How Record Stores Can Survive the Internet Age

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My take on Record Store Day—and, more important to me, the days after—got picked apart by a few columnists this week. I expected that, and I enjoyed reading the disagreements, but they each lacked a substantive reply to what I'd implied: that modern record stores have retreated, not advanced, as taste-curators and conversation-starters. Record Store Day is fantastic, but if shops want to hugely promote the holiday, then that one-day spike deserves to be scrutinized and capitalized upon.

I've since applied that scrutiny to my college days as a clerk in a used CD store. I avoided mentioning it before, as I didn't want to be accused of getting all High Fidelity, but something clicked this week. It took me a decade to realize just how peculiar my old shop was—or, more accurately, how bland and normal it was compared to the indie-friendly record stores I've frequented since. I'm starting to think my first shop was superior as a result.

In 1997, I turned driver's age, a big deal for most American kids who don't live in centralized, transit-linked cities (and who are lucky enough to get a hand-me-down junker from their older brother). But at 16, I was a reclusive, nerdy homebody in a suburb of Dallas, TX, with an ear-damaging addiction to loud music. That's all I wanted the car for, really—to get more CDs.

In the 56K modem era, my options for new, cheap music were limited to radio stations and repeatedly applying to BMG's "12 CDs for the price of 1" promotions under fake names. Like a starved mongrel—one that had been eating BMG's Son Volt and Spin Doctors CDs for far too long—I scoured the city to hit every nearby store I could. Most of them made it too difficult to sample CDs, though, and I didn't have a record player, which nixed Bill's Records & Tapes, perhaps the Dallas area's most legendary music shop of the past few decades.

I wound up at CD Source, conveniently the closest one to my parents' house at the time, with its four listening stations and its endless racks of $8 albums, all free from the tyranny of shrinkwrap. Listen to any album, the clerks said, and for at least four hours a week, I did.

Doesn't matter where you live; you've probably shopped at a CD store just like this one. The store's "pop/rock" section is a relatively inaccurate catch-all, including everything from folk to metal and even miscategorized electronic fare. The soundtrack, Christmas, and gospel/Christian sections are huge. The country section makes no qualms about stocking Kenny Chesney a few slots away from the Carter Family—same thing in the R&B section, where The Isley Brothers and Jamiroquai are practically neighbors.

The place doesn't look like a snob's outpost. The "recommended" racks are full of middling CDs, seemingly promoted to move excess stock. Posters for random national bands and movies line the walls for noise's sake, along with a few peculiar photos, like the one of the store's owner posing as Bruce Springsteen on the Born to Run cover.

So what's so great about it? Low prices on a massive selection are a good start, but I was attracted, weirdly, by the continual "Can I help you find anything?" philosophy. Clerks have to ask every shopper that question at least once, and they're encouraged to say that they're happy to recommend tunes, as well. I understand that shoppers may liken that question to a hassle; as a whiny teen, I sure did. Sometimes, though, brute force is the only way.

In one of my earliest visits, I was about to buy some albums when I saw a bizarre, white CD cover perched on the counter. It was Radiohead's months-young OK Computer, whose "Paranoid Android" single had just blown me away on MTV.

"Oh, you have to listen to this," the bleach-blonde clerk said, gesturing to the right to the listening station and almost forcibly putting the clunky Sony headphones around my ears. "The first song sounds like snow falling." She grinned and watched as opening track "Airbag" rattled in pieces around my ears.

From then on, the store forced music on to me incrementally. The MTV pop-rock of Everclear somehow became the baritone-sax attack of Morphine, which eventually got me hard into jazz at 18. And the Chemical Brothers' mainstream success meant clerks handed me Photek and Aphex Twin CDs, ensuring that my electronica palette didn't stay trapped in the big-beat fad of 1997. Folk, soul, metal, bluegrass, hip-hop—the clerks filled the cracks in each of my mind's CD racks.

I got asked if I wanted a job at CD Source while shopping there one day. "We wouldn't have to train you," the manager insisted.

He was right. I'd gotten to know the store's inventory system by flipping through its unsorted piles of CDs. I'd also gotten to know the staff, a mix of high school dimwits, snobby college dropouts, the owner's 40-year-old friends, the owner's elderly uncle, and even the owner's kids' Chinese nanny. I've never worked with a weirder spread of people—not even at the junk jobs I took after graduating college to pay the bills—but the ragtag bunch made sense. The owner had found an employee for every taste of customer.

If a favorite record of mine hadn't sold for a few weeks, I'd stick it in my employee "hold" box for a rainy day, in case any like-minded customers showed up and looked forlorn. When jazz-lovers shopped there, I listened to them argue with the other clerks about their favorite hard-bop trumpeters. I pushed whatever local CDs I could, avoiding any "support the hometown scene!" melodrama and making the most of targeted suggestions. I'd even sneak good songs onto unsuspecting shoppers through compilations, soundtracks, and wildly inaccurate descriptions: "If you like Sum 41, you've gotta listen to The Replacements. They're, like, their Canadian forebears!"

I thought I did a fine job fitting into the peanut gallery, but I could only relate to so many customers. I'd grown out of my homebody shell, thankfully, but our shoppers included a healthy crowd of moms, mall-rat teens, Tejano fans, yuppies on lunch break, soul addicts, NPR listeners, hip-hop heads, and whoever else you'd expect at a busy strip mall. With at least four clerks on the floor at any time, we annoyed most of that variety with our "Can I help you find anything?" nag. They all kept coming back.

Is that era done? Nope. While other Dallas music stores have shuttered in the past five years, CD Source is still in business, still supporting a large staff and nagging every one of its frequent customers. I'm not naïve enough to insist that old-timey charm is the clincher. There's also that all-important reason my 16-year-old self got hooked in the first place: low prices and easy ways to try before buying.

A music store can only curate and push music as much as it gives its shoppers freedom to sample and buy as they choose. Indie record shops don't exactly do that, unless you count those gray, eight-disc kiosks that look the same in most every small store I've been to around the country (and usually promote the same batch of national acts, the ones predetermined by indie-friendly distributors). Those kiosks are welcome, but they aren't the end-all that will sate a demanding, Internet-aware marketplace. Record stores will only survive the modern era if they open up the ability to sample any fare—and then, honestly, nag their customers about that fare (unless, of course, they recommended it in the first place).

Chin up and be a bunch of salesmen, ladies and gentlemen of the record store universe. We'll put up with it.

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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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