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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

For the Record (Store)

Last week was the second annual Record Store Day, the admirable goal of which is to get people to support their local record store. This past weekend, Sound Opinions devoted their show to interviews with some of the heavy hitters of independent music stores, including Chicago's Reckless Records, the Bay Areas's Amoeba Music, and Austin's Waterloo Records. They also spent a great deal of time rhapsodizing over the nostalgic wonders of the record store that can not possibly be replicated by digital downloading.

I have to admit, it's been a while since I bought anything in a record store (I get most of my music these days from eMusic). But I find it slightly bizarre that Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis spend much of their time applauding the changes in the music business that are leading to the collapse of the major labels' outmoded business model, then spend an entire show lamenting the challenges wrought by those changes on the record stores' outmoded business model.

The problem for record stores, I should note, is not that the internet has enabled people to illegally download music that they otherwise have bought in hard copy -- studies indicate that those who download music illegally actually buy more music -- but simply that no brick and mortar store can possibly offer the range of choices one finds on the web. If I want an album by a relatively obscure band like the Pine Hill Haints, I could get on the CTA, go to Reckless Records and try to find it... or I could get on the web and order a copy in the time it would take me to find my keys.

These days, services like iTunes make it almost effortless for independent bands to get their music online, while sites like CDBaby make it possible to get hard copies in the hands of individual consumers without the hassle of finding a distributor to get their music into record stores. The record store as middleman no longer has much reason to exist, unless it can find some way of adding value to the experience of shopping there (and I don't consider being smirked at by a 25-year-old who thinks he's the second coming of Lou Reed but still lives with his parents to be value added). Unfortunately, the future of the record store may very well be that rack by the cash register at Starbucks.

Now, don't get me wrong -- I have fond memories of teenage years spent browsing record stores and blowing my meager summer paychecks (I'm looking at you, Rhino Records in New Paltz), and I still enjoy having a physical copy of a cd, with album art and liner notes and so on. I would love for the Lost Cartographers' music to be able to help support independent record stores, but our label doesn't have a distribution deal, and our fans will only be able to get our music online. And until someone starts a CDBaby-like business aimed at distributing physical product into physical stores (rather than just to individual consumers), record stores simply won't be able to compete with the abundance of music available online.

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