Record Stores Fight to Be Long-Playing
NOW added to the endangered species list in New York City, along with independent booksellers and shoe repair: the neighborhood record store.
The hole-in-the-wall specialty shops that have long made Lower Manhattan a destination for a particular kind of shopper have never made a great deal of money. But in recent years they have been hit hard by the usual music-industry woes — piracy, downloading — as well as rising real estate prices, leading to the sad but familiar scene of the emptied store with a note taped to the door.
Some 3,100 record stores around the country have closed since 2003, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a market research firm. And that’s not just the big boxes like the 89 Tower Records outlets that closed at the end of 2006; nearly half were independent shops. In Manhattan and Brooklyn at least 80 stores have shut down in the last five years.
But the survivors aren’t giving up just yet. Saturday is Record Store Day, presented by a consortium of independent stores and trade groups, with hundreds of retailers in the United States and some overseas cranking up the volume a bit to draw back customers and to celebrate the culture of buying, selling and debating CDs and vinyl.
Among the highlights: Metallica will be greeting fans at Rasputin Music in Mountain View, Calif., and Regina Spektor is to perform at Sound Fix, a four-year-old shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that like many has learned to get creative, regularly offering free performances. At Other Music, a capital of underground music on East Fourth Street in Manhattan that faces a shuttered Tower Records, a roster of indie-rock stars will be playing D.J. all afternoon, including members of Tapes ’n Tapes, Grizzly Bear and Deerhunter.
One-day-only record releases will also be part of the event. Vinyl singles by R.E.M., Death Cab for Cutie, Vampire Weekend, Stephen Malkmus and others are being sold on Saturday, and labels big and small are contributing sampler discs and other goodies. (Schedule and information: recordstoreday.com.)
“Record stores as we know them are dying,” said Josh Madell of Other Music. “On the other hand, there is still a space in the culture for what a record store does, being a hub of the music community and a place to find out about new music.”
Some retailers are hoping that the effort is not too late. Jammyland and the Downtown Music Gallery, two East Village institutions — Jammyland, on Third Street, specializes in rare reggae, and Downtown, on the Bowery, in avant-garde jazz and new music — are facing untenable rent increases and are looking for new homes.
Jammyland is “the model of what a great record store can be,” said Vivien Goldman, the author of “The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century” and other books. “D.J.’s congregate there from all over and exchange ideas. It’s a crucible of music knowledge.”
For a local music shopper with a memory of even just a few years, the East Village and the Lower East Side are quickly becoming a record-store graveyard. Across from Jammyland is the former home of Dance Tracks, a premier dance and electronic outlet, which closed late last year, as did Finyl Vinyl, on Sixth Street. Stooz on Seventh Street, Sonic Groove on Avenue B, Accidental on Avenue A, Wowsville on Second Avenue and Bate, an essential Latin store on Delancey Street — all gone, to say nothing of stores in other neighborhoods, like Midnight Records in Chelsea and NYCD on the Upper West Side.
“Rent is up, and sales are down,” Malcolm Allen of Jammyland said as he sold a few Jamaican-made 45s to a customer last weekend. “Not a good combination.”
Like many longtime clerks, Mr. Allen is frighteningly knowledgeable. Testing out a random single on the store turntable, he discerned in a few seconds that it had the wrong label: it wasn’t “Good Morning Dub,” he said, but rather U-Roy’s “Music Addict,” from around 1987, itself a response to Horace Ferguson’s “Sensi Addict.” That earned him a quick sale, and later research confirmed that he was right on the money.
Casually dispensed expert knowledge like that is exactly what Record Store Day is looking to celebrate. Ms. Spektor, who started off selling homemade CDs and is now signed to a major label, Sire, said that independent stores had been the first to carry her music, and that their support helped her career take off. And though she said she now feels contrite that for years her music collection was made up mainly of items copied from friends — “I just had no money” — she is supporting the stores out of gratitude.
“I’m the record label-slash-store nightmare,” Ms. Spektor said. “Everything I had was a mixtape or a burned CD. But I don’t like the idea of all the record stores where people actually know what they’re talking about going out of business. They have their own art form.”
Every year consumers buy less of their music in stores. According to Nielsen SoundScan, retail outlets accounted for 42 percent of album sales last year, down from 68 percent in 2001.
To adapt, many stores are devoting more space to DVDs, clothes and electronics. That’s the case even with the biggest retailers, including Virgin Megastore, which has 10 outlets in the United States. (It has closed 17 since 1999.) The company reported that last year its sales were up 11.5 percent. But nonmusic purchases accounted for the jump; music sales were flat. Simon Wright, chief executive of the Virgin Entertainment Group North America, said that over the last four or five years music sales had gone from being 70 percent of the stores’ total to less than 40 percent.
“The sheer drop-off in the physical music market is going to inevitably cause the space allotted to music to come down,” Mr. Wright said. “That will obviously contribute to further decline.” He added that the future of Virgin’s Union Square location was up in the air; though profitable, he said, the store is just too big for the current market.
Whatever people buy there, the store is doing a brisk business. It buzzed with shoppers on Sunday afternoon. Some of them, like Kim Zeller, a 37-year-old clothing designer pushing a baby carriage, said that buying music on the Internet just can’t compare to the experience of browsing in a store — and getting out of the house.
“It kind of gets boring when you’re trapped inside listening to music from your computer,” said Ms. Zeller, who had bought new CDs by Erykah Badu and the Black Keys. “I still like coming to the store.”
Although many have been shuttered, more than 2,400 independent shops still exist around the country. And even in the most gentrified parts of Manhattan, some are carrying on the same as ever. A-1 Records, on East Sixth Street, which has Polaroids out front of the D.J.’s who shop there, is still a popular trove of rare vinyl, as are the Academy outlet on East 12th Street, Record Runner and Strider on Jones Street, and the venerable House of Oldies on Carmine Street. The Academy store on West 18th Street has one of the most picked-over CD inventories in the city.
Products that aren’t fundamentally made up of ones and zeros — vinyl records, for instance, which have a habit of turning casual fans into collectors — have proved a salvation for many retailers. Eric Levin, the owner of Criminal Records in Atlanta and one of the organizers of Record Store Day, said vinyl accounted for a quarter of his music sales.
“That may only be a niche as we go forward,” Mr. Levin said, “but it’ll be a giant niche you can make a lot of money on.”
For many New York shops, however, the real estate crunch is making survival difficult. The Downtown Music Gallery, which sells about $60,000 in CDs, DVDs and other items every month, has been searching for a new home for six months, said Bruce Lee Gallanter, its founder. So far it hasn’t been able to find anything affordable in its namesake area in Lower Manhattan and is considering moving to Queens, Brooklyn or Washington Heights.
“We would love to stay downtown,” Mr. Gallanter said. “That’s what we’re all about. But we have to be realistic.”