I don’t think there’s any kind of store that’s more meaningful to me than the record store. Actually, OAK comes pretty close, but my love for the cloud of androgynous asymmetrical darkness that is OAK is a whole different article. Record stores, though. The high point of my cross-eyed, mallified teenaged self was going to the Sam Goody/FYE at the mall or other local record shops and copiously digging for CDs. I don’t even know what I was looking for, but it was the digging I was addicted to.
My childhood/teenage years were all about music and I practically grew up in record stores. I was a member of BMG, the 90s mail order service that let you pay .99 cents to sample 10 or 15 CDs from a list of available CDs, an early prototype of Netflix. I had hundreds of CDs, new and used, from TLC and Toni Braxton to symphonies and classical stuff. I used my weekly allowance, which wasn’t much, to get music because it was the only thing I wanted. And when I was 16 I had a fellowship in D.C. with the National Symphony Orchestra, and they put us up in dorms on the George Washington University campus and gave us a $160 per week stipend for food and incidentals. Jackpot. My dorm was right across the street from Tower Records, and I probably spent $100 per week of that stipend money at Tower getting music.
The best thing about the record store is that more than other kinds of retail, record shops are lived in, experienced: they’re not supposed to be a place where you roll through get what you need and roll back out. That’s McDonald’s. That’s Wal-Mart. That’s the grocery store. Countercultures are often born in or closely affiliated with music stores. Certain record shops, like Kompakt in Cologne or HardWax in Berlin, have cult-like followings and become temples of a certain type of sound.
You’re supposed stay and listen to music for a while, talk with the shop owners and sales clerks about their own musical tastes and they give you recommendations. You’re supposed to post advertisements for a show your band is doing or a party you’re throwing. You see people being people. I loved when I would go to Tower on Broadway or Virgin in Union Square or Paris and people would go HAM at their listening stations, jamming and rocking out to music on the trial headphones. Remember how you could go fish around the music store and collect as many records as you could carry in your hands, listening to them before you bought them? The worst was when that one CD you were so freaking excited about was somehow “unavailable” or “not in the system.”
Unfortunately, because of the fast pace and increasing digitalization of contemporary life, record stores are dying all over if they aren’t already totally dead. People buy their music on iTunes — or rent it, really — clicking through digital crates rather than actual ones. More, we now buy singles or select tracks from our favorite artists rather than whole albums — if we buy them at all. Virgin is closed, Borders is closed. Tower is closed. CD sales are declining as digital sales rise. Brooklyn’s Academy Records shrunk and moved to Greenpoint. Sound Fix sat on Bedford then moved to Berry Street next to that awesome BBQ place, but even it closed last April — on Record Store Day, no less, sending a morbid message about the fate of record sales and independent record shops in the new digital culture.
“A realization sunk in that this was a losing battle,” Sound Fix owner James Bradley told Billboard. “What clinched it for me was the record industry and what I perceive as their decision to give up on retail as any part of their formula. They are looking at licensing/digital to stay alive and they’ve given up on retail.”
But is the digitization of music killing the record store, or should stores simply adapt their business model to be successful with the contemporary moment?
In this middle of this particularly #bleak portrait of the state of music sales, when other spaces are struggling, downsizing, or closing down altogether, the legendary Rough Trade record shop, which started off as a music shop in London in 1976 then becoming an independent record label in 1979, recently opened its first NYC store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a 15,000 square foot musical oasis. Does it seem like risky business? Not if you really think about it.
Located on a still pretty industrial and not quite gentrified block of North 9th Street in Williamsburg, not too far from the summer concerts on the waterfront, Rough Trade NYC doesn’t just have records. There are books and magazines plus a small room that sells music equipment. There’s an exhibition space called The Room, the infamous Rough Trade photo booth, a coffee bar, ping pong tables, places to sit and chat. It’s a place you want to stay in.
Most intriguing of all, Rough Trade NYC is also a music venue. Record stores, especially independent ones, are known for having in-store performances with local bands or even nationally known ones. In a stroke of pure genius, Rough Trade NYC has teamed up with The Bowery Presents and joins The Mercury Lounge, The Bowery Ballroom, the Music Hall of Williamsburg and Terminal 5 as one of the five major concert venues in New York City. In the month of December alone, Sky Ferreira, Jagwar Ma, We Are Scientists, Pretty Lights, Andrew Bird, Childish Gambino, JD Samson/MEN and Au Revoir Simone take the Rough Trade stage, helping to rethink what a record store can be.
When I visited the store on Black Friday the place was absolutely booming, even while the staff was still busy unpacking and putting records, CDs and other merchandise out for purchase. Everyone was buying vinyl, which fits in perfectly with the statistics announced last April that vinyl sales hit their highest point since 1997, enjoying an 18 percent spike in sales.
At one point I picked up a piece of vinyl — a new EP of remixes of techno producer Function featuring remixes by Rrose and Vatican Shadow.
“Do you know Function?,” a sales clerk who popped out of nowhere asked me. “That new remix record is hot. It just came out, you gotta listen to it.” I told him I love Function and the whole OstGut Ton label, and he encouraged me to go give the record a listen at one of the vinyl stations.
“Let me know what you think,” he said.
This sense of musical exploration, fostering a community of music heads, of connecting with people who have similar interests to you, this is what a record store is all about.