By Chris Chafin
The other day, I found myself flipping through records in massive clothing chain Urban Outfitters. I know. I had certain expectations about what I'd find: Bob Marley, Dr. Dre, maybe some new dance records like Niki & The Dove, and not much else. Basically, the vinyl equivalent of a sidewalk dorm room poster sale.
Instead, I kept finding more and more crates full of more and more records. And pretty decent ones! And not super expensive (generally between $10 and $20). Still, I thought, I probably shouldn't buy a record at Urban Outfitters. Right?
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that I couldn't really articulate why I felt like I shouldn't shop there. They're putting small record stores out of business? Their CEO is evil? Somehow nothing in my size ever makes it to the deep sale rack? Something. I honestly didn't know.
In recent years, Urban has gone big in music sales, becoming one of the nation's largest retailers of vinyl records (they were already probably the nation's largest backless tankini and Charlie Brown Christmas Tree retailer). Is this something we should be worried about? Is Urban Outfitters devaluing musical culture, or doing the important work of actually putting music in front of people who are in a mood to spend money?
One person who's a big fan of music shopping at Urban Outfitters is Jason Jordan. Today, he's at a company called SynchTank, after many years in major label A&R. But back in 1992, he was putting himself through college with a bunch of jobs, including one as a security guard at Urban Outfitters' flagship Philadelphia store.
"Part of working in a store is that you hear the same songs over and over," he says. "It becomes the fabric of the retail buying experience." In 1992, that music was Lenny Kravitz's Are You Gonna Go My Way. "It was on constantly. To this day, I know that album backwards and forwards." Eventually, he couldn't stand to hear it one more time.
"It was 20 years ago, so I don't remember all the details," he says, "but I remember talking to [Urban Outfitters CEO] Dick Hayne, and saying, look, there's an opportunity here to really get into the culture business." Part of that was choosing the music they played in their store more carefully. Instead of being fired, he was given a job in the advertising department and put in charge of coordinating all the music for their thirty-six stores. He's proud of what he helped start.
This approval isn't universal. It's true that the store has developed something of an icky reputation as they've expanded over the past decade, whether it be for incorporating Native American patterns into their panties, planning to open up a bar in a store in Williamsburg, or just straight stealing designs. To many people, the store represents the commodification of culture, the watering down of things that are supposed to be independent and somehow, in some way, anti-establishment. Like rap in a McDonald's commercial, or Iggy Pop in that car ad.
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