Why Record Stores Are More Important Than Ever
Jeff “Chairman” Mao introduces Red Bull Radio’s Counter Intelligence
As legend has it, one day in 1938 Sam Gutowitz, a toy-and-novelty shop owner in lower Manhattan, was asked by a customer if he had any records for sale. “Why records?” Gutowitz asked quizzically, believing such discs were antiquated relics. The customer said that he’d pay well for the titles he was after. So Gutowitz promptly (and cheaply) packed up a pile of old 78s that he’d noticed in his apartment building’s basement and re-sold them to the customer for a cool $25 – the Depression-era equivalent of more than $400 today. So began the new career of Gutowitz, better known as Sam Goody, founder of the first independently owned record store chain in the United States.
Besides recognizing a good grip-and-flip opportunity, Goody had impeccable timing. He entered the business at the dawn of a post-war boom of music consumption that coincided with increasingly convenient formats, from shellac 78s to vinyl singles and LPs to cassettes and CDs, that would carry the recording industry through the end of the century and inspire franchises like Tower Records and many others along the way.
Today’s independent record shop owners navigate a vastly different terrain: the scorched earth aftermath of the digital music revolution, which decimated brick-and-mortar shops throughout the 2000s and demonstrated with frightening finality that the most convenient format for consuming music wasn’t a physical format at all. (Among the retail casualties: the Sam Goody chain – which after a corporate takeover, filed for bankruptcy in 2006.)
On this precarious end of the boom-bust curve, no one these days has any illusions about building an empire. Vinyl sales may be trending up, recently hitting a 25-year high (with “vinyl is back” stories making for reliably feel-good copy every few editorial cycles). Yet they still compose just 5% of the overall market. The profit margin on new releases is perilously slim for retailers. Their suppliers don’t even accept returns on unsold or defective goods, and between eBay and Discogs, much of the used circuit has migrated online and is more competitive than ever. Now, more than ever, you’ve got to be a little bit crazy and a whole lot courageous to open up an IRL record store.
Which is all the more reason to celebrate them. Though nominally places of commerce, record shops at their best are, of course, far more. They’re some of our few remaining reliable real world bastions for discovery. Musically – because the best shopping experiences are those when we walk out of a store with something we love that’s new to us. And, when we want them to be, socially – because no one understands the struggle of someone who irrationally prizes physical objects like someone who irrationally prizes physical objects. While our tastes and interests may vary, within the walls of a record store we’re mutually bonded by our compulsion to hold music in our hands.
Losing yourself in a decent record store is to lose yourself in your thoughts.
Magnets for fellow misfits, record shops provide us the chance to venture outside our preferred lanes and inhale some oxygen, dust and mold spores alongside strangers we might not otherwise have planned to be in the same room with. Maybe we make new friends, maybe not (at least not without extensive record paranoia-fueled vetting). But at a moment in history when the perpetuation of divisions is suffocating us, something as gravitationally organic and simple as hanging out in a shared space of music appreciation/nerdery remains one of the most vital interpersonal bridges we’ve got.
I spend a lot of time in record stores – not just because I’m addicted to buying records, but because I relish the ritual of flipping through a bin or crate. It’s a soothing form of decompression, even when there’s nothing I necessarily want to buy. Just the comfort of seeing familiar artists, labels, sleeves and artwork conjures real life moments and associations related to the music. Losing yourself in a decent record store is to lose yourself in your thoughts. It becomes a natural and involuntary act – if you’re doing it right, that is.
Admittedly all this might sound a little romanticized, given the old stereotype of record store proprietors as curmudgeonly snobs who live to abuse their staffs and patrons. It’s intrinsic to some shops’ charm – a process for weeding out the crazies that even crazy record people can’t deal with (and if in doing so a few well-intentioned folks are alienated, well, so be it). That said, inevitably record store Darwinism has eliminated many such spots, tipping the ratio back in favor of the stores run by people who appear to actually enjoy their jobs.
The only record shop owners now left are the ones who truly want to be here. Talk a bit with them and you’ll start to notice a pattern to their origin stories: “It was a bit of an accident”; “I was burnt out and wanted to try something new”; “It was a risk and I really didn’t have much in the way of expectations”; “A lot of people thought I was crazy to do it.” They’ve nearly all come to a common and incredibly mature realization: that it’s more fun to create an environment to spread the music than keep it to themselves. In that respect they’re actually way better evolved as humans than we, their patrons, are.
You might even say that the very best record shopkeepers have been all about sharing well before the so-called sharing economy – disseminating knowledge, opinions and tips on the sounds they’re most passionate about in an exchange with customers that continually regenerates itself. We owe them, if not our business, then – at the very least – our thanks.
Counter Intelligence, our weekly celebration of record stores from around the world, airs on RBMA Radio every Friday at 12 PM EST. Tune in here.
Header image © Maxwell Schiano