There's no question that the music industry is flailing -- now even the streaming giants like Spotify and Pandora that destabilized things in the first are becoming victims of their own success and record companies are beginning to gain the upper hand. But what about the human cost of all of this? Rain Perry, who saw her own share of success in the late 90s as a singer-songwriter, temporarily trades in her guitar for a camera to tell the story of Mark Hallman, the legendary producer who helped birth Ani DiFranco's Dilate into the world alongside many other artists. But just as musicians are struggling to make a living off their art, the secondary economy that supports them, such as recording studios and engineers, are also scraping to get by.
The Shopkeeper - OFFICIAL TRAILER from Rain Perry on Vimeo.
Perry structures the documentary by interweaving three narratives: Hallman's biography, an infographic video created by the RIAA that explains the state of the industry and the historical trends in recorded music sales, and the buildup to Hallman's anniversary party for his Congress House Studio...his 33 1/3rd anniversary, of course.
The documentary shines when it shows Hallman's interpersonal relationships: the way the people he's worked with describe his mentorship, showing him patiently working in the recording studio, rehearsing songs with his friends the night before the party, he and his wife discussing their concern for their son, who hopes to be a professional musician himself someday. I also appreciated the commentary from indie record heads, who are of course crunched the most. That being said, the importance of community is key here: it's something machines can never replace.
A major theme of the documentary is that there's increasingly less room for a "middle class" musician in the industry -- that is, someone who can make a steady living without resorting to any other kinds of work. This is, of course, true in the rest of the country as well but the much-touted "creative class" feels the squeeze the most. And while the film ends on a determined note, it doesn't provide many answers. (Of course, nobody has them.)
There are a few things I'd like to have seen more of here. For one, the majority of the artists interviewed were on the other side of 40: what goes into a younger musician's career plan knowing they face even more insurmountable odds than their predecessors. And while the sketch of Hallman's remarkable early career as a musician is in sharp contrast with the way things are now, I would've loved to see more of him in the studio. Most laypeople (myself included) don't really know what's actually involved in a recording session. We know the guy is good at his job because everyone says so -- but I wanted to see more of what that looks like! Similarly, Hallman worked with a number of female singer-songwriters after his work with DiFranco: how does he feel about shaping an entire generation of singer-songwriters and beyond?
But you can't fit everything into 90 minutes and documentaries are supposed to inspire a search for further knowledge. If anyone reading this has sources that can help me answer my questions, please send them my way so I can post them up here.
You can purchase The Shopkeeper here.