Amid sweeping market changes and technological turmoil, the neighborhood record store improbably finds a way to survive.
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My tribe are people who have record-store stories.
Anyone who has a particular anecdote or memory having to do with a record store, you’re welcome to sit with me at the dinner party. I’ll listen all night.
I’ve got a record-store story, several of them in fact:
The one where, as a 14-year-old wretch, I bought an album on a hunch, for its title and cover alone without having heard the music first. (Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat”; don’t judge me, it was, and remains, an excellent record.)
Standing in line, as a college student, for a seven-inch single of REM’s “Radio Free Europe” and watching some 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, walking out with the entire recorded output of the duo Mazzy Star. (Relax, it was only two or three CDs. I wasn’t spending the baby-food money.)
Impulsively buying the Boston debut album, used and on vinyl, for a friend who was half the age of the album itself.
Forgive the tone of nostalgia, lest it sound like the record store has gone the way of the 8-track tape (kids, ask your parents). Yes, some record-store behemoths have fallen into extinction — God rest ye, Borders, Sam Goody, Tower — but the small, scrappy, indie record store has thankfully escaped the dinosaur’s fate. In fact, you can visit your local record store this very day and come away with something pretty cool. Go ahead, we’ll wait.
Coming up next weekend is a big opportunity to pay tribute to the greatest of American touchstones. April 23 is officially Record Store Day, as proclaimed by the more than 1,400 independently owned record stores in the U.S., and thousands more overseas. Participating record stores locally include Streetlight Records and Metavinyl in Santa Cruz.
What does Record Store Day mean? On a practical level, it means an enormous load of exclusive and limited-edition releases and other goodies from the recording industry will drop on that day in one place: your participating local indie record store. In the past, lines have 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-ied world has made the local record shop the last redoubt for the consummate music nerd, and if you fall into that category, you probably like that situation just fine: “Let the normies find their Billy Joel CDs elsewhere.” But, there was a time, not too long ago, when you couldn’t just pull a specific song out of mid-air like you can today. The record store was pretty much the only portal by which you could find your jams — unless you knew of a particularly well-stocked jukebox or had the patience for the request line at your favorite radio station (again, kids, ask your parents). The entire music-loving world, at one point or another, went through the doors of a record store.
Even if you haven’t stepped foot in a record store since Olivia Rodrigo was born (parents, ask your kids), RSD is a good moment to acknowledge the record store’s role in delivering the world of musical plentitude we all enjoy today. You could weave a pretty good narrative of downtown Santa Cruz, for example, by talking only about record stores, going back from Streetlight to Metavinyl to Logos to Discount Records to Cymbaline to the legendary Odyssey Records (which closed right around the time Fleetwood Mac released “Tusk,” and, no, we’re not suggesting a correlation).
It’s also a good opportunity to check in with what’s happening in this volatile industry. There may be no industry that has had to ride such insane waves of technological and cultural change so quickly as the record-store industry. The recording game has always been about surfing through changes in formats — 78s, singles on 45s, albums on LPs, cassettes, CDs. But in recent years, the adaptations have come faster and the volatility has gotten wilder.
When the San Jose-based Streetlight Records first opened a store in Santa Cruz, its inventory was dominated by CDs. But as the home movie revolution took off, the DVD section exploded, providing the store a big boost. When streaming services took a gigantic chunk out of the DVD/BluRay market, it retreated, making way for a largely unexpected retro boom in old-school vinyl LPs, both of classic and new recordings. Paige Brodsky, Streetlight’s store manager, told me that the percentage of sales at her stores that come from vinyl is around 50 percent (Half!). That means a time traveler from, say, 1979 might be completely mystified by bubble tea and escape rooms, but he or she would at least recognize the inside of a record store.
On top of all that, the small record store had to endure the seismic shakes that resulted from the breathtaking collapse of giant chains like Wherehouse or Borders. Imagine the whipsaw ambivalence of the neighborhood record seller reading about Borders’ bankruptcy back in 2011: “Wait, is this good news? Or bad news?” If you’re looking for a stable, boring, predictable business, stay away from this industry.
These days, small record stores are dealing with supply-chain issues, many of which pre-date the pandemic. The surprise market resurgence in vinyl LPs has brought about a suddenly urgent demand for new manufacturing plants for that format, which were pushed close to extinction by the CD revolution back in the ’90s. But the news is not all bad. Now, CDs are enjoying a bit of a bounce-back moment from young music buyers. For all their market rapaciousness, 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 hasn’t streaming completely eaten the record store’s lunch? Why do people still go to record stores when they have complete command and recall of music through a 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 … that tends to be a private thing, something to tap when you’re on a run, driving to work, sitting in the bathtub, enjoying your privately curated tunage in the intimacy of your own ear buds or mini Bluetooth speaker. Listening to records … that’s often in the context of visiting with friends, hanging in the living room, thumbing through someone’s album collection as a means to get to know them better. In that sense, record stores are about community and connecting with people, be they record store clerks or other shoppers. And there’s a vibrant younger generation that wants that intimacy that we older folks once took for granted: the experience of having your own turntable and dropping the needle on a new album, either to investigate new music, to engage in nostalgia of your own youth, or even to discover a world that went along just fine without you in it.
“I went to an LP party, a social gathering a few months ago,” Streetlight’s Paige Brodsky said. “And the theme was nostalgia and each person brings a couple of records and plays a few tracks, and then say what this record means to them.”
Paige brought a Benny Goodman recording from a live performance at Carnegie Hall, dating back to the 1930s.
“So, I brought this record, and I asked this very question,” she said. “Can a person feel nostalgia for an era when they weren’t even alive yet? Obviously, yes. Here I was, on the stage talking about this record that came out 30 years before I was born. And I think that’s powerful. The idea of being able to experience a time from before you were even on this earth? How cool is that?”
Very cool, I’d say.
Record Store Day is April 23. Streetlight Recordsopens at 10 a.m. with a DJ set beginning at 10:30 a.m.