Ann Arbor's record store blues: Surviving in a download-dominated music world

Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen/Daily Buy this photo

BY JOSHUA BAYER
Daily Music Editor
Published November 2, 2009

Walking into Encore Records is like stumbling into a corn maze, a disheveled college bedroom and a natural history museum all at once — just 20 times more overwhelming than any of those places. The walls are practically crawling with musical artifacts from the past century, teeming with an otherworldly sort of life that’s completely missing when you’re browsing for obscure records on allmusic.com.

Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen/Daily
Jake Fromm/Daily

But as daunting as walking into a “mom-and-pop” record store can be, there’s also something incredibly warm and fuzzy about browsing records in a culture den surrounded by fellow music lovers. There’s something magical about pulling a vinyl record from a shelf based purely on the merit of its cover art, handing it to the store clerk and having him play it for you.

This might all sound hunky-dory, but if the financial wallop peer-to-peer music sharing delivers to these stores continues, this experience could be gone faster than you can say “Lady GaGa.”

It’s disturbing to consider how much the market for these homespun businesses has collapsed over the years.

“Ten to 15 years ago, there were actually about 12 record stores in (Ann Arbor). There was a way oversupply," says John Kerr, the owner of Wazoo Records.

"And, slowly but surely, they’ve all crumbled and there’s just four now, really,” he says. “And probably all four of those stores, including us, are struggling ... I don’t really think there’s too many people doing real well in this business.”

But thanks to the sweat and blood of these record store owners — and a miraculous stroke of cultural karma — these shops are still around, although the payout is slim.

“You’re not gonna get rich at this,” says Matt Bradish of Ann Arbor's Underground Sounds. “I am not rich. I work a tremendous workload. Most people wouldn’t even contemplate the time commitment.”

To Peter Dale of Encore, Bradish of Underground Sounds, Kerr of Wazoo and Marc and Jeff Taras of PJ’s, owning a record store isn’t a business — it’s a crusade. And if the record industry continues to slump, these precious cultural hubs of community-serving self sacrifice could become an endangered species.

The Internet: Friend and Foe

In many ways, the Internet has been responsible for the economic pickle in which record stores have recently found themselves. According to Dale, the value of CDs has dropped at least 50 percent in the last three years due to the massive availability of albums online.

“(Prices are) gonna continue to go down," he says. "That’s just the way it is.”

And Kerr adds that Wazoo has certainly been outsourced by sites like Amazon.com that conveniently “sell legitimate CDs on the Internet and have unparalleled selections.”

Still, record store owners have found ways to harness the Internet’s vastness in their favor. Dale mentions how the Internet has made it much easier to advertise to international markets.

“There’s just not enough demand locally to sell a 50- or 100- or 200-dollar record," he says. "You have to find the audience, and the audience is national if not international.”

Back in the Stone Age, record store owners had to slog through the cumbersome process of posting countless ads in specialty collectors magazines and newspaper auctions. Now, they can simply put pricey rarities up for grabs on their websites and wait for someone anywhere on planet Earth to bite.

Dale also thinks the Internet has “made the prices of records truer."

"Before, there were some things that were ‘collectible’ when they really weren’t. They were just regionally hard to find," he says.

"Now, everything can be found — so the true value of stuff is apparent. You can just check online to see what things are selling for on eBay.”

In fact, both Dale and Kerr have even started selling merchandise on Amazon and eBay, despite the looming corporate cloud these marketplace conglomerates have cast on the “little guys.”

As Kerr says, “You’ve gotta figure out a way to make the Internet work for you to some degree. There’s no stopping it.”

iGeneration: The Kids Aren’t Alright

According to Ann Arbor record store owners, the most salient effect of the Internet on business has been the dramatic split in consumer demographics.

“It’s gotten rid of the casual listener,” says Bradish about record store-goers. “People who aren’t that serious about collecting music or really listening to music generally just download. They’re looking for a particular song.”

Evidently, these apathetic skimmers of the music scene have forsaken record stores for the convenience of downloading songs for 99 cents from the iTunes store or “torrenting” music on their MacBooks.

Kerr doesn’t think people like music any less now than they did 15 years ago — he simply thinks “ideas have changed about what we should be paying for it.” And, apparently, about how we should be getting it too.

Given the prime real estate these stores occupy on campus, the expected collegiate frequenters have been surprisingly infrequent.

Dale observes that his target demographic at Encore has completely shifted away from the college-age bracket.

“Most of my customers are from out of town," he says. "I don’t advertise on campus because the average person on campus doesn’t buy stuff. They just take it off the Internet.”

Drew Leahy, president of MyBandStock (a website that allows fans to purchase “stock” in a band in exchange for exclusive access to band footage and updates), exemplifies this cultural swing. He reluctantly described how he was recently in a record store and couldn’t connect with it, despite his desire to do so.

“I like to search for music on a search engine and listen to a couple things and then decide what I like," he says. "This (record store) doesn’t feel like it’s something that’s really hitting home to me, because of the convenience and the quickness and the accuracy you can get online.”

“I don’t really have that nostalgia of going to a record store and being really pumped about a release that’s coming out in the way that our parents or older siblings might have felt,” Leahy admits.

Marc Taras of PJ’s validates this generational gap, explaining how his core demographic has shifted in the past 15 years from 25-and-younger to 25-and-older.

While these stores are remarkably staying afloat, the general engulfment of culture by the Internet is increasingly pigeonholing them in a niche market. And the fan base for this market may be dying — literally.

The Death of the CD

When it comes down to it, the root of the problem lies in the fact that the CD, the former bread and butter of most record stores, has become financially inviable compared to the MP3.

“If you spend $1,000 pressing a CD, you have to sell 100 of them at $10 before there’s even a dollar actually made,” says Al McWilliams, CEO of Quack!Media, an independent multimedia distributor in Ann Arbor.

On the other hand, you don't have to pay up-front costs to produce an MP3.

“With digital, you have to make one penny to profit," McWilliams explains.

While record labels haven’t stopped selling CDs just yet, sales figures might give them incentive to go totally digital. According to eMpyre ramireX, the pseudonym-masked president of Galactic Dust, a Detroit-based independent record label, for every $45 he makes on MP3 sales, he only makes about $5 on physical CDs.

So why do these companies continue to sell CDs? Well, mainly because certain people keep buying them — there’s a sort of CD fetish inherent in bona fide music nerds.

Brian Peters of Ghostly International, an independent Ann Arbor music label, discusses the compulsive tendency of hardcore audiophiles to “want the tactile sense of holding the LP: seeing the art, having that ownership over the product and that connection to the band.”

And, of course, there’s the issue of sound quality.

“The amount of quality information — audio bits — that are on a CD is just such a higher sampling rate than what’s on (the usual) MP3,” explains Mark Clague, assistant professor of Musicology at the University.

Bradish of Underground Sounds speculates that “people who are buying a CD or an LP have usually heard it and know what they’re getting into and are making an investment in sound quality.”

As far as MP3s, Bradish is turned off: “It always comes off flat and compressed and tinny. There’s absolutely no room sound … most vinyl, if it’s mastered correctly ... you can actually get a feel for the room it was recorded in.”

Luckily for these record stores, audiophiles have shown a rekindled appreciation for the subtleties of acoustic fidelity. While CD sales are plummeting, sales in vinyl have enjoyed an unexpected resurgence, and local record stores have capitalized on this trend to stay alive.

“We sell a lot of CDs, but they just pay for the rent basically,” says Dale. “We make our money off of (vinyl).”

While the CD market may be drying up significantly, the true music fan’s unrelenting passion for the physical object is a staple that’s preventing these stores from closing down — for now.

Local Record Stores: Keeping Reality Real

So what is it that we would all be missing out on if our local record stores just decided to up and leave? According to the major players in the Ann Arbor music scene: a lot.

For one, record stores are helping to keep downtown Ann Arbor culturally alive in a time when real estate is becoming increasingly smothered by mass-produced chain stores.

Bradish is particularly vehement on this subject: “People have got to realize, what do they want? Do they want corporate control of everything? If so, keep buying on the Internet. If you want to live in a fascist society, keep buying on the Internet ... This town’s turning into a giant restaurant anyway.”

These stores are keeping the local music scene alive, too. Just walk into Encore — the front counter is overflowing with shelves of exclusively local music from the past umpteen years. Encore, Wazoo and Underground Sounds all carry extensive collections of local releases. And they do it on an essentially non-profit basis, marking up the CDs just enough to cover stocking costs.

But most importantly, Ann Arbor record stores actively spread the love for local artists. Leah Diehl of the band Lightning Love mentions how Bradish fervently promoted her music, hooking her band up with a show in Ohio and selling her album to people who had never even heard of the group.

And while Google may be cheapening the value of a record store owner’s musical expertise by placing all of that knowledge and more within the easy-access reach of a search engine, there’s a human element inherent in record stores that will never be displaced by the Information Age.

Peters of Ghostly International talks about the sort of invaluable relationship that a consumer can build with a record store owner.

“Matt Bradish at Underground Sounds is really good about bringing in specialty discs. I got the My Bloody Valentine reissue EPs on vinyl. And he knew, the second I walked in he knew I’d want it," Peters said. "He knows me. I know him. And there’s just that great sense of curation that I think you don’t get at Best Buy."

And Clague mentions how, while the Internet has revolutionized the spread of culture and information, it “has a way of sort of atomizing everything to make it almost invisible.”

There’s a certain preciousness to witnessing all of these musical trinkets huddled together under one roof, a preciousness that evaporates when this information is relegated to Web pages.

“There’s something about walking into Encore, in a space where the titles are almost falling down because the stacks are so high,” Clague says. “And you get a visceral sense, a physical sense, a psychic sense of the kind of legacy and amount of art that’s been created that there is to grasp ... If you just started at one end and tried to listen your way through the store, you’d die before you made it 10 feet past the front entrance.”

Perhaps more than anything, local record stores are refreshing slices of reality in a world that’s been increasingly digitized. While they may be quaint, local record stores are a crucial component of Ann Arbor’s cultural vibrancy as a sort of embassy where audiophiles can converge instead of walking around, severed from the outside world by their iPod earbuds. And while the stores may be on or near their deathbeds, they’re still around for now.

“We can’t take our whole life and put it online. There has to be something you can walk out of your house and actually do," McWilliams of Quack!Media says. "I have a special appreciation for record stores but I also have a general of appreciation for real life and leaving the house sometimes. I met girls in record stores.”