Music stores like Ann Arbor's Encore Records hang on in downloadable world
AP Photo/The Michigan Daily, Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen
But as daunting as walking into a "mom-and-pop" record store can be, there's also something incredibly warm and fuzzy about browsing records in a culture den surrounded by fellow music lovers. There's something magical about pulling a vinyl record from a shelf based purely on the merit of its cover art, handing it to the store clerk and having him play it for you.
This might all sound hunky-dory, but if the financial wallop peer-to-peer music sharing delivers to these stores continues, this experience could be gone faster than you can say "Lady GaGa."
It's disturbing to consider how much the market for these homespun businesses has collapsed over the years.
"Ten to 15 years ago, there were actually about 12 record stores in (Ann Arbor). There was a way oversupply," says John Kerr, the owner of Wazoo Records.
"And, slowly but surely, they've all crumbled and there's just four now, really," he says. "And probably all four of those stores, including us, are struggling. ... I don't really think there's too many people doing real well in this business."
But thanks to the sweat and blood of these record store owners — and a miraculous stroke of cultural karma — these shops are still around, although the payout is slim.
"You're not gonna get rich at this," says Matt Bradish of Ann Arbor's Underground Sounds. "I am not rich. I work a tremendous workload. Most people wouldn't even contemplate the time commitment."
To Peter Dale of Encore, Bradish of Underground Sounds, Kerr of Wazoo and Marc and Jeff Taras of PJ's, owning a record store isn't a business — it's a crusade. And if the record industry continues to slump, these precious cultural hubs of community-serving self sacrifice could become an endangered species.
In many ways, the Internet has been responsible for the economic pickle in which record stores have recently found themselves. According to Dale, the value of CDs has dropped at least 50 percent in the last three years due to the massive availability of albums online.
Prices are "gonna continue to go down," he says. "That's just the way it is."
And Kerr adds that Wazoo has certainly been outsourced by sites like Amazon.com that conveniently "sell legitimate CDs on the Internet and have unparalleled selections."
Still, record store owners have found ways to harness the Internet's vastness in their favor. Dale mentions how the Internet has made it much easier to advertise to international markets.
"There's just not enough demand locally to sell a 50- or 100- or 200-dollar record," he says. "You have to find the audience, and the audience is national if not international."
Back in the Stone Age, record store owners had to slog through the cumbersome process of posting countless ads in specialty collectors magazines and newspaper auctions. Now, they can simply put pricey rarities up for grabs on their Web sites and wait for someone anywhere on planet Earth to bite.
Dale says he also thinks the Internet has "made the prices of records truer."
"Before, there were some things that were 'collectible' when they really weren't. They were just regionally hard to find," he says.
"Now, everything can be found — so the true value of stuff is apparent. You can just check online to see what things are selling for on eBay."
In fact, both Dale and Kerr have even started selling merchandise on Amazon and eBay, despite the looming corporate cloud these marketplace conglomerates have cast on the "little guys."
As Kerr says, "You've gotta figure out a way to make the Internet work for you to some degree. There's no stopping it."
According to Ann Arbor record store owners, the most salient effect of the Internet on business has been the dramatic split in consumer demographics.
"It's gotten rid of the casual listener," says Bradish about record store goers. "People who aren't that serious about collecting music or really listening to music generally just download. They're looking for a particular song."
Evidently, these apathetic skimmers of the music scene have forsaken record stores for the convenience of downloading songs for 99 cents from the iTunes store or "torrenting" music on their MacBooks.
Kerr says he doesn't think people like music any less now than they did 15 years ago — he simply thinks "ideas have changed about what we should be paying for it." And, apparently, about how we should be getting it too.
Given the prime real estate these stores occupy on campus, the expected collegiate frequenters have been surprisingly infrequent.
Dale observes that his target demographic at Encore has completely shifted away from the college-age bracket.
"Most of my customers are from out of town," he says. "I don't advertise on campus because the average person on campus doesn't buy stuff. They just take it off the Internet."
Drew Leahy, president of MyBandStock (a Web site that allows fans to purchase "stock" in a band in exchange for exclusive access to band footage and updates), exemplifies this cultural swing. He reluctantly described how he was recently in a record store and couldn't connect with it, despite his desire to do so.
"I like to search for music on a search engine and listen to a couple things and then decide what I like," he says. "This (record store) doesn't feel like it's something that's really hitting home to me, because of the convenience and the quickness and the accuracy you can get online."
Perhaps more than anything, local record stores are refreshing slices of reality in a world that's been increasingly digitized.
"We can't take our whole life and put it online. There has to be something you can walk out of your house and actually do," says Al McWilliams, CEO of Quack!Media, an independent multimedia distributor in Ann Arbor. "I have a special appreciation for record stores but I also have a general of appreciation for real life and leaving the house sometimes. I met girls in record stores."
Story by Joshua Bayer, The Michigan Daily, http://www.michigandaily.com, via the Associated Press