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Are record shops worth saving? (Part 1)

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

Photo of the front of a record shop.
Encore Records, Ann Arbor, MI. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

Last Saturday, independent music retailers organized a national Record Store Day, complete with in-store freebies and exclusive releases from dozens of bands who want to see these business survive. As someone who spent two of the best years of my youth working at an independent record store, I have a nostalgic attachment to these mom-and-pop shops.

I don't know if I was motivated more by sentimentality or pity, but I felt an obligation to honor the spirit of the day and visit my local music store. The shop was ripped right out of "High Fidelity," and contained all the requisite elements for an indy music store: aloof, yet knowledgeable staff; equal ratios of vinyl and CDs; postered walls; a selection of local music; and a lazy pet cat. But nostalgia aside, I couldn't shake the reality that stores like this can't last much longer.

It's a shame, because some aspects of shopping in a record store haven't (or can't) translate into the world of online music. I'm not delusional enough to think that everyone should go back to buying CDs or LPs, but at the same time, my gut tells me that music consumers (and our culture in general) may realize all too late that there's something worth preserving about today's endangered music shops.

Billy Corgan talks about why he loves his local record shop.

What's worth saving

Arguing in defense of record shops, here are five things I think the best brick-and-mortar music retailers get right.

Rock 'n' roll ambiance

Photo of record store.
Donald Bell/CNET Networks

For the devoted, stepping into a great music store is like stepping into a temple. For these people, downloading music is like worshiping at an online church--there's no ritual to it, no pageantry, no reason to dress up. In light of the inherently private experience of actually listening to music, there's something balancing about discovering and purchasing new music in a comfortable public space that reaffirms your identity as a music lover.

The community aspect also comes into play. I've yet to see a music store that isn't plastered with flyers for local shows. Especially in small towns, music stores often act as a vital hub for the community's live music scene.

Inviting exploration

Photo of record bin.
Donald Bell/CNET Networks

The Web has made it very easy to point, click, and preview new music within seconds, but the experience often feels less like exploration, and more like judgmentally picking your way through a digital haystack. There's no digital equivalent to the tiny thrill I get crouching down to the bottom shelf and flipping through used CDs for hidden gems, or finding a carefully curated bin full of Balinese gamelan recordings on vinyl.

In my experience, if a shop is doing its job right and stocking the shelves with great music, the act of exploring and browsing is tremendously more satisfying offline than online. Even if you don't walk away with the music you came for, the exploratory part of shopping and discovering is different, more memorable, more of an experience.

Mixing formats

Photo of cassette tapes.
Donald Bell/CNET Networks

For the most part, shopping for music online means shopping for downloads. Sure, you could buy an LP from eBay, a CD from Amazon, or an AAC file from iTunes, but there's no single site that lets you compare and purchase multiple formats. As a music fan, I spend most of my money these days on downloads, but I'm also a sucker for a cheap CD or a rare LP.

Just last month, I spent $5 on eBay for the Moog synthesizer rendition of the "Star Wars" sound track... an 8-track cassette. For me, music comes in all shapes and sizes, and I appreciate that many independent music retailers still reflect music's legacy of mixed-formats.

Used music

Photo of the dollar record bin.
Donald Bell/CNET Networks

You can't get a used MP3. Well, you can, but it's called piracy. Major labels and online retailers despise them, but used CDs are a great value for consumers, and the used CD trade is one of the few things keeping mom-and-pops afloat.

I consider it one of the least appreciated swindles of the 21st century that we're still paying new CD prices ($12-15) for music with lower fidelity and no resale value. Without old CDs to sell back to record stores, I probably would have starved in my early twenties.


Promos, schwag, posters, limited edition vinyl, box sets, T-shirts, stickers, patches, bands have always offered dozens of ways to consume their brands and their music.

Photo of Bob Moog doll.
Moog Music

When you really love a band, weaving them into the fabric of your life requires more than a download on your iPod. Mom-and-pops seem to get this better than online retailers. In the extreme, you've got mall chains like Hot Topic, who put the collectible merchandise ahead of the music itself.

What'd I miss?

So, now you know what I'd miss if music stores vanished from the face of the earth. What about you? I'm sure I'm not the only one who gets a little sentimental about this stuff, so add your two cents in the comments section.

Before you take me for a total softie, though, stay tuned for part two of this blog post, where I'll confess all the record shop quirks that drive me crazy, and ultimately, drive me away.

(Continue to Part 2.)