Dear Record Stores: I Love You, but You’re Doomed

Today is record store day. I have mixed feelings about this “celebration.” And not because it’s a manufactured celebration. Of course it’s going to get appropriated by the industry — just a glance at my Facebook and Twitter feeds reveals that you can pick up really special versions of hundreds of albums today, including a new Springsteen package — and of course the local businesses are going to get excited, because it’ll perk up business for a day.

It’s because — let’s face it — this is a jolt from the defribillators on a patient that’s been shot in the stomach. Record stores currently carry CDs, and CDs aren’t going to survive, and when CDs go, there isn’t something obvious to take their place (unlike cassette tapes — remember those, kids?). It certainly won’t be vinyl, which I call “The Great Black Nope.” Vinyl is cool, but realistically it’s just a Luddite reaction to the digitalization of music and something for hipsters and oldsters to own.

I still shop in record stores, even though I don’t even own an iPod or similar device and even though I write for a magazine that gets half its material digitally. I buy used CDs and then head home and rip them onto my computer. It would be nice if my car had something that played MP3s, but heck, right now it doesn’t even play the radio.

So what is it about record stores that keep me going back? It’s the compression. The concision of choice. A filter of people who know the music and can recommend something.

But most of all, it’s the racks and racks of CDs. You can flip through them. How great is it to hear the clack of case after case as you sort through Dion to find Dire Straits? How much fun is it to go into a store like Sound Garden here in Baltimore and see “Ryan ‘Don’t Call Me Bryan’ Adams” on one of those plastic dividers? How important is it for some people in your town to have a job? These are all things that I want to see preserved. But think the death of a physical music product is doomed, and that’s something I don’t want to stick around.

What’s the solution? I can envision what it might take for record stores to survive: You keep all those cases, but the music is digital. You just walk through the store, find something you like in the rack. Your cell phone scans the bar code, downloads the music when you check out at the front desk. Your car radio will play MP3s right from the device. You can call up the cover art and everything else on the screen, and it plugs right into your computer. Even the booklet has become interactive, with a bouncing ball over the lyrics.

Maybe a lot of us will miss that feeling of holding a CD case — I know many people missed the feeling of holding a vinyl in its sleeve (no one misses cassettes, because we liked our music not to be destroyed at the whim of the device that plays it) — but the nostalgia won’t stop the march of technology. I think more of us would miss record stores than would miss the things they happen to be selling at the moment.

So get something today if you want to. But you might want to ask the folks at your local record store when you’re checking out what their plan is for tomorrow when everyone goes back to the internet for their music needs.

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)


5 comments on “Dear Record Stores: I Love You, but You’re Doomed

  1. You’re right on target, Jon. Stores just can’t compete with the convenience of getting what you want without having to go anywhere to do so. So much is lost, however,in just getting what you want. As I used to flip through those bins (and I’m thinking of Record Theater on Liberty Road), I’d often discover records that I didn’t know existed. That experience didn’t diminish when the world converted to cd. In the meantime, while the radio’s stopped playing music I like, with rare public radio exceptions, I cn find, and be turned on to new great stuff, from the Internet from places like Folk Alley and froots.

    The problem is that I’ve lost the gate keeper, the store owner and the fellow customers who make buying music a true social interaction. I learned a lot from good store owners, and good store staff about performers I wouldn’t have known about. And it’s not just CDs that have become antiques; it’s DVDs and books. And me too, I suppose.

  2. There are a LOT of people like me who still buy physical media because they believe in the album context and who want the full information and access that a CD or record allows. I was at amoeba records yesterday on record store day and the checkout line was probably 300 or more long. I buy online a lot too, but record stores (or any store) who listens to their customers and not the industry or bloggy-pundits will and are surviving quite well.

  3. All of the music I listen to is independent and probably 75% is foreign (to me – not US based). My experience is that “liner notes” and more specifically, data on composers and performers and the sessions, is lacking or non-existent if I acquire it digitally. Or its just a poor scan of the printed notes which is often mostly illegible since the 4 inch space gets worse at 72dpi.

    Don’t misunderstand my comment – I rip everything I get and there is a place for digital copies, random access plays, metadata and portability. For casual daily playback, it is actually quite helpful in having me re-listen to things that can languish on a shelf when one tends to listen to the ‘new stuff’ and has a lot of acquired music.

    But I am NOT inclined to want a lossy digital format and no/poor “liner notes”. How many FLAC or OGG tracks have you downloaded lately from itunes or amazon? I DO pay a literal premium for wanting a physical CD and especially if from a musician in the boonies of Extramadura or Uruguay. It’s the postage that usually is shocking. On the other hand, that is how I learn… not from blogs or corporate media, but the literal connection between artists and mine with them. Plus, I like to support, as directly as I can, the artists who enhance my life. In turn they teach me and expand my awareness. It is always music first but it is also a lot more to me and having the physical CD (and LPs before that) has allowed me a much different hands-on experience than just downloading some hits for my ipod. 2¢ from em.

    • That’s why I like Bandcamp – lossless formats, full streaming, and it’s direct to the artists (in most cases). They encourage you to include real liner notes (and to put the credits and lyrics on the site itself). I can see why the industry has a problem with it . . . but it’s a great platform with huge benefits to the artists (especially independent artists like me) and the customers. If only it was easier to find new artists there.

      However, this is a separate issue of laziness/lack of necessity in the industry, or a failing on the part of the players, which have only recently acquired a large enough screen to display the liner notes. As printing costs have risen, liner notes in actual CDs have gotten (justifiably) sparser. Including more information will happen digitally – as long as people demand it or are required to provide it.

      Thanks for the discussion and the thoughtful replies, by the way. This is how we learn what is important.

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