[JPL] Record Stores Fight to Be Long-Playing

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Fri Apr 18 10:42:40 EDT 2008


  
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April 18, 2008

Record Stores Fight to Be Long-Playing

By BEN SISARIO
NOW added to the endangered species list in New York City, along with
independent booksellers and shoe repair: the neighborhood record store.

The hole-in-the-wall specialty shops that have long made Lower Manhattan a
destination for a particular kind of shopper have never made a great deal of
money. But in recent years they have been hit hard by the usual
music-industry woes ‹ piracy, downloading ‹ as well as rising real estate
prices, leading to the sad but familiar scene of the emptied store with a
note taped to the door.

Some 3,100 record stores around the country have closed since 2003,
according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a market research firm.
And that¹s not just the big boxes like the 89 Tower Records outlets that
closed at the end of 2006; nearly half were independent shops. In Manhattan
and Brooklyn at least 80 stores have shut down in the last five years.

But the survivors aren¹t giving up just yet. Saturday is Record Store Day,
presented by a consortium of independent stores and trade groups, with
hundreds of retailers in the United States and some overseas cranking up the
volume a bit to draw back customers and to celebrate the culture of buying,
selling and debating CDs and vinyl.

Among the highlights: Metallica will be greeting fans at Rasputin Music in
Mountain View, Calif., and Regina Spektor is to perform at Sound Fix, a
four-year-old shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that like many has learned to
get creative, regularly offering free performances. At Other Music, a
capital of underground music on East Fourth Street in Manhattan that faces a
shuttered Tower Records, a roster of indie-rock stars will be playing D.J.
all afternoon, including members of Tapes ¹n Tapes, Grizzly Bear and
Deerhunter.

One-day-only record releases will also be part of the event. Vinyl singles
by R.E.M., Death Cab for Cutie, Vampire Weekend, Stephen Malkmus and others
are being sold on Saturday, and labels big and small are contributing
sampler discs and other goodies. (Schedule and information:
recordstoreday.com.)

³Record stores as we know them are dying,² said Josh Madell of Other Music.
³On the other hand, there is still a space in the culture for what a record
store does, being a hub of the music community and a place to find out about
new music.²

Some retailers are hoping that the effort is not too late. Jammyland and the
Downtown Music Gallery, two East Village institutions ‹ Jammyland, on Third
Street, specializes in rare reggae, and Downtown, on the Bowery, in
avant-garde jazz and new music ‹ are facing untenable rent increases and are
looking for new homes.

Jammyland is ³the model of what a great record store can be,² said Vivien
Goldman, the author of ³The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob
Marley and the Wailers¹ Album of the Century² and other books. ³D.J.¹s
congregate there from all over and exchange ideas. It¹s a crucible of music
knowledge.²

For a local music shopper with a memory of even just a few years, the East
Village and the Lower East Side are quickly becoming a record-store
graveyard. Across from Jammyland is the former home of Dance Tracks, a
premier dance and electronic outlet, which closed late last year, as did
Finyl Vinyl, on Sixth Street. Stooz on Seventh Street, Sonic Groove on
Avenue B, Accidental on Avenue A, Wowsville on Second Avenue and Bate, an
essential Latin store on Delancey Street ‹ all gone, to say nothing of
stores in other neighborhoods, like Midnight Records in Chelsea and NYCD on
the Upper West Side.

³Rent is up, and sales are down,² Malcolm Allen of Jammyland said as he sold
a few Jamaican-made 45s to a customer last weekend. ³Not a good
combination.²

Like many longtime clerks, Mr. Allen is frighteningly knowledgeable. Testing
out a random single on the store turntable, he discerned in a few seconds
that it had the wrong label: it wasn¹t ³Good Morning Dub,² he said, but
rather U-Roy¹s ³Music Addict,² from around 1987, itself a response to Horace
Ferguson¹s ³Sensi Addict.² That earned him a quick sale, and later research
confirmed that he was right on the money.

Casually dispensed expert knowledge like that is exactly what Record Store
Day is looking to celebrate. Ms. Spektor, who started off selling homemade
CDs and is now signed to a major label, Sire, said that independent stores
had been the first to carry her music, and that their support helped her
career take off. And though she said she now feels contrite that for years
her music collection was made up mainly of items copied from friends ‹ ³I
just had no money² ‹ she is supporting the stores out of gratitude.

³I¹m the record label-slash-store nightmare,² Ms. Spektor said. ³Everything
I had was a mixtape or a burned CD. But I don¹t like the idea of all the
record stores where people actually know what they¹re talking about going
out of business. They have their own art form.²

Every year consumers buy less of their music in stores. According to Nielsen
SoundScan, retail outlets accounted for 42 percent of album sales last year,
down from 68 percent in 2001.

To adapt, many stores are devoting more space to DVDs, clothes and
electronics. That¹s the case even with the biggest retailers, including
Virgin Megastore, which has 10 outlets in the United States. (It has closed
17 since 1999.) The company reported that last year its sales were up 11.5
percent. But nonmusic purchases accounted for the jump; music sales were
flat. Simon Wright, chief executive of the Virgin Entertainment Group North
America, said that over the last four or five years music sales had gone
from being 70 percent of the stores¹ total to less than 40 percent.

³The sheer drop-off in the physical music market is going to inevitably
cause the space allotted to music to come down,² Mr. Wright said. ³That will
obviously contribute to further decline.² He added that the future of
Virgin¹s Union Square location was up in the air; though profitable, he
said, the store is just too big for the current market.

Whatever people buy there, the store is doing a brisk business. It buzzed
with shoppers on Sunday afternoon. Some of them, like Kim Zeller, a
37-year-old clothing designer pushing a baby carriage, said that buying
music on the Internet just can¹t compare to the experience of browsing in a
store ‹ and getting out of the house.

³It kind of gets boring when you¹re trapped inside listening to music from
your computer,² said Ms. Zeller, who had bought new CDs by Erykah Badu and
the Black Keys. ³I still like coming to the store.²

Although many have been shuttered, more than 2,400 independent shops still
exist around the country. And even in the most gentrified parts of
Manhattan, some are carrying on the same as ever. A-1 Records, on East Sixth
Street, which has Polaroids out front of the D.J.¹s who shop there, is still
a popular trove of rare vinyl, as are the Academy outlet on East 12th
Street, Record Runner and Strider on Jones Street, and the venerable House
of Oldies on Carmine Street. The Academy store on West 18th Street has one
of the most picked-over CD inventories in the city.

Products that aren¹t fundamentally made up of ones and zeros ‹ vinyl
records, for instance, which have a habit of turning casual fans into
collectors ‹ have proved a salvation for many retailers. Eric Levin, the
owner of Criminal Records in Atlanta and one of the organizers of Record
Store Day, said vinyl accounted for a quarter of his music sales.

³That may only be a niche as we go forward,² Mr. Levin said, ³but it¹ll be a
giant niche you can make a lot of money on.²

For many New York shops, however, the real estate crunch is making survival
difficult. The Downtown Music Gallery, which sells about $60,000 in CDs,
DVDs and other items every month, has been searching for a new home for six
months, said Bruce Lee Gallanter, its founder. So far it hasn¹t been able to
find anything affordable in its namesake area in Lower Manhattan and is
considering moving to Queens, Brooklyn or Washington Heights.

³We would love to stay downtown,² Mr. Gallanter said. ³That¹s what we¹re all
about. But we have to be realistic.²


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