Do Music-Lovers Still Need Record Stores?

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Most people who walked into a music store on Saturday, April 17 were checking out Record Store Day. Independent store owners put the holiday into motion in 2007, and the promotion has since spread to over 700 small-fry shops around the United States. This year, most stores celebrated the day with a good deal of fanfare: limited RSD albums, fat discounts, and in-store concerts featuring the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Yo La Tengo, and Drive-By Truckers.

Me, I walked into a music store on Saturday, April 17 for experiment's sake. I'm all for the basic philosophy of RSD, for recognizing the corner shop as a vibrant cornerstone of musical conversation and enlightenment. But, really, is that still what my record shops are about? And I walked into a music store on Sunday, April 18th, to continue my experiment. After the limited-edition clear vinyl releases sell out and the bands get their gear out of the crowded store corners, what happens on the day after Record Store Day?

Used to be, I had a great relationship with my favorite stores. I'd talk up the clerks, pick through the crates of new and used vinyl, and hang around long enough to ask just what the hell song was playing on the shop's PA. I was that guy at the store; when I got mistaken as a clerk once, I played along for a minute.

Many of those shops have since closed, moved, or downsized. Every town seems to have a closed-store story these days--bills piled up, or the landlord killed the lease in favor of another tenant--which means every town has lost at least one music-picking genius. Conveniently, my favorite source now works his music-wise magic on an iPod at while tending bar. (If the pub's too loud, he'll hold the iPod screen to my face so I can scrawl the band name on a napkin.)

Two years have passed since my record store heyday. That means even without a bartender's suggestions, I've since adjusted. I can fake being a record store clerk more easily than ever, but instead of listening to promo CDs from a box behind a store counter, I can pick through free MP3s on blogs, BitTorrent sites, and my friends' USB sticks. I'm the kind who likes setting aside a night or two a week to find musical gems online--the way a bored clerk would during an eight-hour shift, I suppose.

As a result, I no longer shop at music stores as often. When I do, I tend to know what I want and walk right to the associated rack. Yet I still linger around, not just to browse but also to hope that conversations will bubble up with a clerk or another customer--"Have you read the 33 1/3 book about that record?" a doughy, early-30s guy might say as I finger a Big Star record. Yet in spite of everybody around, nobody interacts. We may as well have our eyes glued to computer screens in a coffee shop.

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Sam Machkovech

I went to Easy Street Records in Seattle on Record Store Day, and the place was packed. RSD placards littered the CD and vinyl racks, mostly advertising the shop's 10 percent sale on all albums but also showing quotes from musicians about their favorite record stores. Some were long-winded (Henry Rollins, Robyn Hitchcock), calling their favorite shops "libraries" and "gathering places" that rivaled anything a Wal-Mart or Target could offer. Others were more succinct; country musician Shelby Lynne won out with the proclamation, "You can't roll a joint on an iPod; buy vinyl!"

The stories got my full attention, but after the 10th one, I rolled my eyes. Touting the glory of an indie record store within an indie record store? Who are the stores trying to convince here? At Easy Street, I found a lot of things: customers, albums, discounts, T-shirts, vinyl, little recommendation cards attached to listening stations, and so on. But I couldn't find most of the RSD-specific, limited-edition merchandise I'd heard about--not the Built To Spill 7" vinyl; not the bizarre Weezer RSD EP, complete with a Kenny G duet (??); not even the limited offering from rising Seattle pop-rock outfit Telekinesis.

Nor could I find a helpful staffer. Three clerks manned the register, and with so many shoppers that day, I didn't blame 'em. The other clerks I saw camped out at the used CD kiosk, gabbing with a doughy, early-30s guy and giving me a snooty look as I approached.

I could have interrupted with an "excuse me," but after picking through the racks a second time and finding nothing, I assumed every RSD release I wanted was sold out. So, I went home and downloaded free copies of every RSD album I wanted. My computer responded with neither awkward interruptions nor snooty looks.

Actually, I grabbed one thing from Easy Street that afternoon: a copy of the free weekly paper, which had an interview with RSD co-founder Eric Levin assailing the film High Fidelity for giving local record shops an elitist reputation.

"We've never had anything like the fiction presented by Jack Black," [Levin] says. "In many ways, High Fidelity's one of the reasons we started Record Store Day. It did a lot of damage."

I laughed when I saw that quote. Man, I wish I could go to a record store these days and expect a Jack Black-level of interaction with a clerk.

To prove my point, I took a friend with me on the day after Record Store Day to a competing store for a good 20 minutes. We, along with five other customers, picked through records, looked at magazines, eyed the toy bin suspiciously, and did anything else that would make us look confused or wayward. The store's sole clerk didn't acknowledge us.

I eventually took the initiative, mostly because I noticed a huge poster for the Baltimore rock duo Wye Oak. The band was coming to town in a week for a concert, it said, and conveniently, a friend had just recommended their 2009 album off Merge Records. I approached the clerk, who stood in front of that poster, and asked if she had a Wye Oak CD I could listen to. The clerk looked befuddled. I repeated the band name.

"Could you spell that?" she asked. I resisted the urge to rip the poster off the counter and hold it up, instead spelling it out, and thankfully, she had a copy of The Knot handy along a rack of hundreds of promo CDs. Boy, was the disc pretty--if the female-fronted, morphine-drip Americana of Low took on some of the urgency and bleeding-guitar tricks of Autolux. I had to have it.

I can't say I'd have bought the CD if I'd hadn't listened to it at a spacious store's listening kiosk or hadn't been reminded by the gig poster. A MySpace listen doesn't always translate to an iTunes spree. And to the store's credit, beyond that promo CD selection, it devoted a listening station to bands coming to town for the next month, which is the kind of hyper-local content I expect a store to deliver. I appreciated some of the tactility I found on Day After Record Store Day. But ultimately, my experience was an awkward take on what I could have dug up on a computer instead.

Where does the independent music store fit into the average music-listener's song-buying pattern? The freshest stats freely available pegged independent shops with less than 28 percent of 2008 music sales, while iTunes, Amazon, and major brick-and-mortar retailers (Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, etc.) divvied up the rest. With that in mind, I appreciate RSD as a means of getting the attention of big-box shoppers. After all, the only thing that seems more archaic to me than buying a CD is buying one next to the Monster Cable stand at Best Buy.

Again, thumbs up to Levin and the rest of RSD's people. Now, can we talk about the days after Record Store Day? These are days that fail to cater to customers outside the "indie" pantheon of rock, "roots" (NOT country), jazz remasters, and a scant percentage of hip-hop and turntablism; days that don't approach customers old and new with conversations; days that don't ask "Can I help you find anything?"

Good stores are out there, and even the most smug shops I've been to in the past decade still offer, at the bare minimum, a curated selection of great, classic music. Maybe my report shouldn't be so snobby; just ten years ago, I'd certainly have no choice but to pipe up at a crowded record store and demand help finding that limited edition album I wanted so badly. With online access comes impatience.

Still, the onus of responsibility lies on record stores' shoulders, especially if they're putting on promotions like Record Store Day to drive in customers. The day after Record Store Day has a bad reputation for a good reason. My friend who joined my experiment, a casual music fan who doesn't buy music at Best Buy, gave me a one-word review of her experience with me: "Boring." She looked at the racks with a blank stare, not knowing much about the artists and finding the little handwritten notes insufficient proof of the quality. It's not that she didn't want to buy anything; she just didn't know where to start.

The next day, I ripped my Wye Oak CD to my iPod and gave her the CD. She loved the recommendation. She'd love many, many more.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site PubliCola.net, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.
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