Great Debates: Should The Old-Fashioned Record Store Be Allowed To Die?
Two of HipHopDX's voices debate the need for physical music stores in the first place. Are they a critical component in Hip Hop/music culture, or the musical equivalent to the video rental shop?
This Saturday (April 21) is the fifth annual Record Store Day, a retail holiday established to help support independent music vendors. With labels now issuing special releases each year, the event has piqued the interest of music fans, including in Hip Hop where this year's celebration includes unheard recordings by Atmosphere, The Pharcyde and Aesop Rock.
Looking at the sad economic reason why the holiday was put in place, two of HipHopDX's voices debate the need for physical music stores in the first place. Are they a critical component in Hip Hop/music culture, or the musical equivalent to the video rental shop?
Slava: Record Stores—Shut ‘Em Down, Shut ‘Em Shut ‘Em Down
Before "True-Schoolers" and "Hardcore Heads" get all riled up, a few caveats: I am not advocating that brick-and-mortar stores be wiped out. I have nothing against a physical place where people can gather to buy records and wax about music. Quite the contrary - I’ve sought out record stores all over Europe and North America whenever I travel. They’re some of my favorite places to visit. Further, I would never argue that record stores of cultural and historical significance (such as the late, great Fat Beats) be put out to pasture. That being said, the era of the record store is over—at least in its current incarnation.
I suppose this article’s title is a bit of misnomer. Record stores aren’t dying—they’re already dead. There’s no debating that online retailers give consumers access to larger quantities of music, often better prices, and provide greater convenience, so there’s no real use in debating those points. However, online retailers are decried for not providing a sense of community that only the nearest mom-and-pop store can. This sentiment is a flawed one, however. While record stores have always been romanticized by crate-diggers and old souls, they’re certainly not for everyone. There’s nothing quite as discouraging for a young person trying to share and learn about music as a hostile record store employee or regular customer forcing their beliefs onto others or mocking their tastes. This isn’t to suggest that the same thing doesn’t happen online—just that your friendly neighborhood record store isn’t necessarily so friendly.
The Internet, with its slew of websites and online communities, allows those otherwise turned off by such aforementioned hostility to consume and learn about music anonymously, never having to “defend” their tastes unless they so choose. And imagine: rather than being limited to the music made available or recommended by a single record store, those purchasing music online can read reviews made by thousands of consumers worldwide. This provides an infinitely more comprehensive feedback system than listening to the opinion of the guy behind the register.
So does this mean that every record store needs to pack up and make way for another Starbucks? Not at all. Record stores need merely to adapt. Rather than take up donations and spout anti-big business rhetoric when they become faced with going out of business, independent record stores need to realize that they don’t need to be “saved.” They can do it themselves.
Bailing record stores out is akin to bailing out the auto industry: why should you have to dole out your duckets to a business that’s in trouble because lacks willingness to make institutional changes? Changes that will make it a viable business once more, while retaining its authenticity and furthers its mission to provide a quality product to the customer? Massive online retailers such as Amazon have largely made your local crate-digging haven obsolete. So how can your local record shops hope to “compete” with the Internet age? Simple: all they need to do is join it.
Amazon and iTunes can offer all the libraries of music they want—they still can’t replace some necessarily physical aspects of the communal music experience. Rather than use their real-estate as a conduit for an archaic business model, I propose that record stores become the focal point of what happens after the music is purchased. Record stores should set up online shops, and offer those who purchase from them free admission into events such as in-store deejay sets, music signings, group discussions, and other interactive, in-person events. Sales could still be made in-store, but the majority needs to be shifted to the online shipping model.
Hip Hop fans should know all this better than anyone else. There’s no genre of music that’s taken to the internet quite Hip Hop. Whether it was Crooked I’s “Hip Hop Weekly” series or Kanye West’s “G.O.O.D. Fridays,” artists have used the Internet to drum up excitement for their newest projects and keep their core audiences sated. Just look at the latest Paid Dues festival, which featured both Odd Future and the Wu-Tang Clan. The former has a tremendous Internet following, while the latter has slowly but surely increased their online presence through the years, evinced by the overlapping in audience members for both crews. Even Prince Paul deejays live on uStream. Simply put, the Internet has completely changed the Hip Hop experience. The rate at which we access ever-increasing volumes of information continues to grow exponentially. Fans know it, the audience knows it - so why don’t record stores acknowledge this evolution?
Some say the Internet will water down the quality of music, and there’s some truth to that. Now anyone with a laptop can record an album, and anyone with a flip-cam can make a music video. That being said, names like Lupe Fiasco, Hopsin, and Slaughterhouse have made their living off of the Internet, because they don’t get radio play - the Internet has sustained their careers. Can fans really advocate that fewer choices can be a better thing? You might have to go through 10 or 15 garbage artists before you hear one that resonates you, but isn’t that what being a discerning, critical listener is all about? More to the point, artists can still make artistic decisions about how they want to present their music. Jay-Z refused to sell his concept album American Gangster on a track-by-track basis; the album was sold in its entirety because Jay believed that the entire concept needed to be experienced, rather than just a single. The Internet is choice, and choice is freedom.
Interestingly, we always chide music labels for failing to adapt. Labels are constantly preventing artists from releasing free music online, despite the fact that it’s far and away the best promotion they could hope for in this day and age. But, for some reason, it’s taboo to look at music labels with a similarly critical eye. Why? The truth is, music labels and record stores are both a reflection of the counterproductive, stubborn thought processes that have the music industry on life support. There’s no fighting the internet, even in the unlikely even that some of these idiotic bills get passed in Congress. It’s not that record stores and music labels can’t understand that; they just refuse to do so.
The particulars really don’t matter; there are a thousand different ways record stores could adapt by using the internet to their advantage. But one thing’s for sure: if they don’t get proactive, they deserve whatever fate befalls them. The traditional, tangible “record store” is dead.
Jake: Stop Downloading & Start Diggin'
Jay-Z said it best: “Men lie. Women lie. Numbers don’t.” Vinyl sales are indeed up year-over-year, and pressings continue to be made - and not just of Bon Iver and M83 albums either. If the record store (as we know it) is dead, somebody better check its heart, because I’m getting a pulse.
That being said, I think it’s naive for Numark or Technics to go and ramp up turntable production (the aforementioned growth is in the 1-10% range). Unlike the vinyl renaissance that occurred in my teenage years in the late 1990s, early 2000s, I don’t think there’s a possible paradigm shift—especially for us as Hip Hop fans. Punk, Indie, and Electronic music fans are my guess at what’s driving new vinyl-album sales, but that doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy the party. Consider the limited edition vinyl that has helped build the mystique of labels like Stones Throw Records—who frequently use the archaic medium to release exclusive music, including “Fan Club 45s.” Then there are cool-factor releases like Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II purple vinyl, Ras Kass’ A.D.I.D.A.S. gold vinyl or Nike releasing De La Soul’s 2009 Are You In? project. Records are cool, they’re collectible, and there’s a culture of nostalgic dinosaurs like myself who support these stores.
Like the comic book store, the sports card store and the hobby shop, the record store is a threatened species; but like so many in nature, I believe it will never go extinct. It is a meeting-place of music lovers, a time-kill, and a library for enthusiasts that iTunes and the like cannot compete with. Music is a social experience; that’s a big part of why we go to concerts and why we tweet, post and share music on our Facebook walls or troll message boards. Like so many things in society right now (sex, entertainment, education, art), the Internet accommodates but often does not completely fulfill. Record stores - especially independent or carefully-curated ones (Amoeba, Newbury Comics, Record Exchange, etc.) around the country will thrive always for offering an experience that the Internet falls short of. I am seeing more and more teenagers in the stores just looking for an experience, asking questions, reading credits and liner notes and hoping to experience the culture as we (and those before us) did.
Another DX contributor, Kevin S. Gary (@FASmackhead) and I have a weekly meeting at one particular Philadelphia record store. We often laugh at the fact that some folks that show up just to talk about music—with the clerks, the fellow customers, and anybody who will listen. It’s a community bound by interest, and often lured in by the possibility of the unknown. Recently, there were some college freshmen flipping through the Rap/Hip Hop racks in search of DJ Premier and Pete Rock-produced tracks. Neither had heard of Soul Survivor 2, which was sitting on sale at $5. Ever the eavesdropper, I jumped in their conversation to tell them how much I liked the Pete & C.L. Smooth reunion cut “Appreciate,” and they listened, purchasing the LP. I know that type of conversation isn’t necessarily happening in all stores, but it’s happening.
Chances are, if I’m checking out Dr. Dre on iTunes, the tagging system may recommend me albums by Snoop Dogg, Eminem or 50 Cent. But typically, it’s not going to drive an inquisitive mind towards recordings by DJ Quik, Above The Law or Kraftwerk. Growing up, that’s what stores independent and commercial offered. They weren’t always right, but that human aspect often made the art more interesting. Moreover, a 30-second snippet ruins some of the mystique. There is something cool about the unknown, the way Hip Hop fans recall ripping the wrapping off of classic albums for that first listen. As a crate-digger, I love purchasing things without much insight to them. Some of my favorite out-of-genre Rap albums (David Axelrod’s self-titled album, Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack’s 1972 album and so many others happened this way). People need excitement, and how many of us purchase or dismiss (or illegally download) an album based on iTunes snippets? I distinctly remember being a novice Roots fan in the early 2000s, when a clerk at one store showed me Philadelphia Experiment, a ?uestlove-involved Jazz project released on a small independent label. Things like Wikipedia have become useful tools in spreading the word, but a trusted source for music buying seems a bit more subjective—which is exactly what I want in something such as music.
Additionally, let’s look at value. Half of the reason digital music stores are promoted is convenience. The other half is profit margin. The great thing is, you purchase a new digital album on Amazon and you have nothing but an album on your iTunes/iPod. You can’t trade it in. You can’t give it to a friend (in a meaningful way, anyway), you have disposable art - word to Masta Ace. I still purchase CDs and vinyl due to the fact that it’s a commodity. People come over to my house to look at my music library like a book library or DVD collection. It says something about how I am, and where I spend my money. For as cool as we think our iPods make us, they say more about our tech-savvy than they do about what we actually collect - or what’s worth our dollars. I’ve probably owned 10,000 albums in the last decade - all physical formats combined (vinyl, CD or cassette). I’ve kept less than a third of that. But each time I decided I wasn’t going to keep something, I had something to sell, trade or give away. With digital music, you get none of that. The labels might have their fingers crossed that your laptop is stolen and you have to re-buy again later—why wouldn’t they? I think that lost allure is part of the reason the record-buying community vanished. It’s just not fun anymore. I can download this week’s five new albums, check them out when I feel like it, and be quick to grab five more next week. Sounds like hell to me.
I also think vinyl says something about how much an artist or a label believes in themselves. Five years ago, I received 300-500 CDs a year - one of the fringe perks of being a music critic. I treated almost all of the mail I received seriously, because somebody had invested in themselves to press up a CD (or in rare cases vinyl) and mail it out to industry folks like me. Half of the reason there are so many rappers now is because there’s no commodity to invest in. Just like the iMac replaced studio time, the MP3 replaced the CD. Everybody can rap and blow up my inbox (or yours) with 90, 120, 400 minutes of music. It’s free to be a nuisance. More so than CDs, vinyl is so expensive and such a hard sell that it means your art must be great. You must be making music with the level of craft heard in a Roots or a Raekwon, a Kanye West, a Blu or a Homeboy Sandman - as subjective as I sound. With the exception of Killer Mike’s sophomore album, Tech N9ne's All 6's & 7's and Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80, nearly every album I loved in the last five years is available on vinyl. What’s that say about the crap that fills up my inbox, and your Twitter timeline?
I agree with Slava in that record stores at the “big box level” are dying. How many times I saw R&B albums in the Rap/Hip-Hop section at Best Buy and Circuit City always baffled me. The same people selling you a digital camera rarely know anything about Digital Underground, and the apathy of the corporate stores showed. Word to Prodigy, Havoc and Charles Darwin—survival of the fittest. However, there are so many stores in every town and trust, their registers are ringing. For those of us who want to hold onto the experience we grew up with, stores are close by—and they’re doing better than you think.
Slava Kuperstein is an Ellicott City, Maryland native by way of Odessa, Ukraine who has been writing for HipHopDX since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @SlavaHHDX.
Jake Paine is HipHopDX's Editor-In-Chief. He has worked for DX since 2007, after five years as Features Editor at AllHipHop.com. He has contributed to Forbes.com, The Source, XXL, Mass Appeal and others. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @Citizen__Paine.