Fighting the Future
Later this year, a landmark Minneapolis record store will leave its home, and the building it occupied will be razed in favor of a seven story mixed-use apartment and retail development. Cheapo Records in the Uptown neighborhood has been a destination for music collectors of all stripes for a long time, and some folks are taking this news pretty hard.
Many of us already moved past the Cheapo model long ago. Our minds are gentrifying and populating with six-story, mixed-use buildings as curation runs rampant. And in many cases, it's edging us closer to homogeneity in our music choices -- all in the guise of convenience.
Before we lament the death of a cherished small business, there are some things we must consider. For one, this situation is not exactly a mom and pop being forced out by the big boys à la Wal-Mart taking out the five and dime. It's not being replaced by a Virgin Megastore moving in because those already died off. What's more, Cheapo isn't even going out of business! They're planning to relocate and stay within Uptown. Yes, the new shop will be smaller, and who knows if it will survive in a new location? But we should all know by now that quantity ≠ quality even if part of Cheapo's promise was offering a huge selection. This move is an acknowledgment of a changed industry and not some sort of kowtow to corporate interests.
So what's really going on with this sort of reaction? Here's the fundamental issue I see. Things are changing/have changed, and some people, including the author of the post above, aren't totally down with it. For the most part, all he's really saying is "I'll miss this place because it's important to me, and I like the way things used to be."
This reaction is not uncommon, and I understand and even share it to an extent. When I moved to Minnesota, Cheapo immediately became my go-to place for local music, and I'm grateful it was here. In some small way, it helped me assimilate by putting me in touch with the enormous Twin Cities music scene. It's perfectly understandable to watch the world changing and feel nostalgic for how things once were, especially when we liked them that way. And if the article had stuck to that line of thinking, if it was left as a brief lament for a bygone era, that would be fine.
Instead, the article presents the argument that one reason places like Cheapo can't make it in the brave new world of streaming audio is that we, the witless consumer, have experienced a sort of "gentrification of the mind." Rather than seek out new music for its own sake, we rely on curation from others to "tell" us what's cool, leading to increasing homogeneity in what we listen to. The logic extends to suggest that the very people who might eventually live in the new apartment building are emblematic of this unfortunate change. It's a line of thinking that leads to several problems.
The Curious Curation Conundrum
The ubiquity of streaming music caused real problems for real people, including putting places like Cheapo at risk of extinction. There remain questions to be answered around how artists get paid and how much they receive that I don't think streaming services have adequately solved. It's possible that new music creation has been permanently devalued as a result of streaming, though I think there will eventually be a new equilibrium as more and more middlemen (record labels) fail to adapt and get pushed aside. And let's not kid ourselves here. Terrible contracts have a history as long as the music industry itself, deals so bad you could be sued for plagiarizing yourself. These are people problems, not technology problems.
But does this lead to more generic music tastes? I fail to see much support for the idea that having fast, inexpensive access to a virtually unlimited catalogue of music everywhere we go leads to less diverse tastes. When a near-entirety of recorded music is at your fingertips, aren't you at least marginally more likely to listen to a wider range of stuff, if only by accident? I'm sure many consumers turn on Pandora, punch in Taylor Swift, and listen to a steady diet of contemporary pop music. So what? How likely is it that these people are doing anything different than when they tuned into the local pop music station with its equally curated set of songs? If discovering new music was never a high priority for you, it's unlikely that Rdio or Spotify changed that.
But if it is important to you, good God, it's so much easier to listen to new stuff than it used to be. I'll speak now from my own experience, which is to say yours might be different. I remember the glory days of flipping through discs at stores like Cheapo, including Cheapo itself. But most of the time I went to these places, I was already looking for something specific or at least a range of specific things, hoping I'd find one. I didn't have the money to take many risks on stuff I might not like. The opportunity cost just felt too high. What's more, I bought a lot of used music. You know what cut artists got when I bought a used CD?
I don't fault that business model, but I wonder what percentage of Cheapo's sales have been used records and discs over its 43 years. Now, as one of the 20 million paid Spotify customers, I listen to new music all the time by artists it's unlikely I would ever discover on my own. And artists are getting at least something from those plays, even as I'd like to see them get more. So-called curation on services like Spotify has expanded my tastes, not homogenized them.
Stop Calling Anything You Don't Like "Gentrification"
I don't think anyone would dispute that Uptown in Minneapolis has gentrified, at least in the sense that the Uptown of thirty years ago is very different from today. But this is not some sudden land rush that has rapidly pushed people out in just a couple of years. It's been unfolding over several decades. The Uptown of today is increasingly (though not exclusively) an area of income growth filled with many new apartment buildings. This is part of a broader trend of growth in Minneapolis, which has seen its population increase by an estimated nearly 30k over the 2010 census data after decades of decline.
Growth causes its own problems, but they sure beat steady population decline and disinvestment. Ask the growing list of bankrupt municipalities which they'd prefer. While it seems true that much of Minneapolis' growth has occurred at higher ends of the income spectrum, what is our alternative here? Are we to forbid construction of new housing in the face of high demand? This is simple economics. If demand increases and supply stays constant, prices rise. The availability of affordable housing is a real and valid concern, but preventing construction of new housing does nothing to solve it, especially in places where all that's being replaced is a single-story warehouse style building no one lives in.
Gentrification is an exceedingly loaded word these days, one that means different things to different people. But uses like this devalue it across the board. Labeling the redevelopment at Cheapo as gentrification and equating changing music consumption modes to "gentrification of the mind" is little more than attempt to dismiss out of hand something the author doesn't like using a buzzword with a perceived negative connotation. Any real problems that gentrification can cause lose impact when we cry wolf in this fashion.* Labeling every new apartment development "gentrification" is the real estate equivalent of labeling all the people who will move into these places "hipsters " or "yuppies" and just as devoid of any real meaning.
Your Nostalgia Is Not Evidence of Injustice
Decrying the passing of the Cheapo building in favor of yet another apartment building is fine, up to a point. Much of the criticism of new development, at least here in Minneapolis, seems to be directed at the style and quality of new buildings, which then manifests in a criticism of the type of people that live in them. Style is in the eye of the beholder to a significant extent, but homogeneity of new buildings is as much a product of a stylistic era and what building codes encourage as anything else. If the quality of construction is your concern, I sympathize much more. We should want buildings to be built to last. But there are better culprits for why building high quality buildings costs so much and why building affordable housing is so hard than dismissing their future residents as bland, yuppies/hipsters who have been "gentrified of the mind."
The tendency to conflate the desires of others -- to live in Uptown, to live in apartments or condos, to rent as oppose to own, to shop at certain stores or consume music in some way other than you prefer -- as indicative of uncritical minds is misplaced angst wrapped in nostalgia. I rent in a fairly small one-bedroom apartment. I can't count how many times people have either told me directly or I've read some criticism of new apartment dwellers rooted in the inability of someone to understand why I'd "pay so much to live in such a small place," or something similar.
I have a-mazing news. You don't have to! You don't have to understand it, you don't have to want to do it, and exactly zero people are going to force that on you.
But here's the other side of that coin. Change is constant. Change in tastes, change in the arts, change in industries, and in how people choose to live. You may own your property, but you do not own your neighborhood. You might prefer to own CDs or records to streaming music, but that doesn't make it inherently better. You may like things as they are, and you have the right to advocate for certain outcomes. But you do not have a protected right to the good old days at the expense of the interests of others, and the people who want something different are not wrong for wanting it.
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*There are places where "land rushes" of a sort do occur. This is what seems to be causing housing problems in places like D.C., NYC, and San Francisco where values spike really, really fast. If there was an easy answer, we'd probably have it. But I think making it easier for more people of various incomes to build more kinds of quality housing would work better than trying to preserve neighborhoods in amber.