October 15, 2006
Tables have turned on record stores
By Regis Behe
For any music-loving kid growing up in the '60s, '70s or even the '80s, a trip to the local record store was a regular experience. Amid rows of albums -- which eventually would be replaced by cassettes, and then CDs -- music lovers would gather and ruminate over the latest releases by Bob Dylan and the Beatles, U2 and the Ramones, the Beastie Boys and Grandmaster Flash.
But walk into almost any record store today -- and they are still known as "record" stores among the faithful -- and there's nary a kid under 18 to be found. Most of the time, there's no one under 30.
"The majority (of customers) are baby boomers," says Dave Pasaniuk, of Dave's Music Mine on the South Side.
And even then, there's a point of diminishing returns.
"When you start talking the age bracket," says Bill DePew, owner of B&D Records in Springdale, "a lot of these guys, when they start getting married or having kids or don't have the same job they once did, they don't tend to buy as much music as they did when they were younger and didn't have all those cares."
But today's younger music lovers aren't turning up at record stores as often. They're home, downloading the latest Ludacris or Evanescence single on their computer to transfer to their iPod.
"What's happening is that you have a whole generation, maybe more than a generation, that's not buying its music in stores," says Squirrel Hill native Gary Graff, a music writer from Detroit who is the author of "The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen A to E to Z," and the editor of the "Music Hound Essential Album Guide" series.
But, he says, "You have this small, intriguing populace of music geeks that care about getting their music in an album format, having music as a tactile experience, an experience you can hold as well as you can listen to. It's a drastically shrinking audience."
By the numbers
The Recording Industry Association of America, which researches and compiles marketing data on music trends, found that 8.2 percent of music purchases were made through the Internet via sites such as www.amazon.com in 2005, and that digital downloads accounted for another 6 percent. Downloads of albums and singles increased significantly from 2004 to 2005 -- 198.5 percent and 163.3 percent, respectively.
The RIAA doesn't break down music purchases by age in relation to whether music is bought at a store or downloaded from the Internet. But the group's figures do show that, overall, consumers age 40 and older purchase about 35 percent of music sold in any form. About 20 percent of sales comes from buyers ages 30-39, 25 percent from ages 20-29 and 20 percent for consumers younger than 20.
But RIAA figures also show record store sales increased from 32.5 percent to 39.4 percent from 2004 to 2005 after declining every year since 2001. Could there be a gain in the fortunes of smaller stores?
"It depends on the store, but I think there is a comeback," says Joel Oberstein, the president of the Almighty Institute of Retail Music, a marketing research company based in Studio City, Calif., that assists more than 150 record labels in marketing music. "I think this could be a very good time for independent retail -- especially, unfortunately, with the close of Tower (Records) stores (in 2004). I think there's an opportunity for the independent stores to step in and take advantage and fill a niche."
Any gains, however, will likely be made without teenagers.
Graff agrees that there's some truth to the idea that music is disposable. But, he argues, the Internet actually affords kids more of an opportunity to explore various genres.
"I think kids today are as passionate as they ever were, and perhaps more so," he says. "Because it's more accessible to them, and so much more accessible ... right there at their fingertips."
The difference, Graff says, is in the depth of interest in an artist and his work. Instead of albums, younger consumers tend to be more interested in singles.
That means the consumer who is most apt to visit a record store remembers when vinyl was the prime medium.
"When we were in Oakland and first started here (on the South Side), there were a lot of college kids coming in looking for indie rock," Pasaniuk says. "But now, most of our customers are into the stuff you hear on WYEP. We also get people into older soul music and doo-wop, music from the '70s."
But Paul's CDs in Bloomfield still attracts kids and college students who are looking for music that's beyond the mainstream.
"We've always been sort of diverse," owner Paul Olszewski says. "We carry a lot of labels that don't necessarily get picked up by other record stores. Every record store has its own area of expertise."
Paul's CDs aside, most store owners think something has been lost. Hanging out at a record store and queuing up for the arrival of the new Rolling Stones or Pearl Jam CD is an experience most of today's teenagers will never know.
"As a society, look at the technologies that have literally bombarded us and taken over a lot of the aspects of our lives," says Dr. Audrey Guskey, a professor of marketing and an expert on consumer trends at Duquesne University.
"I think it's wrong, because kids don't have the interaction. Kids are always on their cell phones, but a lot of the interaction when we were growing up -- going to malls, going to stores, talking to each other in record stores -- has been lost. ... They just don't have that interaction, that face-to-face stuff, as we did. They're not used to it; it's not a part of them. And they don't miss it, because they don't know what they are missing."
For those who grew up on vinyl, however, a trip to the record store is still an integral part of the music-buying experience. Oberstein says that even if there are more distractions, "the desire to get turned on to new things, if you're into music, is still there. And there's no better place to do that than in indie stores."
Changing with the times
Bill Toms thought the South Side location was ideal for a record store.
Future development was promised for the eastern end of East Carson Street, not far from where steel mills had once lined the Monongahela River.
But a little more than three years ago, faced with flagging sales and less-than-exciting prospects, he pulled out of Premier CDs before the SouthSide Works rejuvenated the area. The store closed shortly thereafter.
"We caught the last hurrah of CD buying," says Toms, a musician who has played with Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers and is concentrating on his solo career. "... We started losing people who were young. They weren't so interested in buying CDs."
Toms' experience is not unique. According to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a marketing research company based in Studio City, Calif., that assists more than 150 record labels in marketing music, approximately 900 independent record stores have shut their doors since late 2003. A year later, Tower Records, one of the behemoth record chains, filed for bankruptcy protection.
Faced with an increasing amount of competition, small record stores have to diversify. Dr. Audrey Guskey, a professor of marketing and an expert on consumer affairs at Duquesne University, thinks small independent stores need to offer a product or service that can't be found at big box stores or online.
"They can't just be the record store, like National Record Mart used to be," she says. "They have to expand with the technology, somehow, to stay alive."
There is a niche available for independent stores, according to Joel Oberstein, president of the Almighty Institute.
"The indie stores that can roll with the times, who can adapt and become a pop-culture hotbed in their communities -- because they can't survive as a straight record store -- but if they expand on some of those things and make it a cool place to hang out, there will always be a need for those things," Oberstein says. "Going through dusty bins is a much warmer experience than going through MP3s."
Shane Wilkinson, the owner of C.D. Extreme in Irwin, is increasingly reliant on sales of used movies and video games, which account for approximately 40 percent of his sales, and specialized music offerings.
At Dave's Music Mine on the South Side, the resale of movies accounts for "at least 50 percent of the business," owner Dave Pasaniuk says. "It used to be maybe a third."
Pasaniuk has noticed an uptick in the number of used vinyl records sold. At $2-$3 apiece for an album, a high school or college student can build a music collection on the cheap and vinyl aficionados can fill in gaps in their collections.
Regis Behe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412)320-7990.
Permission granted by copyright holder for this express use only.
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