The Indie Record Store: Adapt or Die
I found myself reading two back-to-back pieces about Baby Boomers’ record-buying habits this weekend, one in the NY Times, one in Newsweek. Each suggested that the Golden Generation is perhaps not as savvy or intuitive as it likes to let on.
The Graying Of The Record Store in Sunday’s NY Times Style Section (note to British readers: the Graying of the color Grey – I mean, the colour grey – is one of the most annoying spelling changes in the American language) was ostensibly a sweet, somewhat sad piece about how young people no longer frequent old-fashioned music shops. In the last two and a half years, notes author Alex Williams, one quarter of America’s independent record stores – some 900 in total – have closed their doors, as CD sales continue to decline and the new generation of buyers acquire their music online.
But of course there’s a silver lining. (There always is in such a feature.) “Some independent owners are resisting the demographic challenges,” the piece notes towards the end. “Besides selling obscure CDs and even vinyl records, many have diversified into comic books, Japanese robot toys and clothing.”
Wait, back up. “Besides selling obscure CDs and even vinyl records”? For one thing, if an independent record store does not sell obscure (i.e., non-mainstream) music, what’s its purpose in the first place? It certainly can’t match the price discounts on the chart records that one finds at the local Virgin or HMV. (The Britification of American megamusicstores is a phenomenon to discuss another day.) But more importantly, “even vinyl records”? Even? If there’s a reason for the independent record store to exist, it’s surely so as to serve the passionate minority of music fans – some of them graying baby boomers, but as likely to be young urban hipsters or DJs – who knows that vinyl is the ideal form for music, and who would prefer to spend time in a small store thumbing through record sleeves and listening to staff picks, rather than hanging around myspace hoping for someone to offer a recommendation in something approaching a functioning sentence.
Any independent record store that, in the 21st Century, can’t find room for vinyl is inherently doomed. And, I’m sorry to say, that includes Sound Track in Park Slope, a classic ‘mom and pop’ store I was most fond of in my Brooklyn years (they always stocked the newest CDs and made a token effort to cater for local tastes), but whose owner Thom Spennato is featured in the Times piece as saying “We don’t see the kids anymore…. My landlord asked if I wanted another 10-year lease and I said no. I have another four years left, then I’m out.”
In Newsweek, A Fan’s Notes finds self-confessed Baby Boomer and music critic David Gates attempting to take stock after 50 years of rock’n’roll. While Gates knows his generation – in particular, the 15 years of his youth in which music traveled at lightning speed from ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ to ‘Please Please Please Me’ to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and on to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ – he admits that “sometimes in the early 70s, I turned off pop radio for good – more or less – and stopped caring what my generation, or anybody else, was listening too.”
It’s a brave statement and it may be typical of Baby Boomers, but it means that Gates has no right claiming to be a music critic nor offering an opinion about the subsequent 35 years of rock’n’roll. And he basically confesses as much, as if challenging his editors to recall their assignment. “Six months ago, a friend played U2 for me for the first time,” he writes, with surprising pride. “It was OK.”
The graying of the record store? More like the ossification. Here’s to the new generation of record stores who, by selling “obscure” music, clothing, often food and drink, and yes, even vinyl, continue to make record-shopping an adventure as well as an exercise. And here’s a hint on how to recognize them: they’re not solely populated by gray-haired boomers hunting down the last of their generation’s reissues.