When all of the elements combine correctly, a good record store is almost like a church, or a cluttered think tank, or a pop-culture library. You know you're in a good one if the clerk knows more than you ever possibly could (or would want to), and maybe you're just a little bit too intimidated to ask him questions at first. You also know you're in a good one when you find yourself still flipping aimlessly through the racks two hours after you found what you came in for. Denver is lucky to have more than a handful of excellent indie stores; Twist & Shout, Cheapo Discs and Wax Trax are a few of the bigger ones. Yet, increasingly, these kinds of stores are forced to roll over and make room for megastores such as Borders Books & Music, where a person can get a book, a CD and a biscotti and be out the door before the clerk can say "May I help you?"
For the most part, the Twist & Shouts of the world can co-exist comfortably and compete with places like Borders, since their customer bases are usually about as opposite as hip-hop and Muzak. For instance, some people find comfort in the homogeneity of chain stores; they like the idea that whether they're browsing the aisles at a Borders in Englewood or England, the inventory is likely to be pretty much the same. Others, though, find that notion kinda icky. Especially when megastores start sticking their fingers into an already crowded pie.
Last week, Borders Books & Music announced that it has begun an aggressive campaign to market and sell releases from local artists in all four of its area stores. In a program spearheaded by Sally Boccella, the community-relations coordinator at the Littleton store, the chain plans to begin stocking more than ninety releases from about fifty local artists and to allocate a generous portion of floor space -- as well as ten listening stations -- to their sounds. Boccella says the new program will also include weekly in-store appearances, which begin this weekend with performances from acts including Opie Gone Bad, Matthew Moon, Yo, Flaco!, Zeut, Apostle and Ciria, among others.
"In the past, when Borders would have people play in the store, it was like acoustic or real quiet stuff," Boccella says. "Last November I had the Fabulous Boogienauts play my store, and it was a huge success. I thought, 'Why can't we do this all the time and help the local music scene out?'"
Boccella, who has a background in band management and worked briefly in the marketing department at Clear Channel, says the new program was inspired by her own interest in local music and Borders' commitment to the communities in which it is located. And although local releases aren't exactly known for their tendency to fly right off of shelves -- Best Buy abandoned a similar program, called the Colorado Homegrown series, after about six months of what were reportedly meager sales in the mid-'90s -- Boccella says the Borders brass was enthusiastic about the idea.
"Borders is misrepresented sometimes," she says. "A huge part of the company is its community involvement. So while it's a big chain store [Borders currently has more than 300 locations worldwide; three more Denver-area stores are slated to open in the next year], there's still a grassroots thing happening."
Boccella's pitch to the corporate powers might have been made more attractive by her burgeoning relationship with Carl Fischer, president of the Music Patrons Association of the Rockies, a nonprofit organization that changed its name from the Rocky Mountain Music Association last summer. MPAR will be primarily responsible for keeping track of inventory and distributing titles to Borders -- sparing local artists (and store bookkeepers) the hassle of working on a consignment basis. Fischer says the program is a major coup for the local scene.
"Our goal is to make Denver, together with Boulder, the music capital of the Rocky Mountain music empire," Fischer says with all of the enthusiasm of a political candidate. And Fischer and Boccella's plans for the Borders/MPAR partnership stretch far beyond the Borders racks: In late June, Fischer will launch MPAR radio (mpar.org), an Internet site that will initially stream local tunes at all hours of the day. Eventually, they hope to get a local music show on TV -- they're currently talking with UPN and WB2 -- that will be jointly hosted by Nina Storey, Ciria and KTCL jock Nerf. If it sees the light of air, the program will feature interview segments and footage from Borders in-store appearances as well as a Borders Top Ten segment pimping the highest-selling local titles. (Boccella says that at first the plan was to have a squad of dancing women, à la the Fly Girls, provide a visual for sound bites of local releases; Fischer says that plan has been quashed because it was "maybe a little corny." Too bad -- the idea of hard-bodied ladies with bare midriffs dancing around to Matthew Moon is too deliciously ridiculous.) The Internet site appears to be ready to go, but the TV show -- which will operate as a piece of paid-for broadcasting that some might say sounds like a big ol' Borders commercial -- has hit a snag: Fischer has been unable to secure financial backing, while blocks of paid time are selling out quickly. (Currently, the only times available on WB2 are after 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, a time when the target audience is probably out seeing local music or sleeping; a UPN marketing person, meanwhile, reports that the weekend slots are booked solid.)
Still, Fischer seems undaunted.
"I think it takes just as much work to accomplish a big thing as a small thing," he says. And what of Best Buy's failed attempt at a local-music campaign, or the fact that local-music television programming struggles to find an audience? (Mike Drumm of MusicLink and the defunct cable-access program Teletunes can probably vouch for that one.) "I believe a success is an accumulation of past failures," Fischer says. "What we're doing is ambitious, but I think the point is, there are incredible musicians here who are deserving of recognition."
So what's wrong with any of this? Probably nothing. Any local artist is likely to welcome the chance to have his music stocked at another outlet, especially one as high-profile as Borders. But considering that the music-buying public has not yet demonstrated that it shares Fischer's enthusiasm for local product, it would appear that Borders' newfound love of locals teeters dangerously close to the niche market already filled by Twist & Shout, Wax Trax and Cheapo. John Quill, who operates the local distribution house USA One Stop, says that while most stores in town do carry homegrown product, the demand is not yet great. Boccella maintains that the plan is to generate interest in local artists. But Borders is savvy enough to know that supply meets demand, not the other way around. Backwash wonders how long Borders will stick with the program should it become apparent that Acoustic Junction and Judge Roughneck aren't exactly cash cows.
Complicating matters is the similarity -- coincidence or no -- of the Borders program to others already in place. Twist & Shout -- which carries a very wide variety of local releases, both on a consignment basis and through distributors like USA One Stop -- proudly champions a close affiliation with the Colorado Music Association, the local not-for-profit organization formed by Dolly Zander last year after a frustrating period for the Rocky Mountain Music Association when relations between her and Fischer grew sour. Though Fischer says he has no awareness of the Twist & Shout/COMA pairing, the partnership between MPAR and Borders seems awfully familiar.
In a perfect world, the Borders program will be a stunning success that elevates local music and augments -- rather than impairs -- the ability of indie stores to conduct their business successfully. But there's still that nagging suspicion that a megastore is not the best outlet for something as un-mega as local music. Of course, it would be fabulous if some locals got mega-rich as a result of the exposure that Borders offers them. Usually, though, it's the Borders CEOs of the world who get to have that fun while the rest of us just get swallowed by stucco and Starbucks.