Music Geek: Record stores at crossroads, but there’s time to recover

See, I can look classy every now and again.

While in Phoenix for a computer-assisted reporting conference — NICAR 2010, which has a name nearly as exciting as possible for this sort of this — I took a jaunt over to a couple record  stores, interested, of course, in seeing what sorts of wares were on offer. What I found was surprising and depressing, inspiring and enlightening.

My first stop, Circles Records & Tapes was one which I’d recently discovered was either closing or had already closed. To my delight, I found it to have not yet closed, and a large advert touting their 50-percent-off liquidation sale made the whole thing all the more tantalizing. It was, then, a bit unfortunate to discover that the store was very much into the process of closing its doors, and the merchandise being liquidated included a few miscellaneous albums on vinyl — nothing of real note, excepting one of the many Brian Eno collaboration projects — and a slew of very cheap, obscure, and low-quality CD releases. It was no real pain to walk from the store empty handed, as I’d already assumed it had closed for good, and my plans were primarily to visit a store a few blocks away, Revolver Records. Anything I would have picked up at a Circles would have been merely a happy accident.

Revolver Records, only a couple blocks away from Circles — a short walk from the Arizona State University Downtown Campus, where the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism is located — was a different story. From my first step into the door, the atmosphere was friendly and inviting, if a little intimidating. The selection on show was impressive, considering the size of the store. After a few tense minutes of trying to discern the organizational pattern of the store — now, that was something left to be desired — I found my first record of the day: King Crimson’s 1982 classic Beat, an album I’d previously purchased, I believe, while I was still in high school. I’ve never been much opposed to owning albums in multiple formats, save a digital format.

Some more searching revealed a few post-rock and shoegaze favorites against the right-most wall in the section labeled “New Vinyl” — an ambiguous term at best, but I did my searching, insufficient labeling be damned. Pavement’s Terror Twilight immediately popped out at me, as it’s an album I’ve been listening to with real fervor in the last two weeks. Slint’s Spiderland, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless — my choices were hardly limited in the ways I usually expect. I rounded off the day of purchasing with something a bit more modern: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s 2009 self-titled album.

So, I’m sitting in my hotel room, listening to Pavement’s “Ann Don’t Cry,” wishing I was listening to it on vinyl — and I can’t help but feel I’ve been cheating on Groovacious. I’ve been actively enjoying the presence of another label, and I did it knowingly and actively. It’s not as if I was dragged along to a store; I was the only one from my group who went. I mean, I don’t actually think I did anything of any consequence, but it’s an odd thing, isn’t it? To feel allegiance to an organization selling you music? Tim and Lisa Cretsinger at Groovacious have been terribly helpful and supportive, both of and my continuing musical development — and the things they do for the southern Utah community, musical and not, are of some real note.

But I won’t be in Cedar City, Utah, forever, will I? I ought to seek out quality record store experiences, both for myself and for others. If, like is commonly assumed, the independent record store is a dying breed, to not submerse myself in the waters of musical compassion would be remiss. Hopefully, in the future, we at will be able to give some real time and thought toward the record store as a social institution: Without it, who knows where music would be? What would growing bands do without the power of the in-store show? What about the accessibility of the latest, greatest music, or those ubiquitous recommendations from the person behind the counter? We’d be worse off without them, there’s no real doubting that.

Seeing Circles Records & Tapes on the verge of falling off the edge of relevance — and mere blocks from the seemingly successful Revolver Records; it ought to serve as a wake-up call, one much the like I’ll be receiving (well, my phone will be waking me up with its alarm clock function, but I’m in a hotel — that’s the point!) in only a few short hours. Record stores are facing an unenviable struggle; they’re being pulled in many directions by uneven forces.

The rise of the MP3 — no death blow on its own, to my mind — combined with financial hardship in tough economic conditions has forced record stores to redefine their very function in society. They can no longer function as the sole source of music for the music lover: From this point forward, people will download music, and people will be able to find obscure maxi-singles online with greater ease than they would by having their record store clerk order it. If the record store is no longer the sole source of music, what will be its function? This is the struggle owners are now being faced with, and it’s not an easy one. Everyone’s trying to deal with these diverse, plentiful problems in their own innovative ways; there’s no one-size-fits-all boilerplate solution out there.

It’ll take some work. Record stores will close. But I’m not convinced they’ll disappear forever. With careful, exacting effort, the record store will be a thing of the past, but a new type of record store will be a thing of the future.

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