The Demise of the Record Store

I’ve often said around these parts that collecting music also incorporates something of a haptic experience. Collectors that I know don’t only go for the music, although it is certainly the central aspect of their endeavors. Some collectors get off on special packaging and exclusive collectors boxes, others are wild about cover design, label discographies and liner notes. No matter what, there’s more to it than the music itself.

Because, in retrospect, I have really been collecting music more or less from the time I first came into contact with it, I also know that actually touching the object of desire, turning it around in your hands and analyzing its various parts used to be an important part of the purchasing process. Many of the LPs and CDs I have were also not planned purchases, but spontaneous purchase decisions that were influenced by the object itself rather than a mere description of it.

All of that has changed.

The advent of the Internet and the global access to information in form of reviews, forums discussions and written opinion of basically any type or form has certainly reduced my own forays into ye old(-fashioned) brick-and-mortar media emporium that I used to haunt, err frequent.

Yes, I’m guilty myself: The past decade or so I’ve increasingly caught myself purchasing CDs online after having checked them out in said stores, simply because online they were cheaper. In short, I spent hours in the stores checking out new releases or reissues in detail, trying to determine if they were really worth my time and money, only to run home to start searching for the cheapest offer online.

In the long run it became clear that just about everyone I knew was doing it that way and that the stores were beginning to cut back on their stock. Many of the items weren’t available anymore to check out and after some time, I found myself frequenting stores less and less, simply because they usually didn’t have what I wanted to look at. As more and more customers were turning to the cheapest online offer, the local stores were taking substantial hits … so much so, that today hardly anything that is older than a few days is still available locally.

On July 16th, the New York Times ran an article by Alex Williams, entitled “The Graying of the Record Store“, which was then discussed in the various music forums around the Net. This somewhat nostalgia-tinted piece is filled to the brim with alarming quotes – alarming, if you used to be a frequent customer at such shops. It tells of an owner facing massive financial losses and a totally bleak outlook into the future. As basically a whole generation of potential customers has disappeared, the 12-to-15-year-old market (that’s the one cited, although I suspect the problem is much more far-reaching than that), the future of just about any local record shop has become about as bleak as it can get. In this example, the owner had turned down the chance for another 10-year lease and opted to pull out of the business four years down the road. He’s giving up.

Yes, there are still plenty of older folks seeking out advice in local stores, but as is evident in my area, even that is decreasing because any sort of useful advice is usually not to be found anymore. The knowledgeable sales person has been replaced by your average student trying to make some extra cash, and if you try to ask those for the sonic qualities of this or that reissue, you usually draw a blank. They know neither the artist, nor the label, nor have a clue about production values. They’re there to make a fast sale, not to actually know anything about the product. My experience is that most of today’s sales people are lost without their computer and just trying to figure out if this or that release is actually stocked by the shop has become a major problem. Again, it’s not a surprise, because expertise costs money, and money is not what today’s average customer leaves at the shop of his choice.

Most of you have probably experienced what I have just described, and you’ve probably also been faced with the consequences that I can see all over the place here: Besides the aforementioned lack of current releases on display, competition for those few customers still willing to buy their music at a store has led to the disappearance of most smaller stores and some of the bigger ones. Left are those that are still wagering their money on the business, meaning those that have other fields of expertise to allow them to lose money on the CD retail business. The shops still available in my area are multimedia stores, selling mostly electronics (=income) with music on the side (=loss). Funnily enough, the music section in all three of the major shops has been forced to either the back of the store or the furthest recess of the uppermost floor, and from there it isn’t far to complete removal.

In 1994 I moved to this area and, at the time, there were 6 major stores in the next big town, interspersed with a few smaller shops catering to special tastes. Today there are three big ones left, all of which are either electronic mega stores or your regular shopping mall with a smaller music section. One second-hand shop has survived and all the other smaller shops are gone.

One guy I know well, who first worked at a smaller store, then at one of the major ones with a huge music section and, last and least, in one of those faceless mega stores, put it like this the other day: “If you are looking for the Boston reissues (which I was), look online. We had two, and they’re gone.” He himself is probably the last expert working in any of the stores left, a man (American, by the way) with an incredibly broad knowledge of music and music history, and he told me that his expertise is basically wasted on trying to help the by now dismally few customers find the latest plastic release on the shelves. As I stated above, hardly anyone comes in anymore to actually ask anything worthwhile and he told me that he had asked for a transfer to another section, then being in charge of advising people on portable media players. In short: One of the last dinosaurs gone (to waste).

Does this development sadden me? I’m not sure, really. Of course I miss hanging around talking to people with similar interests, experiencing the passion oozing from someone trying to pimp the latest release unknown to me, discovering that elusive limited issue I simply hadn’t heard of until told by someone in some record store, but the times have changed and record stores seem to be an anachronism about to be wiped off the face of the earth.

The one thing that’s missing today though is being able to check things before you buy them because, and I’m speaking from experience here, finding reliable online sources that cater to one’s taste at least informationally are really hard to find. It has happened many times that the members of some site or forum hyped a certain release endlessly and when I finally received it, I was disappointed. I could see why others liked it, but it didn’t do anything for me. Today, of course, one takes that purchase and throws it up on eBay or any other such site.

Yep, times have certainly changed.
And the world keeps turning.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. Great post, Volkher. It’s sad, but true.

    Say 15 years ago there were about four great record stores not too far from me. It’s now down to one and that one has probably only manage to survive because they are part of a small local chain and they sell both used and new cd’s. They also have had to branch to survive. At one point they only sold music and band paraphenilia. Now they also sell dvd’s used and new, music and feature films. They also sell used and

    new video games and they sell concert tickets for a lot of events in the Baltimore and DC area. I have been buying online more because the stores were carrying less and less of new more obscure metal releases. Also with my kids, the record store is more of a trip for me to make when I have to the kids with me. So ordering online is much more conveniant. I also been buying from two or three ebay sellers for the last several years who sell a lot of new cd’s for good prices and they ship fast.

    Reply

  2. Mark,

    it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s like that everywhere. It’s a viscious circle … more and more people shop online and more and more “real world” shops disappear.

    And we contributed majorly to their demise. 😉

    Reply

  3. Turn back the clock to 2000. I used to make the journey to all the shops in my area every Saturday and Sunday. I would start at the best, and farthest (about 20 mins), independent shop, 2 Guys Music. Every Friday and Saturday night, people would go in and trade their CDs for cash for their “night on the town”. I would be waiting at the door at 10am when the shop opened and I would grab some great albums. All used discs were under $7 and it was BUY 3 GET 1 FREE. Their staff was extremely knowledgeable in a myriad of musical styles. All the Rock and Metal imports were there from Europe and Japan and they stocked virtually every catalog title by every band. You could buy the latest Glenn Hughes, add an old Elton John album, and end with Dimmu Borgir.

    I would hit the local independent chain right after just to make sure I didn’t miss anything, it was 5 minutes from the first shop. On the way home, I would stop at this hole in the wall store that’s as big as my kitchen. This dive had competitve prices and I always bought 1 CD there just to give the guy some business.

    The nice thing about the trips was that I could find everything I wanted. If one store was out, the others would have it. These 3 stores were so close that I could price the new CDs and go back for the lesser price.

    Sadly, my favorite shop, 2 Guys Music, closed a few years ago. I still head to the local independent, Newbury Comics, for new releases. I buy on Ebay and thru vendors like NEH Records, Music Buy Mail, The End Records, Sentinel Steel, and CD Baby. It’s just so much easier to check 5 websites for pricing in a matter of minutes than get in the car and hope that what I want is in stock at that moment.

    I miss the “thrill of the hunt” and the ambience of a small record shop.

    Reply

  4. Steve,

    I also had one of those tiny shops, a second-hand CD store, that I dropped by every day (!) on my way to work, sometimes twice, checking in again on my way back home.

    At the time, people were unloading tons of basically brand-new CDs (presents, etc.) they didn’t want anymore and if one happened to be there, one could make a real killing. I bought hundreds of basically mint CDs, at less than half the price (often 1/3), CDs that had just been released.

    When CDs really caught on, the audience grew and it became increasingly difficult to catch anything worthwhile. Today, one would basically have to sleep at such a store to catch good stuff as it comes in. If you’re not there right then and there, anything good will be gone in seconds.

    Reply

  5. I never had the experience of having a small record store that I liked to frequent. In fact, I avoided the one indipendent record store I did know of because of the employees’/owners’ elitist attitude. That is, unfortunately, my only exposure to indie record stores. Every time I went in there it was an exercise in showing how much of a noob I was.

    But I root for the underdog, and I hate to see stores like Walmart flex such control over creative media like music and movies. I really hate Walmart. A lot.

    But a lot of the used/new music I buy online thru Half.com or other discounters actually comes from (I’ve found) smallish indie retailers who have moved from brick and mortar stores to the web. It’s a little encouraging to see.

    Reply

  6. Jared,

    you make the one important point that I have yet to discuss … small indie retailers moving to the web.

    It’s encouraging, certainly, but it does remove that immediate personal contact that helped me find so much interesting music.

    The way we are flooded with information via the web, it’s hard to keep up with worthwhile releases.

    The times in which information was more scarce were, for wont of a better word, “bliss”. 😉

    Reply

  7. I used to spend a lot of money in small record stores but now I find it really hard to find a store that isn’t full of crap music.

    Also, although I still like a browse around a shop I tend to avoid it now because I know I’ll end up buying a CD that I’ll be able to find for half the price on the web before I’ve even had a chance to listen to the first song…

    Reply

  8. Ian,

    welcome! Funny you left a comment right when I got back from town and one of those mega stores. I basically had to slap myself and put down one of those Universal Deluxe Editions because I know I can find that cheaper online.

    That’s one cool site you have there. I’m a headphones man down to the bone. Sennheiser in various shapes and sizes, plus a Beyerdynamic. Problem: The headphones I’d really like are just too costly. I never made it past the Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650, but ,damn, are they good.

    Bookmarked!

    Reply

  9. As someone who still works in a record store in the weekends (and used to do so full-time for over 10 years) I’d have to say this article is spot on. I buy most of my CD’s online because we only stock what is really popular and guaranteed to sell, Over the last 6 years stock has dwindled down to about 20% of what we used to have. It’s very sad indeed, but probably inevitable…

    Reply

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