Why Does Urban Outfitters Sell Dave Matthews Band Records?

by Alexandra Molotkow

DMB

Vinyl is a lifestyle product. Urban Outfitters is a lifestyle brand. Whole Foods sells vinyl(!!!), so it makes sense that Urban Outfitters would have a significant selection — last September they claimed to be the largest vinyl retailer in the world, and while the honor really belonged to Amazon, according to Billboard’s factchecking, they came in a solid second.

Vinyl record sales have increased by 260 percent since 2009, by 54 percent in 2014, and 53 percent from January to March of this year, compared to the same period last year. It’s not a huge industry, but it’s a booming industry, largely because records are meaningful accoutrements. And you know what? That’s OK. This is pure conjecture, but I’d assume most hardcore record buyers aren’t shopping at Urban Outfitters, and that most Urban Outfitter shoppers aren’t patronizing mom-and-pop stores on the regular. At the end of the day, everyone gets records, and that’s a mildly pleasant thought.

“A quarter of young adults buy records they never listen to, a survey of British music fans discovered last year,” CNN reported the other week. Note that even big-time record collectors — if not especially big-time record collectors — buy records they never listen to. Records are sold, at whatever price point, as precious objects; vinyl is not a particularly useful medium.

The same piece reported that Rough Trade’s 15,000-square-foot Williamsburg warehouse is the largest record retailer in New York City. Rough Trade, if you didn’t know, takes its mission seriously:

This audacious move relies on delivering a “third place” experience between home and work, says co-owner Stephen Godfroy, which other formats could not offer.
“(This) was the original role of a record store,” says Godfroy. “Being more than a point of purchase … a place of congregation for independent, creative minds, a place that rewarded curiosity with serendipitous discovery, appealing to all ages and tastes in music.
“Accessing music has become virtually free. This has put into sharp relief the value derived from owning a recorded music artefact, of which vinyl is the most attractive. Younger, ‘format savvy’ generations listen to music on many formats and devices, but increasingly choose to invest in vinyl for their most loved recordings, given the multi-sensory value vinyl uniquely provides.”

Again: vinyl is a lifestyle product, a modest luxury, and Urban Outfitters is a lifestyle brand. It’s a store that sells cool things, whatever they happen to be, and Hudson Mohawke records are cool, and Top 40 records are cool — basically anything can be cool, if you merchandise it properly. I wouldn’t be all that surprised to see a store window display devoted to Cape Breton sensation Ashley MacIsaac’s bestselling fiddelectronica album Hi™ How Are You Today?, but I was surprised to see DMB’s Under the Table and Dreaming resting proudly on the wall at an Urban Outfitters on 6th Avenue, among the Twin Shadows and Neutral Milk Hotels.

Dave Matthews Band are just about the only group in contemporary Western music that has consistently not been cool. High is adaptable, low is adaptable, out-there is adaptable, but DMB are the middle of the road. To be honest, I’ve never really listened to them — “Too Much” makes me uncomfortable in a not-not-good way, and I remember making fun of the vocals on “Don’t Drink the Water” in middle school, but I know way more about what the band means than what they sound like.

I never listened to Under the Table and Dreaming until just now, and Hey! this is pretty good. There’s nothing offensive about it; that’s the problem. If I’m getting this right, DMB stand for collar-popped, hemp-braceleted, upper-middle-class preppie types with hippie pretensions, and everyone hates those people, at least in theory, partly for being so smug as to not be totally evil. Yes, Urban Outfitters attracts a middle-of-the-road clientele, and not everyone is all that concerned with the meaning of Dave Matthews Band (and good for them), but… wouldn’t Urban Outfitters be?

After my initial surprise, I thought, OK, OK, this is how trends work: think of the least cool thing, and wait two seconds. If DMB is the least cool, it stands to reason they’d be “recuperated” eventually. Dave Matthews was the Peter Frampton of the ’90s, and Peter Frampton was booked for Lollapalooza in some ironic reappraisal, so I get it. But it turns out Frampton never played Lollapalooza. That was only a joke from The Simpsons. (To come: list of things we thought were true because of The Simpsons.)

So… why Dave Matthews Band? Maybe Dads are the reason. Under the Table and Dreaming came out in 1994. If you listened to it in college, there’s a good chance you’re in your 40s, which means there are tweens who grew up listening to DMB with none of the bad associations, unless they had some late-millennial older sibling telling them DMB sucks. But late millennials are way less adamant than Gen-Xers were about who sucks and who doesn’t.

In sum: welcome back, Dave Matthews. I probably won’t buy your vinyl, but I like you better than Pearl Jam.

Dad Music is a regular series on Dad Music. Stay tuned for Steely Dan.