Sara D. Davis/AP
Randall Green looks through vinyl albums at Schoolkids Records with his son Adam on its
final day of being open for 35 years in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Record Store Day: Futile Cause or Worthwhile Celebration?

April 17, 2009 08:00 AM
by Liz Colville
On April 18, independent record stores will hold an event aimed at promoting the experience of buying albums from knowledgeable staff. But some say it may be too late.

Breathing Life Into CDs and LPs

The independent record store of legend is a place staffed by attentive and knowledgeable music enthusiasts, curious patrons, listening booths and limited-edition offerings alongside anticipated releases, all encouraging leisurely exploration and education.

But in 2008, The New York Times reported that “[s]ome 3,100 record stores around the country have closed since 2003,” citing the market research firm Almighty Institute of Music Retail. And the Daily Telegraph noted earlier this month that “there are barely 300 independent music stores left in the UK, down from 408 in 2007.”
The second annual Record Store Day hopes to reverse those statistics. On April 18, independent record stores—“real, live, physical, indie record stores—not online retailers or corporate behemoths”—will promote themselves with in-store musical performances, giveaways and sales.

Like independent bookstores, independent record stores are facing financial trouble and competition from the Internet. Online retailers, illegal downloading and concert tickets all pose as rivals to independent brick-and-mortars.

Background: Music moves online and stores shutter

The Telegraph points out that in the U.K., music is now sold in a variety of locations. These include music retailers, supermarket chains like Tesco, and online retailers such as the iTunes Music Store, Amazon and In the States, the trend is mimicked: Music is available online and in stores like Target, Best Buy and Wal-Mart.

But independent brick-and-mortars certainly aren’t the only ones suffering. Tower Records has closed and all Virgin Megastores in the United States are closing, a fact that sounds even more ominous when one considers that both Amazon and the San Francisco Virgin Megastore on Market Street opened in 1995.

Browsing a music store is no longer the preferred purchasing method. Amazon routinely offers deep discounts and free shipping, the blog Technologizer points out. Affordable subscription plans from retailers like eMusic also entice users away from the tactile but more time-consuming process of visiting a physical store. If one digital music store doesn’t offer what a consumer wants, another likely will.

Meanwhile, illegal music runs rampant, accounting for 95% of all music files downloaded in 2008, according to one study by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).

A Nielsen Company Soundscan report from 2008 found that album sales declined 14 percent from 2007 to 2008. However, “Music purchases (transactions) in 2008 reached 1.5 Billion, marking the fourth consecutive year music sales have exceeded 1 billion,” David Kusek reported on his blog Future of Music.

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Opinion & Analysis: Can the essence of music stores live on online?

NME’s Luke Lewis, who worked in a record store for four years, argues that many of the music enthusiasts “romanticising” about independent record stores are not actually “spending money in them,” and “would have spluttered with rage if any record store assistant had presumed to tell them what to listen to.” In his experience, “we were too busy processing the big sellers in a frantic bid to turn a profit. Which ultimately failed.” The store he worked at closed in 2003.

Kim Bayley, director general of the Entertainment Retailers Association, defended independent record stores as “a heady mixture of unofficial youth club, cultural centre, recruitment agency for musicians and music education centre. They recommend new music and they nurture new artists.”

But the Internet may be all the things Bayley described. If influential Web sites such as Pitchfork are any indication, music fans still turn to others—critics and music bloggers—for curated views of new music. Wired reported extensively on the “Pitchfork effect” in 2006, citing the Toronto band Broken Social Scene as just one band whose success has been significantly bolstered by Pitchfork’s praise.

“[M]ost listeners still find their music with the assistance of a filter: a reliable source that sifts through millions of tracks to help them choose what they do (and don't) want to hear,” Wired’s Dave Itzkoff wrote.

Related Topic: Live music grabs a share

Independent artists are finding more ways of making money, even if record stores aren’t: they’re going on tour. Pitchfork uses its influence to host the Pitchfork Music Festival in its home base of Chicago; it is just one of many such showcases.

“When business was good—as it was when CD sales grew through much of the 1990s—music labels saw concert tours primarily as marketing vehicles for albums,” writes Jillian Cohan in The American. “Now, they’re seizing on the reverse model.”

But most importantly, as touring companies like Live Nation have realized, “You can’t steal a concert. You can’t download the band—or the sweaty fans in the front row, or the merch guy, or the sound tech—to your laptop to take with you.” The question, Cohan says, is whether young bands can turn a profit like the older bands that dominate the touring industry today.

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