Friday, April 16, 2010

Record Stores are Relics

I have just over 1500 albums by my count, and though they weren't all purchased on CD or cassette, thousands -- if not tens of thousands -- of dollars of them were. Record stores became both a Mecca and a sanctuary for me in my younger life. My buddy Cialini and I went to Camelot Records in Eastview Mall every Saturday for the better part of a year to blow the bulk of our paychecks on the new music that was coming out that week -- as well as bricks of blank tapes for "dubbing" purposes. It didn't take Cialini and I long to amass a pretty huge collection of rap and hip hop albums of the early 1990s.

More than just being a place of commerce, record stores have always been a place of discovery for me. I have to admit, I've never been one of these DJ Shadow-type characters, going into the "back room" where the obscure vinyl was. But that didn't make my record store discoveries any less revelatory. Back in the days before the internets, there were no reviews online to tell you whether an album was going to suck or not. You had to either get The Source or RapPages to get the scoop. (Ironically, having only a couple of voices rather than thousands of them tended to lend more clarity than modern online criticism does.) But if you got to the record store and that month's issue of The Source hadn't come out yet, you were going on blind faith.

I would buy albums sometimes for no particular reason. I remember buying Stetsasonic's "In Full Gear" album because I thought the cover looked kinda cool. Ditto Grand Daddy I.U.'s "Smooth Assassin." I bought Lord Finesse's "Return of the Funky Man" because of a video I had seen once on MTV and liked; ditto Spice-1's "Spice-1" (a very bad album with one very good song). Record stores were not a safe place to take chances back then ... but that is what made every surprisingly good album such a great victory.

Back then I was a proud cassette man, partially because I found their analog pedigree more reliable than the fickle digital format, but also because I am a cheapskate and CDs were more expensive. Besides, I didn't have a Bose stereo or anything, so I didn't need CD-quality anything for the most part. By buying tapes, I could more quickly build up an arsenal of music that would later become the envy of a few of my friends. (This was the embryonic stage of a possibly self-destructive "ticker" mentality that has permeated into other avenues of my life and turned me from someone seeking pleasure in life to someone collecting the most shit.) There was almost nothing better than suddenly seeing an album that you had been mulling over buying for months in the bargain bin for like $1.99. I remember once I came home from the mall $80 lighter, but with 13 new albums.

I would quite literally quantify my paycheck in terms of how many tapes I could buy with it. I kid you not. I bought almost nothing else.

After college, I made it my mission to visit every single solitary record store in Rochester, New York, just because I loved going to them so much. I made quite a dent too, and spent hours upon hours sitting at vinyl listening stations and thumbing through stacks of CDs and tapes.

I used to go to Soundgarden in Syracuse, NY about once very two weeks, and I would drop between $30 to $50 on every single transaction. (I am physically and genetically incapable of buying only one CD.)

So with these qualifications in mind, please hear me out when I say this...

There is little need for record stores right now.

Now before all my record store employees and crate-diggers get mad, let me explain. I'm not saying that there WILL never be a need for record stores again, but right now, anyone with a computer can get any album they want for $9.99 on iTunes and the cost of a blank CD. (Some can get them even cheaper, if they know where to look. Wink wink.) The biggest problem is that while record stores are still a wonderful place to spend an hour looking through CDs, they are not practical in their current incarnation.

First of all, the staff at many record stores are assholes. I hate to say it, but it's true, and this is one place where it permeates both the mom-and-pop shops or the big box stores. At the mom-and-pop shops, the counter jockeys are aloof, too-cool-for-the-room hipster assholes who think they are Jack Black in High Fidelity. (This is a broad generalization, I know, but you know I'm not wrong.) They stare at their clipboard or their cell phone, and when you say "excuse me" to ask for help, they say, "What's up" in a tone that really means "this better be important."

The Best Buys and Circuit Citys of the world are hardly better. They may be slightly more friendly, but they generally know jackshit about the music they are selling. And at any one of these places, when you check out, they don't say "thank you" or "have a great day." They usually say "yuuup" as they dismissively hand you a receipt while looking the other way.

These oversights are simply stupid for the music industry. If a consumer can eliminate the annoying human interaction (yecch) that was inherent to purchases pre-1995, why wouldn't they? Why would I want to deal with some patchouli-smelling shitbag with a bad haircut when I can get the exact product -- the EXACT SAME PRODUCT -- online, usually for cheaper. I don't have to drive anywhere, I don't have to pay postage as I might if ordering from a catalog, and I don't have to put my pants on.

If anything, you would think that record stores would be bending over backward to make the customer experience more enjoyable for their patrons. You would think that they would employ armchair music experts who could not only point you to the album you want, but suggest one or two others as well. You would think that with download technology eclipsing their raison d'etre, they would find other innovative ways of dealing out the goods, much like other brick-and-mortar retailers have done with other products.

But the music industry has never been smart about catering to their customers. They have seen an unconscionable drop in sales, not (just) because the music of today stinks, but because they are not offering any more-attractive alternative. The entire idea of capitalism is that, if someone is willing to sell for cheaper, you go to them. Period, end of story. The Recording Industry has tried to litigate people into buying their wares, at exorbitantly marked-up prices.

And to me, this is the crux of why record stores are failing: they are following an old model, and relying on litigation and fear of prosecution to keep them competitive. (You know, in lieu of actually improving the attractiveness of their product.)

I think it's great that they are having "Record Store Day" tomorrow (April 17), and I may try and get out to a couple of record stores to show some support and buy some new tunes. (I have bought two CDs in the last two years, both by mail. I have downloaded dozens.)

But record stores are not going to recover until they drop their prices.

The bottom line is that with iTunes selling most albums for $9.99, along with the convenience of not having to go anywhere, record stores simply cannot compete. It is strictly impossible. But the price of CDs has not gone down significantly. Yes, it may be $8.99 now instead of $11.99, but that's a drop in the bucket.

When any new technology ages, the price naturally drops. It happened with the VCR, DVDs and players, TVs, computers... you name it. I remember when blank CDs were $1 per disc: now you can get a 100-pack for $15 if you know where to get them. It's natural evolution, and it's the way that inflation balances itself to some degree. But record stores have never received this proverbial memo.

Instead, you still have FYE stores selling CDs for $17!! Seventeen American dollars for a mass-produced piece of plastic that probably cost fourteen cents to make. This is the greed of the industry. Everyone's gotta make a living and make a profit, but this borders on extortion.

Think of music in opposition to the video industry. The video/DVD industry has a model: pay a small fee to watch one time or rent for a small window of time, and pay a larger fee if you want to keep it. There is a certain level of concession made by both parties in this transaction. If you only want to keep it for 3 days, it's $5; if you want to own it forever, it's $15. Simple. If you don't like the movie you rented, well it was only $5 to find that out; if you want to own it, here is a modest increase in the price, and you can watch it whenever.

The record industry has no such model. Unless you're in the library, you can't borrow a CD for $3 and then bring it back. Home recording equipment made that impossible. Why not, I'm not sure; renting didn't cripple the VHS market in the '80s and '90s, and illegal recording capabilities existed then too.

So what you have is a monolithic record industry who is not only unwilling to bend on pricing to meet market demand, but actually actively price-GOUGING. It's no wonder that the record industry has no goodwill with the buying public. They expect you to pay 5-6 times more than you should be paying, and that's with risking buying a crappy product! And all this for an unknown commodity you can't even rent ahead of time to see if you'll like it!

My solution: every record store should go the Fugazi route and sell every single album for $5.99 or less. You are still making a profit, you are underselling iTunes (by a lot, I might add), and you are bringing people into the record stores, where their eye might be drawn to another album they wanted. Oh and another one, oh and that one! They could walk out of your record store with four albums for under $25 ... instead of possibly one for $17.

You are also encouraging people to take chances on buying more music, and therefore broadening their scope to possibly purchase other music they might not have otherwise given a shot. If I know I only have to pay $6 for an album instead of $13, I'm going to take way more of a chance on trying something new that I might not have before. Good for company, good for consumer.

Again, the record companies are still making a profit, and I'm still walking away with a shit-ton of tunes.

Naturally, this will never happen, because the myopic, short-sighted music industry wants to squeeze every fucking penny they can out of you. They are not interested in creating a diverse culture of music experts, but rather of maximizing their profit-margin. What they don't realize is that if they would just ease up on their greed for a short period of time, they would probably get back on their feet.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get in my car, drive downtown, find a place to park, pay $14 for a CD that I can't listen to beforehand, and spend 25 minutes trying to get the goddamn plastic off.