Anyone who’s ever financed the recording of their own album will know that there are certain things that really ought to matter, and The Shopkeeper is a stark reminder of those things. People matter. Can you think of an app that can replicate the relationships between songwriter, musician, producer and engineer? Thought not. Places matter. Can you imagine The Beatles without Abbey Road? Nope, neither can I. Things matter. If you’re making an album, why wouldn’t you want to make it into a something you can hold in your hands? Musicians today find themselves in a world where people, places and things appear to all matter a little less than they once did and The Shopkeeper pushes us, ever so gently, to consider the consequences.
Singer songwriter Rain Perry's debut documentary is essentially the biography of veteran musician, engineer and producer Mark Hallman and the history of the Congress House studio, which he runs in Austin, Texas. Woven through it is the discussion at the film's core: how can independent musicians continue to make a living in a world where music has become something consumers no longer pay for? The argument is that in an age when music lovers have almost entirely given up buying physical music and are increasingly streaming rather than buying digital music, the self-releasing artist and the small indie label can no longer survive.
If fewer artists can see a viable economic DIY model for their career then, in turn, the recording studios which rely on their business will begin to close their doors for good too. For decades, small studios have also been challenged by advances in home recording technology. Week on week it gets easier for artists to make entire records in total isolation and at very little expense. Songwriters needn’t even incur the costs of pressing physical CDs anymore – as half their audience has probably long since dispensed with the format. This means you can get your music out there faster, cheaper and easier than ever before but… even if you’re pretty popular, the annual revenue you’ll see from streaming services like Spotify will scarcely cover the cost of a cup of coffee.
The Shopkeeper's case is compelling and made all the more human by the interviews with a handful of notable musicians who have recorded at The Congress House during its thirty-odd year history; many of whom consider themselves blessed - or indeed saved - by the kinship and community of the place. Artists like Tom Russell, Sara Hickman and Ani DiFranco have been repeat patrons/champions/inmates of the Congress House and talk very fondly of their experiences of working in its unique environment alongside Hallman.
The Shopkeeper is in danger of being sentimental about its subject but it opens up all the major worm-cans around the music business and provokes the watcher to think seriously about its future. Hallman’s own story is fascinating all by itself but it’s used to frame a picture of an industry that has seen uncontrollably rapid change in the last decade. An industry that finds itself under real threat from the culture shift brought about by the digital revolution. It’s a story that needs telling. It’s a story that matters.
Review by Rich Barnard.
The Shopkeeper is coming to DVD and VIDEO-ON-DEMAND on August 28th 2017.