Record shops flop

April 22, 2004, midnight | By Olivia Bevacqua | 16 years, 9 months ago

Independent music stores edging on extinction

A white-haired woman roams alongside a teen with dreadlocks amid thousands of vinyl albums. Two Latino youths flip through Sublime CDs beneath a poster of Madonna posing seductively in a wedding dress. As Billie Holiday croons softly in the background, a middle-aged man with a ponytail looks over the latest AC/DC CDs.

Jammed onto a Gude Drive street corner like a book on the end of an overstuffed shelf, Joe's Record Paradise is a tiny haven of diverse music for cheap prices.

Unfortunately, it is one of a dying breed. At least six record stores in the Washington, D.C., area have closed in the past year. Blazers have easy access to two primary predators of these record shops: the Internet and megastores. Internet piracy, through programs such as Kazaa, costs the music industry about $4.2 billion every year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Big retailers such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart, two of America's leading music vendors, are also cutting into local businesses because of their unmatchable low prices for new releases. Music store junkies have bowed their heads as they mourn the loss of a cultural treasure.

Treasure trove of music and people

Like exotic birds that are an endangered species, record shops are appreciated for the rare sights and sounds they provide in an increasingly homogenized society. Inside Disc-O-Rama, an independent record store on Rockville Pike, a blond mother swoons over a 30-year-old copy of People magazine featuring Led Zeppelin. "Oh my God, I remember when this first came out," she breathes. "Robert Plant's hair never looked better than in this picture, ever. This is wild."

While many are drawn to record shops because of unique musical selections unavailable in larger chain stores, Blazers claim that the intimate atmosphere is also an attraction. "The people who work at these places are a lot more personal, a lot more friendly and a lot easier to talk to," says senior Kat Clark. "They're obviously doing it for love of the music."

At Joe's Record Paradise, owner Joe Lee chats with a customer about jazz guitarist Pat Martino. "Imagine this: One of the greatest guitarists of all time suffers a brain aneurysm and has to learn how to play guitar all over again," he says.

"And that's after he re-learned how to walk," chimes in the customer, who claims to have been frequenting Joe's for at least ten years.

Many record-store employees are like mini-Joe Lees: music nerds with seemingly endless repositories of information. Junior John Willmott enjoys benefiting from their knowledge of obscure music. "I can walk into stores, hum a few riffs, and they can tell me what song I'm looking for," he says. "If I did that at a big store, they'd probably just give me a funny look and walk away."

Unlike retail-store workers who sell CDs alongside microwave ovens, employees of small record shops are often deeply involved in the music scene. At DJ Hut, a D.C. shop that specializes in hip hop, R&B and reggae, most employees have experience as DJs. "We have one guy who is one of the pilgrims of the house scene in town; he's been playing for 25 years," says James Graham, the owner. "Then there are the younger guys who know the newer stuff that's out. Everyone has their own specialty."

Music freaks frequent stores on a regular basis. "We tend to know most of our customers by face or by name," says Graham. "We treat them as though they're walking into our own house."

For some Blazers, the best part of a record store is being able to physically play the albums. "There's something magical about putting this huge piece of rubbery plastic on a turntable and listening to some of the best music in the world," says Clark.

Disc-O-Rama owner Gino Vacca similarly believes that the magic of a record store resides in the albums. "For a record collector, it's nirvana, and I don't mean the group. There's a sense of exploration. It's an all-encompassing experience—sound, feeling, the artwork that you see. It's all in one place."

Predators of the record shop

Internet piracy and big retailers have dealt huge blows to independent record shops and even national chains such as Tower Records, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February. Some Blazers have taken advantage of file sharing to download thousands of songs without ever setting foot in a music store.

Senior Berris Smith, who has downloaded approximately 1,300 songs, visits record stores only occasionally. He recalls going to physical stores that didn't have the CDs he wanted. "It was a waste of time. In some ways, Kazaa was just right there," he says.

For those who prefer to buy their music, big retail stores are appealing because of their low prices for new releases. Stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy order large enough shipments of CDs that they are able to obtain them for cheaper prices that smaller stores can't match. Furthermore, big retail stores do not have to make their money off the music; they can sell their CDs below cost because they're making their money on other merchandise, while a record store relies exclusively on music sales.

Vacca resents the fact that big retailers can manipulate the market, limiting themselves to the most popular artists. "The people who run the music industry are greedy jackals," he says. Vacca used to work at the local Kemp Mill Music, which went out of business around the time that several Best Buys came to the area. Last July, the owners of Kemp Mill Music filed for bankruptcy and approved the liquidation of 36 other music stores in the eastern U.S.

This is frustrating for local businesses, particularly because the bands featured in stores such as Best Buy often began as unknowns stocked almost exclusively in independent record shops, according to Bobby Polski, owner of Smash Records, which opened in 1984 as D.C.'s premier punk and alternative store.

Smaller record stores often carry relatively obscure music that is unavailable at big retailers, including recordings by local or new artists. "We're taking a risk whenever we stock CDs by unknown bands, but we want to support musicians who are just starting out," says Polski. "These are bands that Best Buy's not really gonna take a chance on. But then if the bands get famous, big stores will buy their CDs in bulk and get prices that [smaller stores] can't compete with. We get screwed over as the bands get bigger."

Fading away

Blazers and shop employees alike are disturbed by the disappearance of local record shops. In a tiny world crammed with rock posters and album covers and, of course, the records themselves, employees and customers are brought together by a common bond: the love of music.

Despite enthusiasm by music lovers and vinyl geeks, the future does not look bright for local record shops. Will Richardson, manager of the Sam K Record Shop next to Howard University, grew up with record stores and has watched them close down over the years. "If something doesn't change, we'll be a thing of the past," he says sadly.


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