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Are record shops worth saving? (Part 3)

In his last installment, Donald Bell reflects on why record stores may or may not be worth saving in today's era of digital downloads and offers some ideas on how to evolve the concept.

Photo of record bins.
Thomas Perry

By now you've read what I love about record stores, and whatI could live without. In this third--and final--installment, I'm going to throw out some ideas for how to bring record shops into the 21st century. If record stores are to survive, what's the way forward? I'm sure these mom and pop shops are asking this question every day, so if you have any ideas beyond what I've outlined below, let's hear 'em.

I may be a romantic, but I still believe that in spite of our access to music downloads, fans need a physical space to explore and consume music, and to mingle with their peers. But to work, the High Fidelity throwbacks need to evolve.

The trick is to leverage digital music to give customers the best of both worlds, and to do it without losing what makes your store unique. If I could sit down with my old boss and give him some advice, here's what I'd offer:

Offer MP3s, even if you're skirting the law

Back in the day, indie record stores allowed you to rent new releases, so you could dub them at home and return them within a few days. With today's combination of iPods, Flash memory cards, and lightening-fast CD-R/W drives, why not offer a service that rips any five used CDs to a store-branded USB Flash drive for a flat, $10 fee?

If your store has free Wi-Fi, why not host a shared iTunes library with new releases? Better yet, charge $5 for Wi-Fi, but offer a rotating stash of MP3 downloads over Intranet. Get people hooked on the experience of coming into the store for new music, even if it's just 10 free downloads that come with the price of their morning latte.

Go big or go niche

The Web has made available every song, every album, and every utterance or photo of any band in history. Plus, the Web never runs out of stock, and it's always open. If you're going to compete, you'll either need to try and match the Web's selection, or cater to a specific, loyal, and needy audience. Existing in the middle ground between is a recipe for mediocrity.

California's Amoeba Records is an independent chain that gambled on going big. Stepping into Amoeba is like stepping into a stadium of music. By dealing in volume, their prices are often cheaper than buying online and they do an admirable job keeping releases in stock. They've also got enough selling power to attract some big name performers into the store for special performances and CD signings.

Amoeba is a circus, though, requiring a certain amount of courage on the part of the consumer just to navigate the aisles. Going to Amoeba for just one CD is like going to Home Depot for a single nail. Once an operation scales to that size, you lose a lot of the intimacy and personal attention that makes retail special.

On the other end of the spectrum you've got a place like The Groove Yard, a local jazz record shop in my old Oakland neighborhood. These guys do just one thing: they sell jazz, mostly rare vinyl releases. A store like this survives on the backs of a loyal base of collectors and jazz aficionados who appreciate the special attention and the staff's deep knowledge of a narrow corner of the music world.

Image of Other Music Twitter account.
Other Music in NYC tweets their new stock with links to song previews.

Twitter new arrivals with previews

I know that our culture is hitting Twitter overload right now, but tweeting your new arrivals is one of those practical excuses for Twitter on par with bakeries tweeting when they have fresh scones. Better still, link those tweets to song previews to really help people immediately evaluate whether the release appeals to them.

To see a great example of record store tweets in action (as well as a killer e-mail newsletter), check out Other Music from NYC.

Give them a reason to be loyal

If you could get your diehard customers to commit to $20 a month, what could you give them in return? Discount pricing on used CDs? Free shipping on special orders? One free new release of their choosing every month? Half-priced coffee?

Whatever you offer, the point is to get good customers hooked and keep them coming back. Memberships breed loyalty and provide a steady stream of income, but regularly giving away freebies like promo CDs and stickers to anyone off the street is a fine idea too. Most music fans I know would rather spend money in their community than send another penny to Apple or Amazon, but they need an incentive to stay loyal and stay local.

Be everything the MP3 can't be

MP3s are one of the most convenient music formats ever devised, but that's about the only good thing that can be said about them. There's no personality to an MP3, no presentation, nothing to hold onto--and don't even get me started on audio fidelity. MP3 files have more in common with Excel spreadsheets than they do with rock 'n' roll, and yet, they've brought an industry to its knees.

Remind people about what makes music exciting, messy, and physical. Arrange in-store music performances, CD signings, and listening parties. Stock posters, band photos, magazines, stickers, patches, and T-shirts. Focus attention on all the fetish-worthy boutique vinyl being created these days by labels such as Sub Pop and Ghostly International. Sponsor a free New Wave dance night at a local club.

Unite the mom-and-pops

When record shops lose customers these days, it's not to a competitor down the street, it's to the Amazons and Apples. One of the biggest motivations people have to do their shopping online is improved selection. If I call a local record store asking for the latest Dave Matthews CD and I'm turned away, the next place I'm going is online, and I may never bother calling again.

If independent music stores could pool their inventory and open it up for other local stores to pull from, there's a better chance at keeping up with customer demand. A group like the Coalition for Independent Music Stores is a step in the right direction, but only connects 29 indie music chains nationwide.

In a perfect world, every time a customer asks for a release that isn't in stock, retailers should be able to look up inventory at other local stores or offer an free MP3 version of the release on the spot (thumbdrive or e-mailed) if the customer agrees to special order it.

Think of Starbucks

With Apple's help, Starbucks offers the perfect storm of coffee, atmoshphere, Wi-Fi, and free music.

When you think music retail, you probably don't think of Starbucks, but the coffee chain keeps CDs and free song-a-day download cards right next the cash register at every one of their 16,000 stores. If it weren't working for them, they wouldn't be doing it.

Starbucks' expertise as a music retailer offers a few lessons. For starters, Starbucks is an example of a company that goes niche with the music they stock. The niche isn't a particular music genre, but a consistent, tightly-curated, weekly rotation of pleasant, popular music. Some will turn their nose, but when Sir Paul McCartney launches his CD at Starbucks, that's saying something.

Another lesson music shops could learn from Starbucks' strategy is an overriding focus on creating a space for people to hang out. This quote is pulled directly from Starbucks' corporate mission statement, but could easily be describing my favorite record store.

"When our customers feel this sense of belonging, our stores become a haven, a break from the worries outside, a place where you can meet with friends. It's about enjoyment at the speed of life--sometimes slow and savored, sometimes faster. Always full of humanity. "

The reason Apple decided to partner with Starbucks on their Pick of the Week download promotion isn't because they sell a ton of coffee, it's because the stores successfully attract and retain customers who hang out at the store, browse the Web, and listen to music.

I'm not saying that every music store needs to start serving coffee, setting up couches and offering Wi-Fi, but it's certainly not a terrible idea. Just be careful--creating the music cafe hybrid isn't as easy as it sounds. I've seen places that have awkwardly slapped a coffee bar onto the front of their store, and give untrained staff free reign to make awful espresso drinks. I've also seen great cafes with out-of-the-way CD bins that invite only dust.

Will it be enough?

I don't have an MBA. I don't really know how to make record stores relevant anymore, or if it's even possible. I'm just a guy who loves record stores, but paradoxically hates shopping in them. I also just can't shake the feeling that our culture needs a public space beyond concerts and clubs where music fans can circulate and break out of the iPod cocoon every now and then.

What do you think? Are we better off in a world where music stores are antique curiosities and all our music discovery and discussions take place online? Is there a way to run a brick and mortar music store in the iTunes era? Let me know how you feel, and please, share some examples of stores that are getting it right.