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Keeping It Real—Or at Least Virtual

With digital downloads surpassing a billion in 2008, it seems like a dismal time for sales of music in the physical world. According to most estimates, CD sales were down around 27% last year. It’s hardly surprising that so many people are forecasting the death of the compact disc, as it lies supine and barely breathing.

But the physical medium is alive and well. One reason is that, given the choice, some people will always want to own “real” CDs and LPs, just as other people will choose to download. And in New York City, there are still many independent record stores that fulfill that need.

Etherea, located at 66 Avenue A in the East Village, has been in business for ten years. Customers entering the shop are greeted by rows of records representing seemingly endless sub-genres of electronica. According to Brion, the store’s manager, Etherea “has been doing an increase in business” recently, despite all the doom-and-gloom prophecies. He attributes this to the care he and others associated with the store take when selecting music. For Brion, “it’s about serving the clientele, and when stores do not serve, they fail.

“The people who choose to go to the store care about music,” he continues. “They’re excited about obtaining music, and for some it’s because they do not enjoy the experience of listening to MP3s.” There is a value to owning a tangible musical artifact, much as there is a value to owning a book. And it’s not necessarily a generational thing: one of Ethera’s regulars, who tries to buy at least one record a week, just turned seventeen.

Talking about music in Permanent Records, located on 181 Franklin St. in Greenpoint, it becomes clear how much personal choice is involved. The store is sparse; records line the walls with minimal decoration. Marjorie, the store’s owner and manager, says, “I have never owned an iPod, or i-anything, I’ve never even opened an MP3.” The concept of the death of records is foreign to her, because she’s surrounded by them. It’s a world she created and chose to create.

Ron, an employee at Permanent, understands that there are and will always be albums that simply aren’t available in digital form. “Some music cannot be found online or in a blog, so the only source for this music is through hard-to-find vinyl or CDs.” Ron chose to work at Permanent Records because he “did not want to work at a store that sold everything.” Having a one-to-one relationship with his customers and being personally involved in what was being sold was important to him.

Asked about the much-trumpeted impending death of the record store, Ron is confident that the day will never occur. “If there were no record stores, people could go online to eBay and get something, and once that no longer satisfied the demand, there seemingly would be enough people locally to make a store viable.”

Josh, co-owner of Other Music on East 4th Street, has been there for 13 years, and his clientele has always been very diverse. The store has never attracted an exclusively young crowd, with customers ranging in age from the mid-twenties to mid-fifties; business is at least 50% regulars. “Most people choose physical music because they’ve done it forever,” Josh says. “Vinyl is an interactive package; it’s tactile, and listening to it is an experience. It’s a conscious decision to listen to music, rather than have it as background noise.”

Other Music has always tried to push the limits of what a record shop is, presenting in-store performances from the beginning and, more recently, providing an online store where customers can find videos of those live performances. For Josh, the switch to digital is inevitable. “One day, labels may just stop producing physical music altogether,” he says. At the same time, for Josh, there will always be a used market for vinyl.

While record stores provide a kind of human contact and communication that doesn’t exist online, the thriving festival and concert scenes provide a real community that can never be replaced digitally. Last year’s Lollapalooza was completely sold out, reaching capacity of 75,000 on each day. Online ticket vendor StubHub! reported an increase of sales by 40% in 2008. The social and cultural experience of live concerts will continue to flourish in New York, from small music spaces showcasing unknown artists to the huge-budget spectacles at Madison Square Garden.

Still, the near future may not be completely rosy
for the world of live performances. Ticket prices are

increasing, and the number of festivals continues to grow, making the talent pool shallower. With the economy in its worst state in decades, a price of $500 for a festival experience may prove daunting to most concertgoers. And online, there is still some sense of community. Blogs and sites like Last.Fm, though often anonymous, provide forums to discover, discuss, and debate about music as passionately as anywhere.

It may be, as Josh of Other Music suggests, that the time when record stores acted as an oasis for music lovers may soon be over, but the music won’t go with it. As with anything valuable, people will continue to find a way to discover, listen to, and share new sounds.


Charles Poladian

Charles Poladian is a contributing writer for TheMusic.Fm. He lives in Queens.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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