Sick and Mortar


The familiar story is that the CD market is collapsing, and small record stores are in terrible trouble as consumers switch over to acquiring music digitally, with or without paying for it. It’s true some independent retailers are struggling; the long-established New York stores Midnight Records and Holy Cow have shut their doors in recent months, and Mount Kisco’s Exile on Main Street closed late last year. But record stores, like restaurants, close and open all the time.

The Recording Industry Association of America claims CD shipments continue to drop; Soundscan’s figures, conversely, indicate first-quarter sales for 2004 are up a bit over 9 percent from last year. The difference is that shipments (the number of discs sent to stores) are not the same thing as sales (the number of discs people buy). Apparently, retailers are managing their inventory more efficiently, and returning fewer unsold albums—which means big record labels are, in theory, spending less and making more than a year ago.

That doesn’t always trickle down to individual record shops. Pat Feeney, owner of Main Street Music in Philadelphia, says that May was his store’s weakest month since it opened over 12 years ago. “In the last five months or so, there have been days when I feel like I’m selling hula hoops,” he says. Main Street specializes in what’s known as AAA (adult album alternative); the first Norah Jones album was his biggest seller ever. AAA fans, though, tend to be older, more sedentary types who prefer one-click ordering to rummaging around a record store—which means online stores like are taking over from the brick-and-mortar type. And the street where Feeney’s store is located is in decline.

Small stores that rely on major-label releases have also been hit by narrowing profit margins and fluctuating costs. Universal Music Group, which made a big deal out of dropping its retail (and wholesale) prices in October, raised some again recently—quietly, and without announcing it beforehand, so retailers didn’t have an opportunity to stock up. And independent retailers who sell a lot of mainstream music live in terror of a Best Buy opening nearby: The electronics giant sells new CDs “literally for less than we pay for them,” Feeney says.

Still, some narrowly focused record stores are thriving. Former Voice contributor James Bradley opened Sound Fix in Williamsburg in late April, and he reports that business so far has exceeded his expectations. “A lot of that has to do with the neighborhood,” he says. “I’m trying to create a store that’s a nexus for clubs and musicians, that’s connected to the artistic vibe of the area.”

That means presenting it as a local hangout spot, like the old Halcyon (which has reappeared as a new record store in DUMBO). Sound Fix is connected to a café that hosts occasional performances; the store stocks lots of vinyl and sells CDs for local bands, and Bradley will soon be installing listening stations. “People like to get out of their homes, walk into a record store, and talk about music. There’s no substitute for that,” he says.

Kim’s Mediapolis, up near Columbia University, is preparing for the slow summer months while students are away, but music manager Howard Flax says CD sales have been solid so far this year. “We’re doing OK, because what we sell isn’t music you can get just anywhere—we’re selling a lot of the new DNA reissue, the Streets, the Magnetic Fields. I don’t think our customers are really interested in going to Best Buy, even though they’ll sell the Shins CD there for 10 bucks. You just have to work a little harder.”

Sound Fix’s Bradley agrees. “People like record stores,” he says. “It’s not as if people are happy to see them going away—they just wish they could go in and be treated nicely. The dingy record store with some surly kid behind the counter—that’s the old model.”