February 28, 2007
Latin record shops thrive despite changes in music business
By CRISTIAN SALAZAR
NEW YORK -- Jose Jimenez scanned the rows of CDs, whose covers mainly pictured men dressed in cowboy hats and Western-style shirts open at the collar.
Jimenez, who is from Mexico, was in a Latin record shop in Queens, searching for the latest from a Mexican band whose forte is accordion- and polka-based music that relates sometimes-true stories about drug trafficking and its social ills. He had recently seen the band play on a Spanish-language television show.
"You listen to the music and start to believe you're back in your country," the 36-year-old said, adding that the lyrics speak about what is going on in Mexico these days.
For many Latin Americans like Jimenez, the source for their music _ a cultural bridge between their lives in the U.S. and their homelands _ is the neighborhood Latin record shop. These stores have proliferated in New York's immigrant neighborhoods in recent years and have survived even as the retail music industry that caters to English speakers faces grim prospects.
Digital downloads, piracy, big-box stores and a lack of support for emerging artists on radio are transforming how music is bought and sold, industry experts say. But so far, Latin record shops seem to be holding their own against many of the negative trends _ at least for now.
"Latin Americans still have not gotten into the habit of downloading music," said Enrique Reyes, founder of one of the largest Latin music distributors in the country, Miami-based Reyes Musica.
A lack of high-speed Internet connections, unique collections of music and movies unavailable online and a preference for hard copies have kept many Latinos going back to their neighborhood record shops, according to distributors and music retail experts.
Many of the independent Latin record shops also cater to specific nationalities. In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, for instance, it's easy to find retailers focusing on Ecuadorian music. Jackson Heights is where many get the latest in "grupera" music from Mexico.
Clark Bensen, the founder and CEO of the Almighty Institute of Music Retail _ which tracks retail sales for independent shops _ said that while his organization didn't specifically focus on Latin music sales, it does appear that consumers of the genre are more CD-friendly.
"Latin consumers haven't shifted their listening behaviors as quickly as consumers of other music genres have," Bensen said.
Of the 32.6 million albums digitally downloaded in 2006, only 293,000 of those were in the Latin American music genre according to recent numbers from Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks music sales. Alternative music, in contrast, accounted for 9.6 million of those digital downloads. Classical albums outsold Latino records online, too: 857,000 were downloaded digitally last year.
Some distributors and experts, though, think the future of independent Latin record shops is bleak.
"In general, the sales in what you are calling mom-and-pop are going down," said Leila Cobo, the editor-in-chief of Billboard Latino. But she said there may be pockets of health among smaller record shops in different cities.
"Not everybody has a credit card, and not everybody has access to high-speed Internet," she said, adding that the future of music sales belongs to digital downloads. "It's a very small percentage of Latin sales," she said. "But I see this as the big growing area."
Still, she said if people are looking for a song popular back home, their best bet would be to go to a neighborhood record shop.
During a recent visit to about a half-dozen Latin record shops along Jackson Heights' main commercial artery, business appeared to be steady, with customers of all ages browsing and buying, all to a steady background of music from Latin America.
As for Jimenez, shopping at a TMD record shop in Jackson Heights, he said he would like to start downloading music online _ the only problem is he doesn't know how.
"I'm just now starting to use the Internet," he said, after buying a computer recently.
In the meantime, Jimenez had found a physical version of an album by Los Cuates de Sinaloa, the band he had heard on TV, and he was heading for the cash register.
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