I was 13-years-old when I first saw the 90s cult teen flick that is Empire Records. By then it had already been out for nearly ten years. Still, after an unreasonable amount of time spent moping through the shelves of my local Blockbuster, I liked the look of Liv Tyler's skirt, and took a chance.
Year 8 was a tough old time but thanks to the American Pie 2 soundtrack, I had narrowly missed out on the cool crowd, who were trying to blag into shit clubs and sneak in Bacardi Breezers. Instead I tried my luck at playing the guitar and subsequently had to deal with my school crush constantly calling me a “hippy”. So, when I finally laid my eyes on the twenty-something teens of Empire Records, all 90s-grunge and greasy hair, I fell head-over-heels in love. The effortless style of Corey; an early Renee Zellweger role as Gina; the annoying-yet-adorable antics of Mark (with a “k”); the dreamboat, puppy-dog-longing of AJ and, let's be real, Debra was the beginning of arguing with your parents about shaving your head.
Empire Records isn’t really a film about a record store at all. It’s basically one long medley style music video – more soundtrack than storyline, but with that coming-of-age tinge that makes it a “cult hit” among nostalgists. The plot follows Lucas who, upon discovering the store is about to be bought-out by a big-dog chain called Music Town, decides to gamble what little money Empire Records has in order to save the store. Obviously, it doesn’t quite go to plan and the film follows a bunch of exciting revelations like drug abuse exposure; Liv Tyler stripping to her pants to try and seduce Rex Manning (a hot-shot popstar doing a signing at the store); a fake funeral for co-worker Deb where everyone admits their biggest fears, and a 14-year-old shoplifter called Warren shooting blanks in the store all because he wants to work there. Eventually they get enough money together to save the store, culminating in a roof-top party which, in the 90s, seemed to be the sure fast way to celebrate any success, big or small.
Watching the cast dance to the one size fits all alt rock of Queen Sarah Saturday in that opening scene, I suddenly wanted to dust all my CDs with that timeless Zellweger sass. I was hooked. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, being 13 and all, but if working in a record store was anything like the movie Empire Records then I wanted in. That feeling stuck with me, and when a position came up at my local HMV back in the late summer of post-grad 2010, I went for it with Mark-like enthusiasm. HMV might have been the real life franchise overshadowing longstanding indie stores, the Music Town conglomerate of Empire Records, but it was still one step closer to achieving my dream.
During the interview, the manager's questions consisted mostly of my musical taste which made my hope all the more promising – here, I could talk about obscure Madder Rose albums and my obsession with independent movie soundtracks without sounding like a dick. He wasn’t exactly like Empire’s manager, Joe – all boyband hair and father-like figure to the employees – nope, he was more like a slouched-over, pessimistic ex-metal band member that was still holding on to his teenage dreams of ‘making it’. But my imagination made it work.
I've worked in a lot of retail jobs. I've dealt with changing rooms (the worst), stocking shelves at 5am, and cleaning up shit/sick/miscellaneous liquids, but nothing could've prepared me for the disappointment of actually working full time in a record store. I know a lot of people wouldn't necessarily call HMV a record store (even six years ago) but as 'Head of Audio,' I naively thought I might have had a chance at discussing music with other humans.
Working over the Christmas period was the first mistake. If you're ever looking for the most torturous experience, make yourself listen to Michael Bublé's Christmas record all day, every day, for 3 months. Seriously, it will change you. My day-to-day activities mostly consisted of forever heaving piles of CDs over to the drastic cuts atmosphere of the sale section - a perfect living metaphor for the current state of the physical music industry - and creating Pink Floyd displays that absolutely had to include at least three of their products (think mugs and keyrings, not albums). “I decided I’d rather kill myself than meet Rex Manning,” said Empire’s Deb. Bublé's version of “Silent Night” will do that to you too.
Our stock room was located up four flights of concrete stairs, leading to an icy cabin where CDs would go to die and stock room staff would mock us with their casual wear. Thank Christ I worked at a time before the pink shirts were introduced. You’d be surprised how nihilistic one can become when you are privy to how quickly N Dubz albums are bought by the British public around Christmas time, so it was a joy to climb this soul-questioning flight of stairs every day to please the toe-tapping, my-son-will-get-everything-he’s-asked-for-and-no-I’m-not-leaving-until-I-get-it mother. The truth is, the only album that was ever in the stock room was either Rod Stewart's Greatest Hits or a Disney compilation. Everything else was always on the shelves. No customer ever believed this, no matter how much I prodded at the facts staring at them from the in-store computer.
Like Debra in the film, I was ready to shave my head and have my own fake funeral. I had grown to believe that every member of the public was a total idiot. One woman would bring back foreign movies time and time again, saying she wanted to, “Watch a film, not bloody read it!” Another would come in day-in-day-out asking when the Jungle Book was due to be released on blu-ray. The staff of Empire Records never had to put up with this shit.
There was no area to kick-back so us musos could have long heart-to-hearts with each other about how Joanna Newsom seems like an alien sent to make sense of human life through lyrics. Our staff room was one lonely table that only ever held that day’s copy of The Sun, along with a sofa that amassed some questionable stains and a TV that was only ever in use during a showing of an awful training video with some guy from Eastenders. Sometimes another girl and I would just sit and draw dumb shit out of boredom.
Perhaps the worst thing, though, was the in-store loyalty cards. Because really: why would anyone want to BUY a loyalty card? The rigmarole of asking every buying customer if they wanted to purchase an extra loyalty card on top of their “two CD’s for £9.99” deal was excessive and painful. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve asked, but given that there was a competition between staff as to who could sell the most loyalty cards (with a league table behind the till, nonetheless), I’m pretty sure it reaches the thousands.
All this time spent stacking prog-rock displays and passive aggressively suggesting why customers should consider a Pink Floyd key ring left me with a few questions. Where was my sassy best friend? Where was my rooftop dance? Where was my Gin Blossoms soundtrack? Where was my heart-to-heart with a teenage shoplifter? All I was left with was cranky bastards buying Toy Story 3 soundtracks, and the pleasure of finding discount stickers on my butt as I got off the bus.
Over that particular Christmas, yet another news story circulated that we weren't going to make it through to the next year, due to abysmal sales figures. Everyone loved Amazon and although HMV was nothing close to independent, the fact that we were dying kind of made us the underdog. Luckily, our boss called a huge meeting, reassuring us that because we were a flagship store everyone was safe. Here he was, turning into Empire’s Joe right before my eyes. I was weirdly relieved to hear another Bublé-filled day.
Then he asked “for a word” with me.
Calling me into his office, he reluctantly laid a hand on my shoulder, and said flatly, “We can't afford to keep you on. Music just doesn't sell any more. And let's be honest, you don't know anything about games.” Granted, he never asked me if I knew anything about games (I don't, but whatever). I sobbed; the kind of kid-crying that is uncontrollable and embarrassing and a bit gross. It felt like Rex Manning rejecting my virginity; I still wanted to run out to the roof, half-clothed and dramatically yet beautifully cry a-la Liv Tyler, while A.J. professed his love to me. But instead, when I got up to the staff room, a fellow staff member asked “What's wrong Sarah?” I sniffed back: “My name is Sammy.”
“I thought I knew what I was doing but I didn’t. I give up,” admits Lucas in my beloved movie, once the gang think all is lost. All I wanted to do was spray a cross through the HMV logo on my top and place all the decent records in an ‘Endangered Music’ box just like the girls in Empire; even when all was lost, these guys still did everything they could to save their little record store. Imagine, just imagine, if HMV decided to flip the bird to all the Beats headphones and instead, carry on being a store that was proud to sell music. I was ready to go all-out Warren and start shooting blanks at all the customers that only came in to buy 3D-TV blu rays of the latest Fast and Furious sequel. But I didn’t. I just walked out.
Empire Records never warned me that customers will consistently pick up CDs and put them in the wrong place; it didn’t tell me that we would only be allowed to listen to Kings of Leon’s worst album while we worked and every time I started a sentence with “Your” for two years, I wanted to finish it “sex is on fire”. It didn’t tell me that people would decide to make a phone call as soon as they came to the till; it didn’t alert me to the endless mug displays. HMV was basically what Empire Records would have been if it hadn’t been for Mark’s impromptu party plan during the final moments of the movie. I’d got it all wrong.
It was right about one thing though – the solidarity between staff. When the news came in that I was the only one leaving, those guys bought everything I had put aside for when my staff discount came in; they thrust horrific tequila shots at me during my leaving drinks and nodded enthusiastically as I bitched about management. When my record store career came to an end, I wasn’t like AJ – discovering my talents and getting into art school in the space of a few hours. Nope, I went on the dole for about a year-and-a-half. But at least I got this story from it.
Thanks Empire Records, you beautiful, lying bastard.