The American record store is in critical condition. In January, Nielsen SoundScan reported that U.S. CD sales dropped 20 percent in 2008—the seventh year of decline since 2000—and despite an 89 percent increase in vinyl sales in 2008, vinyl remains a tiny percentage of the retail music market. Last month, Virgin Megastores announced that it'll be closing all six of its locations this spring, including the branch in Times Square, which is the highest-volume music store in America. Tower Records went bankrupt in 2006.
Smaller independent record stores aren't safe either. Dozens of indie locations across the country were forced to close shop last year, a trend that hit locally when Sonic Boom closed its Fremont location.
Blame technology, blame the people who use the technology, or blame the industry for not adapting quickly enough, but the sad truth is that America's brick-and-mortar music stores are struggling to survive.
But as easy as it is to buy or otherwise procure music online (and I'm as guilty as anyone), it's hard to accept that record stores might be going extinct. Sure, almost any song or album you're looking for is instantly available in digital format, often at less cost than as a physical product (or even free). Unless you're an avid collector of vinyl or like stacking up easy-to-break jewel cases, you don't really need a physical copy of music anymore, so you don't really need a physical building to stock it and sell it to you either.
But the most well-written recommendation algorithms can't match the service provided by local record stores staffed by friendly, knowledgeable people—they're part of the same music scene as you are, they can give you personally tailored and trustworthy suggestions, they care.
Death Cab for Cutie bassist Nick Harmer spent years working in record stores in both Bellingham and Seattle before Death Cab blew up, and he believes that record stores will survive, even if they might become more niche-based businesses.
"I really believe people like to be sold things," he says. "I know I do. Every time I buy a record online, I buy exactly what I was looking for. But every time I walk into a record store, I walk out with five things I didn't even know I wanted. There's a lot in our world that I feel like computers are making more efficient, but there's one thing I don't think they can improve, and that's conversation."
All of which is why Chris Brown of New England chain Bull Moose decided to do something about the threat to record stores by conceiving Record Store Day, a day where "independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music."
The first Record Store Day became reality last year on April 19, with over 700 independent stores participating, hosting big sales and free in-stores—even Metallica got in on it, performing at Rasputin Music in San Francisco.
"I was actually not a big proponent of it at first," says Matt Vaughan, owner of local Easy Street Records. "I looked at it as an attempt to emotionally tug at the public. The state of the record industry and the decimation of music retail has become well-known, but I didn't want my stores to be a part of that sob story."
But for local retailers, Record Store Day turned out to be a huge success, a celebration rather than a pity party. Vaughan says it was "the single busiest day of the year" for his stores.
But even with last year's success under their belts and the promise that this year's will be even better, one day of great sales at local stores won't reverse the sad national trend. The Ballard Sonic Boom continues to at least maintain its sales, but the Capitol Hill location has been on the decline for a few years now, according to co-owner Jason Hughes. Easy Street's Vaughan says both West Seattle's and Queen Anne's numbers are also decreasing—in fact, they're at a seven-year low.
"We had pretty steady increases all these years, but we finally took a few shots to the gut, and it has certainly woken me up," says Vaughan. "We didn't see it coming to this degree."
This year's Record Store Day is April 18 (it's the third Saturday of April each year), and more than 1,000 stores in over 17 countries are participating. Labels, bands, and retailers have booked impressive live in-store performances and created dozens of sonic treats to be sold exclusively in stores that day, including new or rare items from Elvis Costello, Modest Mouse, Slayer, Cursive, and a 7-inch containing the Flaming Lips' version of Madonna's "Borderline." And you won't be able to download any of it.
Record Store Day may not be able to single-handedly save the indie-record-store empire, but it's a good start.