Record stores are disappearing. From college campuses to big cities, even the most beloved retailers are closing down because they can’t afford to stay open. But the industry isn’t giving up just yet. On April 19, several hundred surviving stores will celebrate National Record Store Day. They’ve hooked up with independent labels and lots of artists to pump up the promotion with in-store performances and music giveaways. Is it too little, too late? We asked two local record sellers—one who’s doing well and another who’s closing shop—to make some predictions for the future of the business.
Owner (with wife Helen), Crooked Beat
After 11 years in business, Daly is relatively hopeful for his industry but thinks record stores will have to change to stay alive. He says the week-long promotion will help “bring awareness.” Not awareness of the plight of record stores, but of the fact that they actually exist. “A lot of people don’t think record stores exist anymore,” he says. “I think record store day is probably is a good step.” Daly says there are fewer than 1,500 record stores left in the United States, with the independents dying fast. School Kids Records in North Carolina is the most recent big loss. He also cites the deaths of several independent distributors in making it harder for record stores to stay afloat.
“They’re always going to be around, they’re just going to be very specialized. Every record store is just going to have to carve out their own niche and do what they do,” Daly says. He’s survived by hewing close to his own niche—selling a deep catalogue of “punk, post-punk, reggae and independent releases.” Mail-order sales make up 30 percent of his business, he says. Daly places a big chunk of the blame on record labels. “They have never lowered their wholesale prices on CDs,” he says. Independent stores, he says, can never sell music as cheaply as the giants like Best Buy or Wal-Mart. The big guys keep prices low, he says, through back-room deals, in which bulk buyers get discounts, or tricks like the “loss leader” strategy, in which giant retailers take a loss on CDs to lure in customers with cheaper prices.
Daly worries about the impact on the music industry. “Best Buy has never broken a new artist,” he says.
Owner, Orpheus Records
Carlisle’s overflowing Wilson Boulevard store has been about to close for several months now. The business wasn’t a victim of the declining vinyl market so much as the soaring real estate market. Carlisle’s landlord has refused to renew his lease, which officially ended March 31. But the landlord is still in negotiations with the next tenants or owners, so Carlisle is still selling records. “We get to stay while they hammer out whatever it is they’re hammering out,” he says.
It’s not surprising that Carlisle has a relatively bleak forecast for the future of the record store.
“I think they’re certainly on their way out. There’s definitely a resurgence of interest in them but it’s too little, too late. Those who are willing and able to sell online will be around for a while.” Carlisle doesn’t particularly like the idea of opening an online-only store—but he will continue to sell collectible, high-end albums on the Web. He doesn’t recommend record store ownership to younger entrepreneurs. “If some younger person was trying to start a store like this they’d be at a disadvantage,” he says. “Most of this music [at Orpheus] has come out while I was in the business. Someone starting now has to go back and learn about things that are 10, 20, 30 years old. It’s nice to come into a place where when you ask for something, you find someone who knows what you’re talking about.”
What happened? Who’s to blame? Carlisle has a more global explanation.
“It used to be an environment where everything kind of fed each other,” he says. Radio stations, artists, labels and stores had a symbiotic relationship. Now that those relationships are gone, he says, it’s gone. There’s no saving it and it isn’t necessarily a tragedy. What makes record stores worth saving? Carlisle can’t put his finger on the answer. “I don’t think it’s going to lessen the murder rate,” he says. “But maybe it would … I don’t know. I never gave it any thought. When this store is gone there are a lot of people who are going to miss it a lot. It’ll be harder to find stuff that I’ve got. I definitely think you’re losing something but I’m not able at this point to articulate what it is … it’s an interesting question but I’ve been too busy selling records to think about it in those terms. If enough people still cared about record stores, they’d still be here. I don’t think we need to blame anybody. … It’s fun to be able to go to record stores and talk to people with similar interests. That’s a very specific community and I think that’s a sad thing but most people probably don’t care.”