Record stores: from a mecca of culture, to depressing skeletal remains, to new life.

20 Apr


My high school senior photo-it’s okay to laugh.

Remember when the record industry was going through a slow, filthy, Saw-like death? Its caretakers couldn’t adapt fast enough – they were too busy adjusting berets in a way that would perfectly offset their single earrings. While the guys in charge (and also Lars Ulrich) insisted the consumer was the problem, their assorted branches fell like dominos, one into the other, crashing down, and falling flat. Eventually half of the major labels completely collapsed into each other until there was only three left, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group. For the most part – though not entirely – these guys still don’t have a clue. They keep chasing statistics and following forecasts from groups like Trend Report, keeping them afloat, kind of.

While the labels imploded, technology continued to grow the products that set the label meltdown in motion. Consumers started to build favorite sources for their digital downloads, an even bigger sign of things to come, they started to want higher and higher quality downloads. The affair with digital deepened, music lovers divorced the labels and in the end, the stone and mortar record stores got the shit end of the deal. With the inconvenience of driving to a location to shop, the $20+ cost of a cd, and the almost microscopic selection compared to what could be found online, traditional record stores never stood a chance.

Some survived, Amoeba because of its sheer vastness, the majority of survivors however had to adapt, they went online, sold through mail order or EBay. Most record stores unfortunately did not survive though, most just closed shop. My favorite record store became a golf shop. Is there anything worse it could have turned into? A golf shop? Sigh. Things haven’t been pretty for record stores, not until recently anyway. There’s been a reversal in Los Angeles, and many cities across America. It started a couple years ago with a few shops opening up here and there. Now, they are all over and it’s nearly impossible to keep up with them. They’re small, neighborhood oriented shops with focused specialties; Vacation Vinyl with their great collection of rock and metal, Wombleton’s collection of rare (and mint/near mint condition) synth albums, or survivors, Freakbeat, who have a large collection of vintage live performances. Even more amazing, they’re all doing okay business. So what’s the big change? People are still downloading, how are record stores suddenly surviving?

If you are familiar with the music industry, well, congratulations, and forgive the next paragraph where I break down 2011 sales for everyone else. According to Nielsen SoundScan, there was a 1.4% increase in unit sales (that’s all music sales). That number was largely due to the 20% increase in digital album downloads. 20% is huge, it’s 1/5, it comes out to slightly more than 103 million. There was also an 8.5% growth in digital song downloads, totaling almost 1.3 billion (yes billion) downloads. Physical sales are much smaller numbers. Physical CD sales dropped about six percent, sure, but vinyl album sales hit 3.9 million copies (2010 was at 2.8 million – big leap folks, big leap). According to many labels, the sales on special releases, box sets, collectors’ editions and what not are stronger than ever.

People can now purchase albums and songs for next to nothing, resulting in spending less overall, but getting more music. Less scientific polls have shown people still like the physical aspect of music purchases (the same results come up for assorted e-Reader programs and physical products). With CD sales still dropping and vinyl sales exploding, it’s obvious that people are going to vinyl for that physical connection. Why? Because you can see, even feel the grooves? Because of the sound the album makes when you pull it from the sleeve? Because of the smell of records vs. the sterility of CD’s? Because they can hear the difference between the continuous sound of a vinyl vs. the bits of sound on a CD? Because the pictures are bigger? Because they remember listening to albums as a kid and it feels like home, or because they remember their parents’ albums, or maybe they never grew up with albums and it’s an exciting different experience? There’s an array of reasons, including the simple fact that there is something intangible, alive and magical about vinyl.

We have more access than ever to new music because of self-releases, indie labels, online music players, and download services offering suggestions based on past purchases. As a result more people are more in love with music than they have been. There’s something for everyone, it’s no longer dictated by major labels, it’s easier to find and to own than ever before. People are going to shows; they’re buying from the bands, something special, something they can’t get everywhere, sometimes it’s a limited print of the tour poster, sometimes it’s the vinyl version of the album they downloaded. People are going into record stores and looking for specialty items, not the standard pressing of the Billboard charting releases. They want the box set, they want the limited edition, they want something special. They’re in love, and because they didn’t spent $20 on the CD, they aren’t bitter about spending on a special release, they want to, it’s a new era of the audiophile. These days it would be impossible for a record store to carry everything, even Goliath Amoeba can’t house it all. These days, it’s all about the specialty shops, they don’t have a huge variety, but they have exactly what you’re looking for, no matter how strange it is.

Saturday is Record Store Day. Lots of special events planned throughout the city, I’ll be hitting Permanent Records in Eagle Rock’s party tonight with live bands and Record Day sales starting at midnight. LA Weekly posted a blog with a couple other options as well. Record stores sign agreements that prevent them from telling the shoppers what they’ll be carrying until sales actually begin on Record Store Day, lending an aspect of record store roulette to it. Happy hunting.

This is a map in progress, I’ve sought out any and all record stores in and around LA, this is what I have found….so far.


One Response to “Record stores: from a mecca of culture, to depressing skeletal remains, to new life.”

  1. rmbodine April 20, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    This Rocks! Great photo, Great read…Do you know what happened to Vintage Vinyl in StL?

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