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Monday January 22nd 2018

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Case Study: Brooklynites still spin discs, but are record stores dying off?

Music Matters. Photo (c) Sam Horine

If you’re ever strolling around the Park Slope neighborhood, keep on the lookout and you just might come in contact with a member of an endangered species: a hole-in-the-wall music joint stacked to the ceiling with CD cases, LP sleeves, and even some mint-condition cassettes. That would be Music Matters, a neighborhood stalwart that now finds itself hanging on for dear life in the face of both a plummeting economy and the ever-strengthening MP3 revolution. But Jason Figel, who has stuck with his store since its inception in 1998, survives by specializing his stock to the tastes of the locale: tons of the latest indie rock; a small but focused selection of jazz and classical; a bit of Nordic black metal. He isn’t pessimistic on the CD’s viability in the near future. “It’s the tangibility of it. It’s easily transportable,” says Figel. “Play it in the car or play it in the house. Put it on your computer and into your iPod.”

Generation Records storefront

Figel’s thinking is on the right track: Brooklynites really do continue to purchase CDs. In an anonymous survey on a sampling of 60 people (personally-conducted specifically for this article), a little less than half said they still buy music on some kind of physical medium– a healthy number compared to the mere 36 percent who paid for digital albums via online retailers like iTunes. It’s really the collector’s appeal that keeps music fans on the market for the jewel-cased goods; many survey-takers professed a fondness for poring over the cover art or leafing through the booklet to read the liner notes. “A CD to me is like buying a book, just one that you listen to,” said one college student. Another one had similar sentiments, “[It's] a complete work; physical.” Naturally, people who pay up for their music feel like they’ve made a better barter with a disc in hand, as opposed to just some more copyrighted data on their hard drives.

However, the fact that CDs are still in demand doesn’t mean good news for standing retailers. Case in point: only 27 percent of those surveyed said they shopped at record stores. One survey-taker put it flatly, “I just don’t feel like going to a store.” And with the vast catalog of readily-available recordings offered by online merchants like Amazon, no one is obligated to spend time searching around at the local disc-peddler’s. The industry’s big players learned this the hard way: in 2009, Virgin closed all its American megastores. Independent shops definitely feel the pinch of lost clientele too, but a City landmark like Generation Records near New York University garners enough notoriety to keep revenue up. “We do sell some things that Virgin stocked,” says Charlotte, an employee. “But I guess we’re a specialized store…Not just like an all-in-one establishment.” Specialization is again the key word here: for the past 17 years, Generation has built up on its reputation as a mecca for the punks and metalheads of New York.

Photo (c) Bill Shouldis

Finally, there’s that one gigantic problem that everybody is privy to, but will never openly speak about: online piracy. The question is, as posed by a candid survey-taker, “Why buy when you can download?” Figel, visibly vexed by the helplessness of circumstances, proposes a cut in CD distributing costs, which are known to be marked up several hundred percent from actual production value, “If the CD was down a little bit more, it would even the playing field.” On the other hand, Charlotte just sees MP3s as “free promotion” for new bands; she thinks that Generation would do well with more in-store events and better advertising to keep the business in the public eye.

Charlotte notes that while casual music fans are moving on to the internet, record stores continue to attract nostalgics and die-hards, “It’s about having to go out and seek it out. There’s an authenticity in that; it’s something you can’t really take away.” And for a minority of us here in Brooklyn, nothing will ever quite beat the joy of flipping through those racks and stacks, looking for a new album to take home and spin out– as long as the fandom exists, so will the record stores.

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4 Responses to “Case Study: Brooklynites still spin discs, but are record stores dying off?”

  1. DirtyDeb says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with supporting indie record shops plus it lets you know how far superior you are to other that don’t seek out secret treasures….hmmn Great article ZK i like your writing

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