PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- With Record Store Day upon us, where would a music lover rather be: A city with dozens of shops within blocks of each other or in suburbia where good record stores are scattered miles apart?
The logistical genius writing this column just left one for the other.
I live in Portland now and have grown just a little too comfortable with having my choice of vinyl-rich record shops within walking distance of each other. On an ideal a Record Store Day, I'd avoid the early morning lines, head up to the Pearl District and pick off the leftovers at Everyday Music, Jackpot Records and 2nd Avenue Records all within minor walking distance of each other (OK, 2nd Avenue may be a bit of a hike from the others, but worth it).
This year, however, I'm back in my old home state of New Jersey attending my friends' wedding. The 22-year-old me says to hop the PATH train to New York and see what remains of the old Manhattan circuit that started with Generation Records in the central Village and ended with Other Music just East of Washington Square. Maybe hop a train into Brooklyn and hit Academy Records before spending a day trolling the unsorted shelves of The Thing.
The 17-year-old me humbly suggests I remember how this all started and make the best of what's around. While a student at a Catholic high school in Montclair, N.J., nearby Bloomfield Avenue was marked with record stores every other block or so. In a CD-and-cassette world, the old hippies who ran Crazy Rhythms and the vintage shops, the gear geeks who stocked the bins at Rocktec and the black-clad music scholars who stocked Butthole Surfers bootlegs and grindcore albums at Cafe Soundz/Romp and Stomp kept vinyl alive and drew customers from all over the state. I may have left Crazy Rhythms with cassette copies of Nas' Illmatic and Wu-Tang Clan's Enter The 36 Chambers, but the records they sampled were stacked in bins further back in the store. I may have cherrypicked the Smashing Pumpkins and Seaweed tapes from Cafe Soundz's racks, but vinyl copies of Nirvana's Bleach and KMFDM albums sat in racks I seldom flipped through.
Cafe Soundz/Romp and Stomp and some of the vintage/antique shops are all that remain, but that isn't terribly surprising. Overall, music sales have slid 50% since 1993. Since 2000, record stores have seen their revenue tumble by 76% to $2 billion, according to market research firm IBISWorld. That group estimates that record stores will lose another 40% of sales by 2016. Physical album sales have dropped from 379 million in 2009 to little more than 170 million last year -- with CDs accounting for 165.4 million sales.
When even digital album sales dropped 0.1% last year and digital track sales fell 6%, why should suburbanites still seek out record stores? Because it's what they've always done. There was a time when my hometown of Belleville, N.J., featured Moscara Music -- the shop where The Misfits bought their first equipment -- on its main drag and the Mickey Music record shop across town. They're both long gone. That begat a time when music fans relied on mall-based chains like Sam Goody or Compact Disc World for their new releases, but those are long gone, too -- with the near-fossilized F.Y.E. serving as more of a used movie and device marketplace than a music store.
As recently as the late 1990s, if you wanted music of any quality in the suburbs, you had to seek it out. For music fans in New Jersey, getting a driver's license meant getting familiar with Exit 130 South or 127 North on the Garden State Parkway for Fords and learning the location of Vintage Vinyl -- a massive supermarket-sized shop filed with new releases, rarities and a stage for in-store performances. If a band was playing at the Birch Hill/Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, the Court Tavern in New Brunswick or even the now-defunct Maxwell's in Hoboken and had an album to promote, it was a safe bet they'd stop at Vintage Vinyl first. They still do.
The point is that it takes some dedication to map out directions to the Princeton Record Exchange and spend a day thumbing through the racks. It takes some determination to make a detour on a trip down the shore to Jack's Music Shoppe in Red Bank to find some rare E Street Band or Patti Smith releases. It takes a brand of devoted geeks who can't be bothered with Amazon or eBay because they need to see, feel and hear the LPs themselves.
The suburban record buyer isn't necessarily savvier than his or her city dwelling counterparts: Just more active. I've realized how comfortable I've become just hopping from shop to shop and ignoring the boxes beneath the featured bins, how seldom I sift through the overstock looking for treasures anymore. That doesn't happen when you schlep yourself over to some shop miles from home, because that trip is your day. You go through the stock more carefully, you ask more questions, you generally stick around longer: You come away with more albums and more than just vinyl. You get a continuing education.
I'm not saying this doesn't happen in cities, but that an urban record buyer lacks the same urgency. Just about every day is Record Store Day when you're surrounded by shops. When there's time, gas or a round-trip train ticket involved, you have to chose your record store day carefully.
There are about 700 record stores participating in Record Store Day here in the United States. That averages out to 14 stores per state. Portland alone has 18 participating shops, which is the equivalent of having 43% of New Jersey's Record Store Day shops all in one town. Even at that, New Jersey's still faring better than Kentucky (20 participating shops), Vermont (12), Maine (14), Montana (6), Idaho (4), Hawaii (4), New Mexico (5) or Alaska (1).
Vinyl sales were up 32% last year and accounted for 6.1 million albums, but were only 2% of the entire music industry. While that's helped by places where vinyl lovers have everything they could ever ask for within walking distance, it's still a tiny niche built on a relatively small amount of product. Where better to build the ranks than in places where scarcity is building dedicated, appreciative fans one lonely record shop at a time?
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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