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The Future of Record Stores in the Digital Age

As more people are buying digital music, do record stores have a chance to succeed these days?

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) says that while sales declined when file sharing became common, record sales have stabilized in the past few years.

J.J. Caithcart owns a record store that specializes in a very small and specific niche: heavy metal. Some say that specialization is a good way to keep a record store successful in the digital era.

Caithcart says that owning a record store is like owning any business: it's all-consuming.

"Anyone starting any small business has to be willing to basically give up their whole life trying to succeed at their business while it monopolizes every moment of their time," he says.

"You have to ask yourself if that's something that you're willing to sacrifice out of the gate, whether it's a record store, being a hairdresser, being a cook... are you willing to make those sacrifices as a small business owner, where it's pretty much yourself 24/7?"

Caithcart says the most crucial thing is getting to know your customers. "Without gettting to know your customers, you're hooped," he says.

"As a specialty store, they want to get to know you; they might not come out and say that as much, but it's really important to get to know your customers and what they're after. Otherwise, you're just bringing things in cold and hoping somebody's going to care."

Caithcart has the advantage of a very loyal customer base. Heavy metal fans, like many fans specific to a genre of music, are pretty die-hard.

Caithcart struggles with record labels, who he says often work against what people want.

"When CDs were first coming out, they basically decided that nobody was going to be interested, or would want vinyl or cassettes anymore. Then when you look at what's going on with vinyl right now, it shows that really they had no concept of what people actually wanted," says Caithcart.

"The demand for vinyl was always there and it won't go away. Even new releases on cassettes are starting to surface. These poor decisions are mostly those of the typical North American record executive. That's just how they've always been, thinking they can dictate what the consumer wants, when they really don't have a clue, really."

Rob Lanni is the co-founder and president of a music company that helps young artists. He says there is a bit of hope for those wanting to get into this line of work.

"There has been a resurgence in 'specialty' stores selling vinyl, T-shirts, memorabilia... Something like that could work, but it would need to be in a very good location," he says.

Lanni says record stores are struggling against what everyone in the music industry has been fighting with: illegal downloading of music. He says a record store needs to diversify to survive: try selling vinyl, DVD, books, and other forms of media.

"At the moment, it looks like retail record stores are having a hard time, but there is an increased demand for vinyl lately," he says.

"Mail order might be an area that is under-serviced. Many people can't or won't physically go out to buy [albums] these days, but an overnight delivery service could work. The consumers would have to pay for the convenience, but some die-hard music fans will pay."

Nicole Otero owns an independent dance music record label in New York. "Digital downloads have seriously changed the game," she says.

"Once upon a time, in the underground dance industry, you were able to live off record sales alone. Digital sales are nowhere near as lucrative as vinyl sales were. Although vinyl is making a comeback for the collectors market, it still isn't anywhere near to what it was like in the '90s and 2000s."

So is selling records a good idea for a career? Otero says it depends on your motivations.

"If you love music and the music business, then yes," she says. "If you're looking for a lucrative career, then I would have to say no."


Recording Industry Association of America
A trade organization

Scrape Records
An example of a record store that has seen success by catering to a small number of people

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