Wallace Baine: Now let’s praise the record store
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My tribe is made up of people who have stories of record stores.
Anyone who has a particular story or memory related to a record store, you can sit down with me at dinner. I will listen all night.
I have a record store story, several of them in fact:
The one where, shabby 14 years old, I bought an album on a whim, just for its title and its cover without having heard the music beforehand. (“Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart; don’t judge me, it was and still is an excellent record.)
Queuing, as a student, for a seven-inch single of REM’s “Radio Free Europe” and watching a schmoe in front of me get the last copy.
Having baby duty as a young dad and spending an hour at Streetlight Records in Santa Cruz while my daughter dozed in the backpack, leaving with all the recorded production from the Mazzy Star duo. (Relax, it was only two or three CDs. I wasn’t spending the baby food money.)
Impulsively buying Boston’s first album, used and on vinyl, for a friend who was half the age of the album itself.
Pardon the tone of nostalgia, lest it sound like the record store went the way of the 8-track tape (kids, ask your parents). Yes, some record store behemoths are on the verge of extinction – God rest you, Borders, Sam Goody, Tower – but the small independent record store has thankfully escaped the dinosaur’s fate. In fact, you can visit your local record store today and walk away with something pretty cool. Go ahead, we’ll wait.
Next weekend is a great opportunity to pay tribute to America’s greatest touchstone. April 23 is officially Record Store Day, as proclaimed by more than 1,400 independent record stores in the United States and thousands more abroad. Participating record stores locally include Streetlight Records and Metavinyl in Santa Cruz.
What is Record Store Day mean? On a practical level, this means a huge amount of exclusive and limited edition products outings and other goodies of the recording industry will drop that day in one place: your local participating independent record store. In the past, queues formed early to get the best new stuff. And if you’re the kind of person who would gladly get up early to snag Lou Reed’s 1971 RCA demos on vinyl, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
In a way, a Spotify-bound world has made the local record store the last redoubt for the consummate music nerd, and if you fall into that category, you probably like this situation just fine: “Let the normies find their Billy Joel CDs elsewhere.” But there was a time, not so long ago, when you couldn’t just crank out a specific song to the tune like you can today. only portal through which you could find your jams – unless you knew of a particularly well-stocked jukebox or had the patience for your favorite radio station’s request line (again, kids, ask your parents). Every music lover has, at one time or another, walked through the doors of a record store.
Even if you haven’t set foot in a record store since Olivia Rodrigo was born (parents, ask your kids), RSD is a great time to acknowledge the record store’s role in delivering the world of musical fullness that we all enjoy today. You could weave a pretty good narrative of downtown Santa Cruz, say, just talking about record stores, going all the way back from Streetlight to Metavinyl to Logos to Discount Records to Cymbaline to the legendary Odyssey Records (which closed right at the when Fleetwood Mac released “Tusk”, and no, we’re not suggesting a correlation).
It’s also a good opportunity to check out what’s going on in this volatile industry. Perhaps no industry has had to ride such crazy waves of technological and cultural change as quickly as the record store industry. The game of recording has always consisted in surfing on the changes of formats – 78 rpm, singles on 45 rpm, albums on LP, cassettes, CDs. But in recent years, adaptations have accelerated and volatility has increased.
When San Jose-based Streetlight Records first opened a store in Santa Cruz, its inventory was dominated by CDs. But as the home theater revolution took off, the DVD section exploded, giving the store a big boost. When streaming services took a gigantic share of the DVD/BluRay market, they retreated, giving way to a largely unexpected retro boom in old-school vinyl records, both classic and new recordings. Paige Brodsky, the store manager of Streetlight, told me that the percentage of her stores’ sales that come from vinyl is about 50% (half!). This means that a time traveler from, say, 1979 might be completely mystified by the bubble tea and the escape rooms, but he or she would at least recognize the inside of a record store.
On top of all this, the small record store had to endure the earthquakes that resulted from the jaw-dropping collapse of giant chains like Wherehouse or Borders. Imagine the see-saw ambivalence of the neighborhood record seller reading about the Borders bankruptcy in 2011: “Wait, is that good news? Or bad news? If you are looking for a stable, boring and predictable business, stay away from this industry.
These days, small record stores are dealing with supply chain issues, many of which predate the pandemic. The surprise resurgence of the vinyl record market led to a sudden and urgent demand for new manufacturing plants for this format, which were pushed to the brink of extinction by the CD revolution of the 90s. But the news is not all bad. Now, CDs are enjoying a moment of rebound with young music buyers. For all their market greed, streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, as well as satellite radio like Sirius XM, can often have the effect of driving people to the record store for a tangible copy of something they love.
So why didn’t streaming completely eat up the record store lunch? Why do people still go to record stores when they have full music ordering and recall via streaming subscription, often for less money?
I have a theory. It has to do with the social role of listening to music. Spotify or other streaming experiences… which tend to be a private thing, something to tap into when you’re running, commuting to work, sitting in the tub, enjoying your private setting in the privacy of your own headphones or mini Bluetooth speaker. Listening to records…it’s often in the context of visiting friends, hanging out in the living room, flipping through someone’s album collection as a way to get to know them better. In this sense, record stores are a community and connect with people, whether they are record store salespeople or other shoppers. And there’s a vibrant young generation who want that intimacy that us older folks once took for granted: the experience of having your own turntable and dropping the needle on a new album, either to explore new music, either to indulge in the nostalgia of one’s own youth, or even to discover a world that was going very well without you.
“I went to an LP party, a social gathering a few months ago,” said Paige Brodsky of Streetlight. “And the theme was nostalgia and each person brings a few records and plays a few tunes and then says what that record means to them.”
Paige brought a Benny Goodman recording of a live performance at Carnegie Hall, from the 1930s.
“So I brought this record and asked this question,” she said. “Can a person feel nostalgia for a time when they weren’t even alive yet? Obviously yes. I was there, on stage, talking about this record released 30 years before I was born. And I think that’s powerful. The idea of being able to live in an era even before being on this earth? How cool is that?”
Very cool, I would say.