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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.

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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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