Low Fidelity: Vintage Vinyl and The Precarious State of the Indie Record Store Leave a comment

Last month the news spread that Vintage Vinyl, the Fords, NJ bastion of independent music, was closing after four decades in the business. It wasn’t because of the effects of the pandemic but rather a shift in the priorities of the store’s ownership—a small consolation in a story that otherwise would have read like a broken toilet that people kept shitting in. For thousands of people growing up in New Jersey and the surrounding area—that’s not an exaggeration—Vintage Vinyl was that one shining beacon we had in a sea of corporate record store chains in the years before one-click online ordering. My friends and I would pile into one of our cars every few weeks to take the two-hour drive to Vintage, not only for the cool shit they brought in, but also for the experience of the store itself. The CDs, the vinyl, books, assorted other random stuff lke the small stage for in-store performances, artist signings, etc. For a lot of people, this was their hub of culture. I haven’t lived in New Jersey for years, but the news still made me sad that I couldn’t visit this institution one more time before the vultures pecked it clean. And it also made me think about independent record stores and the record—mostly vinyl—industry as a whole.

I haven’t worked inside a record store in years since I was unceremoniously told to get the fuck out of one before the cops were called, but I have kept up with a lot of people who own such stores and I still do my best to patronize as many of them as possible. Whenever I travel for work, one of the first things I do is research local record stores, even in the most unlikely of places. Having some time away from being behind the counter has given me perspective on more than just the sheer volume of horseshit that comes out of customers mouths, or the mouth-eaten copies of Rumours they lugged in because some asshole on a Pawn Stars said albums were worth a mint. It’s given me time to reflect on how difficult some of the decisions the shop owners must make simply to keep afloat.

As a much younger man with disposable income, I loved scouring Vintage’s used bin and just blind buying weird metal and punk records because they looked cool, with the hopes that the art was an adequate reflection of the music within. It was a gamble, and I took home some fucking duds over the years, but when you hit gold, it really stuck with you. This was kind of a symbiotic relationship because you got the thrill of seeing if your aesthetics yielded a reward and the stores could turn over stock. This whole dance is a thing of the past now that people can just pull out their phones and check on the spot—and that’s only a viable scenario if that hypothetical person even buys physical music anymore. And while you can take out a large population of musical Russian roulette seekers, that’s not slowing the amount of absolute bullshit people are bringing in to sell to these places—especially after two years of a poor economy. I can imagine just the daily stress of dealing with these human nightmares desperate to strike gold with moldy attic “treasures” and thrift store finds has now grown, especially with fewer new faces coming in with summer job money and a hunger in their ears. One of these spectres once asked me if I ever saw the Doors with Jim Morrison. Morrison died six years before I was born. I did not buy their records.

The man who owned the stores I worked at 10 years ago was ahead of the curve in many ways. He began to see his stores not as Ye Olde Record Shoppe but as open air warehouses, a processing center you could browse as we frantically listed everything on Amazon (before Bezos made changes so that third-party selling on Amazon became nearly impossible—also before he put on that stupid fucking hat and rode a large metal dick a bit higher than normal places). It was a hybrid model that a lot of record stores have had to adapt to survive. Services like Amazon, eBay and later Discogs all became tools to enable this existence, but unfortunately these services know they’re vital and raise their seller fees constantly. Coupled with policies that always are in favor of the buyer—even if the buyer manages to rip off the seller—plus the escalation of shipping costs, operating costs and just general hassle tend to add up. You saw a lot of older store owners resist using the internet as a gateway to new customers because they thought it was a fad, like the fucking Charleston. I say “saw” because a good portion of these stores disappeared. And then you have Record Store Day.

Record Store Day—if you’re still somehow unaware—is a (now) twice yearly “holiday” whose initial intention was to invite indie labels to do special releases that would only be available in indie stores to help drive people into brick and mortars and prop up the whole scene. And for a bit this worked. But like all things with good intentions, the big corporations saw earnings potential and jammed their knobby dicks right into it. The vast majority of titles released on RSD is bullshit like remastered 180-gram Jim Croce LPs for $34.99 when you can buy fucking 15 copies of the original for that price and still get change back, While this may be considered a matter of “taste” it also created a deeper, longer lasting problem: The glut of corporate money causing major backlogs at vinyl plants and higher costs for smaller labels, which all gets passed down to you. Who said trickle-down economics doesn’t work?

These delays are choking indie labels who cannot afford to put up $10,000 to release a record only to wait nine months because there needs to be another pressing of some Springsteen record with already 40 million copies in print. For a little while, this resulted in rise of cassette labels and the inevitable Cassette Store Day that never seemed to catch on, but now those plants are also stretched with delays. You know what this means? Yep, CDs. CDs are quicker and cheaper for labels to print up, giving it an almost unnatural second renaissance. You might not see much of it now, but trust me, you will.

While writing that last paragraph I googled “Record Store Day Reissues” and the search results weren’t so indie. I didn’t graduate college, but I don’t think fucking Kohl’s is an independent record store. Or Target. Or Walmart. How is this benefitting indie stores again? Outside of stores like my previous place of employment that would spend the few days surrounding RSD flipping this shit to people who didn’t want to wake up early and actually go to a fucking store for five times the price. Plus, most of the people who buy this bullshit are only looking for conversation pieces and would never step into a record store the other 363 days of the year unless they walked by the vinyl display at Urban Outfitters—another fine record store.

There are arguments for and against Discogs as a survival tool for stores and if I take a second to stop being the old man yelling at clouds meme, I’ll admit that Discogs and other services like Big Cartel and even Bandcamp are the future of physical distribution and collecting. Record stores now use Discogs as one of their primary income streams to hold back the tide that all brick-and-mortar specialty retail will eventually get swept away in, as we move entirely into a digital economy. So, in that sense, Discogs is a way to support the stores you love if you’re no longer local, and was a great source of financial stress relief for some stores during the lockdowns of the last 18 months.

There is the flip side to the story—that of the collector. It offers you information on practically every recording ever released, no matter how obscure and ways to create want lists to further curate your collection. But, for me, there’s something missing in the experience. Sure, the end result is the same (exchange currency for the record you wanted) but you miss going into a poorly lit store that’s covered floor to ceiling in stickers and posters that’s playing some weird shit you’ve never heard but might be into. You can’t dig into their crates to try to find that one holy grail on your list—to physically lift it off the shelf and see if before you buy it. You’re missing the satisfaction that comes after hunting for something and finally tracking it down. It becomes easy and it becomes cheap, and too many of our experiences these days encapsulate those two things. Is my reticence to this just a symptom of my age as well as my experiences in record stores? Probably, but I’m sure there’s a few valid points floating in the bowl.

I wish I could visit Vintage Vinyl one more time. Or Noise Pollution. Or Rock N Roll Plus. Or the dozens of other stores that have helped shape my tastes and experiences as a human being that are now either vacant or have a Dollar Store where music was once sold. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of great indie stores out there, but they’re on shaky ground and even the titans have to eventually adapt or die. Take my advice and do your best to patronize your favorite one, let them know that their existence is meaningful in your life and just soak in the experience of being in them. Because you don’t know when you’re going to wake up to the news they’re gone forever.

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