On Saturday, record shops across the country will observe the fifth annual nationwide celebration of in-person commerce known as Record Store Day. Organized by coalitions of independent record stores, many record labels use the occasion to release collectible vinyl, limited-edition CDs and live material. For many of those stores, it'll be the single largest sales day of the entire year. For a struggling recording industry, it'll be like a one-day trip back in time.
Josh Madell opened the small record store that sits on 4th Street near the corner of Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan 15 years ago. At the time, it was supposed to be the opposite of the CD-stuffed warehouses of the era: small where they were sprawling; curated and exclusive where they were comprehensive. He opened it right across the street from a Tower Records, and gave his store a name that was intended as a jab at his huge competitor.
"We were called Other Music," Madell says. "We were filling in the cracks of what maybe the mainstream stores missed out on — really curating our selection from interesting, eclectic music that we loved from all different genres."
The landscape has changed since Other Music opened. Tower Records is gone, along with every other large chain music store in Manhattan. What those big stores promised was enough real estate that you'd likely find the album you were looking for. But they were bested by the Internet, where you can actually find just about everything.
After the economy collapsed, Madell said that 2008 was one of the worst years ever for Other Music, and that 2009 looked like it was going to be even worse. Thankfully, the store has recovered from that low point but he won't say that it's thriving. Vinyl sales are on the rise, but CDs are harder to sell than ever, and overall, he says, the decline in sales of physical product at his store matches the industry as a whole.
In a backroom office piled high with unopened boxes of exclusive seven-inch records, T-shirts and CDs, Madell says he understands why some listeners have given up shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.
"Listen, if I was a ravenous teenage music consumer, and I just loved hearing stuff, going to record stores does seem sort of antiquated in a certain way," he says.
When Other Music first opened, music fans who wanted to buy an album or a song had basically one choice. The CD dominated the marketplace, nearly putting the vinyl LP and the cassette out of circulation. Today, the people who come into Madell's store do so not because they simply want to hear a piece of music, but because they've made the choice to buy it on a physical format. Anyone who doesn't feel that connection has plenty of other options.
But Madell says there's a devoted group of people, young and old, who keep coming back to his store. It's the stuff you can't find online — that stuff piled all around him — that draws consumers out in such huge numbers on Record Store Day.
"It's not some abstract [idea about] supporting indie retailing," he says. "It's that we have great stuff on those days."
Over the last couple of years, music recorded outside of the major labels and released outside of what we think of as the traditional mass-market commercial system has grown into something that looks more and more like traditional success. The tops of the Billboard charts are regularly dotted with independently released albums. Arcade Fire's Grammy win for Album of the Year in February scanned as a fluke to those expecting a huge pop star to snag the award, but The Suburbs made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 the same week the band played two sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. (One final note to anyone who expressed — or feigned — befuddlement at the prize: You had 10 weeks to Google and/or listen to the five nominees in this category.)
This year, the world of indie music has another success story: Adele's, 21, the biggest album of the year so far, with just over than a million copies sold. That album is the product of XL Recordings, an independent British label (21 was licensed to the major label Columbia Records in the U.S.). Sure enough, one of its songs has been remixed — by a member of The xx, another band that records for XL — for a limited-edition release available on Record Store Day. Once the supply is gone, that song will likely show up on MP3 blogs and be heard by far more people than the few thousand who manage to get a copy on vinyl. Which is a pretty fair representation of the relative space filled by brick-and-mortar stores in a world dominated by the exchange of music over the Internet — for money or not.
Perhaps because of the technology that permeates the rest of our lives, the experience of shopping at a small record store remains tethered to two quaint notions: collecting physical product, and hospitality and personal interaction. It's a tradition that can stir fond memories of a beloved record store in the heads of longtime music fans like Rich Bengloff.
"Unfortunately, the store closed about 15 years ago, but in the East Village I went to Dayton's," Bengloff says. "They knew my name. They knew what I liked. They would introduce me to new music. That experience is only happening at independent stores today."
Bengloff has reason to say that: He's the president of the American Association of Independent Music, or A2IM, a trade group that advocates for independent record labels at retail locations, on radio and TV, and in government. He says the rest of the independent ecosystem still depends on record stores.
"People go into those stores to find what's new, and what they should be listening to. Without the independent music stores, we'd really have a problem," Bengloff says.
I talked to Bengloff in the conference room at the New York offices of Beggars Group, a British umbrella company that's home to four of the world's best-known independent labels: 4AD, Rough Trade Records, Matador Records and Adele's label, XL Recordings. The founder of Beggars Group, Martin Mills, is on A2IM's board of directors. He says that independent music has stronger ties to the album format — and to physical stores — than does the pop-oriented music that dominates singles-based online stores.
"I think the kind of people who want to buy and own music tend to be more committed fans, and therefore tend to be less pop and less mainstream," Mills says. "So therefore, I think what is at home in music stores is the music that's, generally speaking, outside the mainstream."
But just as indie music has crept into the mainstream, big pop acts clearly see something in the devotion of fans who still shop at record stores. In May, when Lady Gaga releases her album Born This Way, it'll likely ride iTunes sales to chart success. But tomorrow — along with special releases from indie bands like Fleet Foxes, WILD FLAG and Lower Dens — you'll be able to buy the album's title track and first single on a collectible 12-inch vinyl picture disc, available at participating stores. And if Gaga's fans do make the trip to record stores, Josh Madell hopes they find something they like and stick around. He says he feels sorry for people interested in mainstream music who want their albums on CD.
"There are a lot of people who have nowhere to buy records in New York now. There is literally no place to go to buy some new releases," Madell says. In his ideal world, Other Music would be "a bit more of a general service retailer," with more pop, jazz and classical alongside his specialty items. It'd be a niche store of a different sort, still serving an exclusive audience: the one that's interested in physical albums.