film are lovable oddballs and this comes off much more clearly and directly than explaining that as a pull quote in a written dissertation. For example, sarcasm reads very differently in video form. They tell funny jokes (the workers at Best Buy are referred to as “ass clowns” etc.), they swear a lot, and generally observe culture through this very countercultural lens. They are very intensely into alternative and independent music culture and this passion translates much better on screen than in written academic form. By far. The visual images can better speak for themselves. The people, their non-verbal cues and quirky mannerisms, the tone of their voice etc. At the end of the day, people will watch a documentary film. There is an audience for this work. And I took the film on tour and screened it all over the country. I don’t think as many people would show up to a tour of my written dissertation, which is simply an academic requirement for a very limited audience. In some ways, the documentary is a visual version of the dissertation, but it is much more playful and entertaining. But also critically oriented.  

 

It is also important to note the dissertation was completed first. I had accumulated all the raw documentary footage as a doctoral student, and some of this was used as data in the dissertation. But I didn’t edit and finalize the documentary until I was a faculty member at Eastern Illinois University after I graduated. This was largely because of time restrictions. I had to get the dissertation done in order to graduate. So the film itself wasn’t part of my actual dissertation, but I did show video clips during my defense and various quotes were used as data. Just to clarify.

 

3. Did your Ph.D. dissertation influence the way you made the film?

 

Yes. However, the dissertation was much more expansive as I did fieldwork in many stores in Portland, Eugene and San Francisco. I also talked with labels, distributors, big-box stores and artists to obtain a more complete picture of how the industrial system of music retail worked at the time. I also went into much depth in terms of the political economy of the music industry, and how various economic forces and practices impact, often negatively, independent record stores. The documentary is a case study of The House of Records in Eugene. So by developing a deeper understanding of political economy of media through the dissertation, I was able to ask stronger questions during the interviews that effectively got at how the whole system of music distribution, retail and consumption worked. The ideas of critical political economy are certainly in the film, however, these concepts are not labeled as such as I didn’t want the film to be an academic piece, but rather a project screened by a larger audience. I wanted my father, who never went to college to be able to enjoy the film. And he did. And that was important to me.  

 

But reading all the related literature and writing the dissertation certainly helped me create a conceptual and theoretical foundation for the documentary that is very critical of how the music industry works. However, the video conveys this in a more compelling and entertaining way.  

 

4. More particularly, was the documentary a way to transfer the research issues you dealt with in the dissertation to film? Or perhaps, was it a way for you to deal with different research issues that hadn’t been touched on in the dissertation?

 

Well, as noted above, the documentary is really a case study of one particular store with a very rich and unique history, The House of Records. The dissertation is much more expansive and layered in political economy as I already noted. By doing a case study with the film, I was able to go into much more depth with one particular store. We get to know the folks in the film in much more detail as opposed to several pull quotes in the dissertation as data. They are essentially faceless in the dissertation. There are also narrative hooks in the documentary such as a ghost story (apparently the store is haunted); the idea that the employees are like a family which has more of a poetic feel, rather than a kind of academic inquiry that is kind of dry and impersonal. I wanted the film to feel deeply humanizing. However, I felt forced to write that way in the dissertation because of academic conventions.  It is like jumping through hoops. As far as describing the unique and vernacular aesthetics of the store (posters, records on the walls, the wooden floors, the handmade shelving etc.) it was much more effective to show this in video form. It is one thing to describe that visually in a dissertation. It is another to simply let the visuals speak for themselves through images and sound. Video is much more effective as a visual format.

5. Why did you choose House of Records as a subject? What was particular about it?

 

Well, my favorite record store in my hometown of Buffalo, NY, Home of the Hits, closed right around the time I started filming the qualitative interviews at The House of Records in 2006. I liked that they were both situated in old houses as a metaphor, and at the time many brick and mortar stores were going out of business. Home of the Hits really altered my life as a teenager as I got into punk and indie music. That was transformative. I later sold my zine there. It was a game changer and quite possibly one of the biggest influences in my life. So when the store closed, it really impacted me. Like the loss of a cultural limb. The House of Records in Eugene had a similar vibe and lengthy history. It is without a doubt the best record store in Eugene, and one of my favorites in the world, actually. It has a particular smell, look and feel that is very homey. The workers are extremely funny and intelligent with many years of experience and dedication. Using this store was a no brainer. At the time there was not much being done academically or in documentary form on independent record stores. It was an ideal topic of inquiry because nobody was really doing it. I was really passionate about the subject matter. It was compelling, and I was able to sustain this personal investment in the project for several years because it mattered to me.

 

6. Amid the transformations in the past 20 years in the cultural industries and the changing ways in which media have been commercialized, what does the documentary tell us about how an independent record store not only operates but also what it represents in contemporary society?

 

With the physical stores that are still around in 2019, I think there are many details in the film that still hold true. Like the social importance of simply talking and gathering with other people. Forming relationships and fostering local music scenes by stocking local product, show posters and zines. Learning from others about music culture and history are all healthy things, and this is still done in indie stores. The novelty of stumbling upon things in a store, like the music they are playing, or flipping through bins and coming across something new or unique.  Live bands or artists performing live in stores is still a novel experience. Just the importance of being in a physical space. I think these things are all healthy culturally. They are humanizing however, they are often still male dominated spaces. So it is important to note that such stores are not humanizing to all.

 

But we also see vinyl as a fetish object, much more now than in 2006 when I shot this footage. I feel records have gotten to be too expensive and like a boutique item for people with money and disposable income. This kind of media exclusivity I can do without. We can also see this globally where record collectors/buyers from the US and Japan are basically pillaging developing countries like Jamaica, Cuba and Colombia. These tourists are buying up their cheap vinyl “gold,” and selling it for a profit in their own developed countries. This to me is a fairly gross form of cultural imperialism and I find it strange that a record store in Seattle has a better vinyl selection of ska, reggae and dub than Kingston. This situation would make for an interesting dissertation or documentary.                

 

7. Did you take care of every aspect of the production process? Interviews, filming, editing, post-production, distribution?  Or did you have other people involved? If so what was the collaboration process like? What are some of the difficulties you experienced?

 

This project was completely DIY. I shot everything myself. It took me a year to edit the feature length film. I designed the DVD and authored it. I put together the packaging by hand. I took it on tour. I distribute it in stores and it has been affiliated with Microcosm Publishing. I sometimes still get orders for the film and mail them off myself. I submitted the text to many film festivals. I made a related webpage. I did all the PR. I did collaborate with an amazing artist, Dena Zilber, as she made the drawings for the DVD cover and related posters. I knew she understood the aesthetic and culture of indie stores, so she was an ideal fit for the art design and packaging. We had to go back and forth many times to be on the same page with the final results, but I think her design worked out very nicely. So this whole approach was very punk rock and DIY.        

 

In terms of difficulties, this is a lot to take on for one person. DIY projects are very labor intensive and time consuming, but I think it paid off in the end. The film screened widely and it helped me secure tenure. The folks from The House of Records liked the final result and it is an important historical record of their business. But you likely won’t make much money. But I also like having creative control of the process and not having to compromise.  But nowadays, I am much more interested in collaboration and sharing the workload with others for my sanity. And it can be more efficient in terms of time.

 

8. How was the documentary received by the people at House of Records? How important their feedback was to you?

 

I premiered the film in Oregon at the Bijou, an indie theater in Eugene. Most of the employees and a number of the customers attended the nearly packed screening. After the film ended, the employees and myself conducted a lively Q/A with the audience about the film and the social importance of The House of Records. Instead of merely screening the film, I thought it was important to have a dialog with the Eugene community about the issues addressed in the film, mainly, keeping such stores in business by actively supporting them. After the discussion the local band Heavenly Oceans performed in the screening room (their music is also on the soundtrack of the film). It was a very festive mood and by far my favorite screening of Walls of Sound. I sold many copies of the DVD that night and even signed some copies of the poster. It was pretty cool. I felt the overall reaction from the workers was very positive and supportive.  Everyone was very happy. They knew I put many hours into this project and was dedicated to telling the story of their business. One worker was a bit concerned about how the editing was out of chronological order, but this is simply the nature of documentary filmmaking. That really can’t be helped.

 

Whenever I visit Eugene, I always stop in The House of Records and it’s like a homecoming.  They are my friends. And it’s fantastic to see they still sell copies of the documentary as it is prominently displayed on their counter. It is special how we helped each other. This film supports their store and they will always have this historical document. It very much helped my career as an academic and media maker as well. I think this was accomplished because of trust in each other.

 

9. As writing is the hegemonic medium in academia, do you think there is a heuristic potential in using other media than writing? In Walls of Sound for example, did you find that the film medium allowed you to articulate ideas, or demonstrate particular arguments in ways that weren’t not possible through writing? What does researching through film feels like? What do you think of the general marginal position given to non-written works in academia?

 

I think you are correct here that academia values written work more than media texts such as a documentary. This of course can vary by discipline. I think part of the problem is that when you’re being evaluated or reviewed annually, the people in charge of this have no digital media or production background and they don’t realize how time and labor intensive it all is. To edit a feature length documentary project is the equivalent of a book project to me. Or they don’t understand the value of where the work has been screened as they don’t have this background.  So you really have to spell this out in your tenure narratives. So this can be problematic, but I think it all worked out and this documentary project helped me get tenure as my department values creative projects. But not all departments operate this way, and I am at a teaching oriented institution.

 

If I am going to spend a tremendous amount of time making a project, I want people to see and experience it. I think it is substantially easier to get a larger audience of people to watch a documentary film than read an academic article or book that has a tiny niche audience. Having tenure makes this attitude easier to pull off.  

 

Like all institutions, universities are slow to evolve and adapt with the times. And this obsession with written texts seems wildly outdated and extremely limited in terms of knowledge more generally. But luckily I am in an environment where creative works are accepted. In the end, I think academia needs to be more inclusive and accepting of digital media works as a valid form of cultural production. Let’s evolve already.      

 

10. What’s next? What are your upcoming projects?

 

For my next documentary project, I will go to Ukraine and document various underground music scenes ranging from punk, indie, metal and electronic music subcultures. I’m also currently a co-editor of an edited collection called Music and Death — Interdisciplinary Readings and Perspectives that is in the works. I also have several essays on punk and pedagogy in the pipeline, as well as a historical essay on the political economy of iTunes. I would love to eventually write a book on the critical history of music retail, as I feel that is a blind-spot in the literature. Perhaps in the future. When I have a free moment. Which may be never.        

 

 

 

David Gracon is an associate professor of critical media studies and digital media production at Eastern Illinois University.  His research/creative projects and teaching interests include cultural studies, film studies, media literacy, alternative media, DIY cultural production, punk studies, the political economy of communication, documentary and experimental media production. He is also the programmer and host of Hallways Microcinema based in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  For the 2017/2018 academic year, he was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar teaching media studies at Precarpathian National University in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine. He is a native of Buffalo, NY and has been invested in post-punk, indie, experimental music scenes, zine communities and college radio; as well as activist orientated experimental film, video and documentary communities and collectives since the mid 90’s.

 
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