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Photograph by Dave Lepori

Round and Round: Mavericks eschew new music-buying techniques, preferring the tradition of buying vinyl and full-length CDs at the local indie retailer.

Indies Still Rock

As burning and downloading hammer the big retailers, independent record stores hang on thanks to obsessive music fans

By Todd Inoue

LAST WEEK, a bearded and chipper Steve Jobs walked through Stanford Shopping Center to unveil a new retail concept for Apple. Located between Nine West and Gymboree, the 750-square-foot "Mini" store, inspired by the Mini Cooper vehicle, looks like G5 heaven with stainless-steel walls and white, seamless ceilings and floors. Jobs gave a brief rah-rah speech extolling the virtues of Apple stores and products before pulling the black curtain down from the storefront, revealing a sleek shop befitting the Cupertino company's slick, user-friendly aesthetics. On one side, laptops, G5s and other hardware and software; on the other, iPods and iPod-related merchandise.

It's only natural for Jobs to devote half his store to the portable music player. The iPod helped push Apple to its biggest quarterly growth in nine years. Two million iPods were sold in the last quarter (compared to 860,000 the previous quarter). And with Christmas around the corner, holiday demand could make the mid-'80s run on Cabbage Patch Kids look like child's stuff.

"We've taken our best guess, and we're building a lot, but the demand may be even larger," said Jobs, perched on a stool in trademark jeans and black mock-turtleneck shirt. "So if you want to be sure to get an iPod this holiday season, I'd get one soon."

Jobs is planning for his best Christmas ever. With the possible exception of cave-dwelling arthropods, most everyone is getting into the music download game. It's now possible to download music from fast-food chains, under soda caps, from Wal-Mart, as well as from the ubiquitous iTunes online store. Every major electronics company plans to release some form of souped-up MP3 player. In a recent report on Reuters, an all-Internet-based music distribution model—where the Ushers, Beastie Boys, Norah Jones, etc., sell music via downloads instead of CDs—is predicted for 2009.

This changeover would turn traditional retail chains like Wherehouse, Camelot and Tower into huge boxy relics. While Apple is opening new stores (six Mini stores last weekend, including the Stanford location and another at Oakridge Mall), the chains are downsizing. But across the aisle, independent record stores like Streetlight, Rasputin's and Amoeba are surviving, thriving even, during these difficult times. Managers at some of the Bay Area's prominent indies have found that niche shoppers—those obsessive record collectors with diverse musical collections and interests—have kept their sales stable. Other reasons—MP3 players are still expensive, dial-up connections vary, the economy still sucks, new CDs are overpriced, even something as simple and tactile as human interaction—also play a part in the success of the independent.

"There's a plenty big enough market for independent record stores who cater to those who are deeply into music and like to be in an environment where people who like music are," says Streetlight Records general manager Jeff Moss. "The whole shopping experience, that feeling of community, is a social experience that you can't duplicate online by any means."

Spin Control

While many labels and artists would like to blame downloading, ripping and burning for their woes, there are myriad reasons why sales are down. Moss believes the slumping economy is as much to blame for the lack of customers buying tangible music products. He's seen people selling their CD collections, not because they ditched the whole retail concept and converted their CDs to MP3s, but because they lost their job and need extra cash. That said, Moss adds that Streetlight's DVD stock has gone up while CDs have gone down. The industry refusal to lower prices is to blame for this, says Moss.

"CDs have been overpriced by the labels for quite a while," he says. "DVDs came around, and you had a full movie, outtakes and directors' comments."

Marc Weinstein, Amoeba's owner for 15 years, believes the Internet's rise in the music distribution game is a blessing and a curse. Customers have more resources from which to download and learn about music. "We aren't feeling the pinch, because there's an offsetting dynamic whereby maybe we're not selling as many popular titles due to the rise of MP3s and file sharing, but on the other side, there's now much more significant resources online than ever because of the computer/Internet that educates our customers," he says. "And the more educated the customers are, typically, the more likely they are to go to the store to buy CDs."

Even for some extreme niche resellers, business has been good. Edward Garcia, owner of the 15-month-old Record Shop in downtown San Jose, says that his shop is doing fine. In the high-tech world of dance music, vinyl still rules.

"As an independent retailer, there's areas we need to concentrate on—a specialty that you can't find in a typical retail chain store—and vinyl is a big, big factor in this," Garcia says.

Garcia adds that he hasn't been affected by potential customers who'd rather search online for music, download off Kazaa or Limewire or burn copies rather than hitting his store's stacks. "That's the trend people are moving toward, but a lot of people want to walk in a bank and talk to a person instead of a machine," says Garcia. "The same concept is with music. People want the actual product, the actual CD, they feel important for getting it."

Can't Always Get What You Want

As borrowing and burning CDs becomes widespread, and the big-box record stores struggle to remain solvent, the indie stores are girding for an uncertain future. Amoeba's Weinstein is considering different downloading options but isn't rushing. "We certainly would like to be a place to get MP3s. We're a trusted source of information for independent music and would like to be a part of it," he says. "We haven't been rushing to it, because it takes a lot of resources. Also the types of companies we'd like to align ourselves with [that would help us make downloads] are just coming into the world. We aren't quite there yet."

That said, online selection from "legitimate" sources can't satiate the esoteric tastes of record buyers. You certainly can't download the hottest New Orleans bounce songs or rare Baltimore club joints using Wal-Mart's music service. The only Metallica songs on iTunes are cover versions. The emo kid with dial-up access eating a BK Broiler can't use his free code to download that MP3 for a number of reasons: His favorite obscure screamo band from Omaha isn't on iTunes, Limewire or Kazaa. And even if he could find the songs, his connection is slow or faulty or his software hasn't been updated in years.

Weinstein, who says he's never downloaded anything in his life, has friends who own iPods. The idea of lugging around a cigarette pack-sized player instead of a stack of CDs is appealing. And though he admires the format, he says it lacks the human touch: no big artwork, no liner notes, no lyrics and, most importantly, no soaking up an album's worth of music and ideas at one sitting. "I'm too much of a record guy," he says. "I'm a big fan of the format and package. And I'm a fan of the LP where an artist can curate a number of songs and present them as a group."


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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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