Are record shops worth saving? (Part 2)

In his second installment, Donald Bell reflects on why record stores may or may not be worth saving in today's era of digital downloads.

Photo of Virgin Records store closing.
A Virgin Records store closes in San Francisco. It's fitting that an Apple store is across the street. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

Last week, I offered five reasons record stores are worth saving from extinction . As someone who's spent plenty of time on both sides of the music retail counter, I believe that the world still needs record stores; however, I also have a laundry list of record-store failures.

Many record stores are going out of business for perfectly good reasons that have little to do with iTunes or Amazon. In general, the brick-and-mortar music retail experience is antique and frustrating, and when it's bad, it's enough to make you swear off record shops for good. Consider my complaints below, and then click over to part three to learn what strategies record stores could take to stay relevant and vital.

Just because a store doesn't sell MP3s doesn't mean it can't innovate in the music retail space. These seven trivial brick-and-mortar aggravations keep me from coming back.

Music classification

It's not always easy or intuitive figuring out how my favorite band is classified in a given store. Does DJ Shadow live in hip-hop or electronic? Why is Gorillaz filed under indie rock? I wonder where they put Willie Nelson's one-off reggae album?

Shopping for music online doesn't require you to be an amateur musicologist; just key in the name of your favorite band and break out the credit card.

Waiting

I'll admit that the instant-gratification of the download era has made me less patient. Waiting in lines just to flip through CD bins or make a purchase can feel intolerable compared with online shopping. If I'm waiting at the back of a long line with just one CD in my hand, I'm likely to just toss it aside and make a note to myself to download it when I get back home. In fact, anyone with an iPhone could probably download the album on the walk back to the car.

Bin card discrimination

Sometimes I feel personally dissed when an artist I love doesn't have his or her own proper card in the CD bin. What kind of world do we live in where Squarepusher's dozen albums are loosely filed under S and Miley Cyrus gets her own roped-off section? Online, there are no second-class seats.

Getting help

When I have to ask for help in a store, I feel like a failure as a consumer. In the best-case scenario, a nice employee is immediately available to help, plucking the album I'm looking for from thin air. In most cases, however, I have to wait on a clerk who's only there to inform me that they're out of stock. Either way, I risk the emotional scars of having the store's resident Suicide Girl wince at my musical choices. By contrast, searching through Amazon or iTunes is swift, anonymous, and they never run out of stock.

Album only

For the most part, music stores sell albums, not singles--too bad, since most people are now accustomed to cherry-picking songs and paying for just the music they want. Music retail's unspoken answer to this dilemma is to buy back the CD as "used" after you've ripped the tracks you want, but returning CDs is a hassle, and you can never be sure how much money you'll get back.

Music previews

I remember how revolutionary it seemed when record stores introduced listening stations that let you preview a handful of new releases. Unfortunately, more often than not, these listening stations were stocked with major label pabulum I was already hearing on the radio. The albums I really wanted to preview never got the listening station treatment.

The idea of picking a CD out of a bin and not being able to instantly sample the music seems like an incredible leap of faith these days. On the Web, every song has at least a 30-second preview, and a service like Lala will even give you full-song and -album previews.

Photo of Frank Zappa album.
Whether your music store is download-only or brick and mortar, customers now expect everything to be in stock--even Zappa. Wikipedia

Selection

There's no way for mom-and-pop shops to match iTunes' always-open, always-in-stock catalog of over 10 million songs. Some may try (including California's Amoeba Records), but even the best shops are subject to the frailties of a physical supply chain and the constraint of shelf space.

In their defense, these stores often face the impossible task of trying to satisfy both mainstream and niche listening habits. One minute you're being scolded for running out of a Josh Groban CD the neighborhood Starbucks is selling for a dollar less, and the next minute, a long-time customer is silently walking out of the store, deeply disappointed that you don't have Frank Zappa's "Burnt Weeny Sandwich" on vinyl.

A recipe for survival

I'm sure there are dozens of other complaints to be leveled against music retail establishments (be sure to add your own in the comments section), but in spite of its flaws, I can't bear the thought of a world where record stores are nothing more than an antique curiosity.

In the next--and final--chapter of this series, I'll do my best to outline some strategies that may keep these shops relevant in the download era.

( Continue to Part 3. )

 

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