"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
On Wednesday night, hundreds of people passed through the doors of Other Music, one of New York City’s last remaining record stores. Yes, there was free booze. But the young, plugged-in crowd came to celebrate, not necessarily to buy. “The World’s First Perfect Zine,” a new print publication from the author of a well-known blog devoted to reviews of album reviews, was holding a release party. Along with a contribution by the novelist Tao Lin, the zine includes writing by members of the groups Vampire Weekend, Das Racist and jj, among others.
In what could be an intriguing — or depressing — glimpse into the future of record stores, all those extra bodies in the room didn’t necessarily translate into extra business. “There was a remarkably low number of kids who came in there and said, ‘I haven’t seen this, I’ll pick it up,’” observed Other Music co-owner Josh Madell, a day after the event. The zine’s editor, pseudonymous Pitchfork Reviews Reviews blogger David Shapiro, didn’t dispute the point. “Part of the reason was that the store was so packed that browsing for CDs and records wasn’t really physically possible,” he explained, in an email response to questions. “But beyond that, of course, people don’t really buy records that much anymore — especially people in a small, hyper-Internet-savvy subset of young New Yorkers.”
The episode neatly illustrates a fundamental paradox facing record store owners in 2011. Many music fans romanticize the record store as a source of both hard-to-find culture and local community. “It was a library and a clubhouse,” as director Cameron Crowe, one of the ultimate nostalgists, told the authors of the 2009 book “Record Store Days.” At the same time, however, record stores are just that — stores — and ever-fewer consumers are choosing to buy the little pieces of plastic they sell. For record stores overall, then, the outlook appears bleak. “As an institution, it had its function,” said Alexander Weheliye, a professor of English and African-American studies at Northwestern University. But the survivors aren’t going away. They’re simply changing their tune, becoming smaller and more focused. Time will tell whether that’s enough — for some, continued existence may require a whole new arrangement.
“A record store nowadays can’t just sell records. That’s the first step to failure,” said Ben Blackwell, a longtime record collector who handles manufacture and distribution of vinyl at Jack White’s label, Third Man Records. “Record stores need to put on events. They need to host live shows. They need to do listening parties. You have to have an active way with which to communicate to your buyers. You need a mailing list, you need a Twitter account, you need Facebook pages. All this stuff that wasn’t around 10 years ago when record stores were seemingly doing fine is what you need to employ to stay in the race.” But what happens when, like at Other Music, even cool events aren’t enough?
Of course, the demise of the American record store is a sad song that has become all too familiar. O.G. stalwart Tower Records closed in 2006, follow by another big chain, Virgin Megastore, in 2009. Over the past eight years, at least 3,700 stores that sell recorded music have shut their doors, leaving about 12,400 across the country, according to market research firm Almighty Music Marketing — and that number includes big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target. In the first half of this year, even as overall album sales rose for the first time since 2004, physical album sales continued to decline, a recent Nielsen SoundScan report shows. The music industry’s collapse, the rise of illegal file-sharing along with legal digital downloads, and the ongoing economic slowdown have each played their part.
The digital space, in particular, is one where brick-and-mortar stores probably don’t stand much of a chance. New services such as Google Music and Spotify keep springing up all the time, adding to the competition from old foes like Amazon’s MP3 — which often sells new albums for as little as $3.99 — and Apple’s iTunes. Mega-selling artists such as Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Jay-Z are striking exclusive deals with digital stores like Amazon and iTunes, leaving physical retailers out in the cold. While Other Music, for one, sells digital downloads, results elsewhere aren’t encouraging: The Coalition of Independent Music Stores, a 29-member consortium representing 59 U.S. locations, recently shut down its Think Indie digital store after less than two years, citing lack of business.
Still, all isn’t lost. Independent record store closures have been on the decline since 2008, according to Almighty. Amoeba Records, a three-location California independent record store chain that celebrated its 20th anniversary about a year ago, was founded as a “comprehensive, one-stop music destination for everybody,” co-owner Marc Weinstein has said. But that’s an exception. More often, today’s best record stores are carefully curated, niche-oriented establishments, selling new and used vinyl to a specialized market — which tends to be found in critical mass near large cities or universities.
One example is Grimey’s, an independent record store in Nashville, Tenn. Since opening in 1999, the Music City retailer has seen its sales rise every year except 2008, co-owner Doyle Davis says. Grimey’s offers a carefully selected inventory of records in a town known for supporting music, and it makes an effort to be involved in the community. In-store performances at Grimey’s have ranged from recent breakthrough bands like Phoenix and the Black Keys to heavy rock superstars Metallica. The store also does ticket giveaways and donates gift certificates to local causes. What it doesn’t do is sell much other than music, Doyle says, calling the store “fairly purist.”
The much-heralded resurgence of interest in vinyl records has been a boon to independent record stores, including Grimey’s. Vinyl album sales rose 41 percent in the first six months of 2011 alone, after increasing 14.2 percent throughout 2010, according to Nielsen SoundScan data. Vince Sluzarz, owner of the Cleveland vinyl-pressing plant Gotta Groove Records, recently told the New York Times Magazine that SoundScan figures only account for roughly 15 percent of vinyl sales; when you factor in the many small-scale releases distributed without a bar code, though, it’s unclear how to verify such claims.
Record Store Day, an event founded in 2007 and now taking place at more than 700 independent record stores across the country, certainly hasn’t hurt, drawing customers in with exclusive, limited-edition vinyl releases. Stores celebrate Record Store Day on the third Saturday in April, but this year organizers are holding an additional event on the day after Thanksgiving — Black Friday — with another set of exclusive titles. “A lot of people look at it as a traffic driver,” Doyle says of Record Store Day. “I look at it as a way to increase sales. We had our best day ever this past Record Store Day, by 72 percent over the previous best day we’d ever had. And people camped out!”
So against all odds, is there reason for optimism? Hopeful music lovers do keep opening stores. Excluding mass merchants like Wal-Mart and Target, the number of record store openings has increased each of the past three years, including 62 new independent record stores so far this year, according to Almighty. After Louisville, Ky., indie ear X-tacy closed this fall, Matador Records — the label that’s home to Pavement, Yo La Tengo and the New Pornographers — pointed out in a blog post that the death of the record store has been exaggerated, and used Steady Sounds, in Richmond, Va.; Cyklopx, in Forest Park, Ill.; All Day Records, in Carrboro, N.C.; Co Op 87, in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Saki, in Chicago as examples.
Sone existing stores are actually expanding. In Austin, Texas, End of an Ear recently added an 180-square-foot space next-door, co-owner Dan Plunkett said. In Oklahoma City, Guestroom Records is in the midst of opening a third store, located on the ground floor of a music school. In an email, co-owners Tarvis Searle and Justin Sowers pointed to their independently released offerings: “You’re not going to find many Best Buys that have big Tune-Yards, Dum Dum Girls or Oh Sees displays,” they wrote. Chicago’s Permanent Records recently opened up a second location in Los Angeles.
Permanent moved to the West Coast because co-owners Lance Barresi and Liz Tooley wanted warmer weather, Barresi said. Another believer in curated, smaller-scale stores, he warned that the snobbish attitude immortalized in the movie “High Fidelity” no longer cuts it. But he also acknowledged that owning a record store isn’t exactly a get-rich-quick scheme. “You’re hand-selling unique items to a unique set of people, and that’s the beauty of it,” he explained. “And you’re working for yourself. That’s the extent of the benefits. I don’t have health insurance. I am not high on the income total.”
What’s more, nobody can say for sure how long vinyl sales will continue to increase. And they still represent only a tiny fraction of the overall music market — 1.2 percent of physical album sales last year, according to SoundScan. Athens, Ga., music store Wuxtry, where Michael Stipe famously met his now-former R.E.M. bandmate Peter Buck, has survived — even though another local store, Schoolkids, recently closed. Two new record shops, however, quickly sprung up in its place. Mike Turner, a Wuxtry store manager, said the trick for a record store to survive is knowing its community, noting that sales in recent years keep looking up. But he also raised an interesting question: What if college kids stop thinking it’s cool to buy vinyl — or “vinyls,” as they often put it? “That’s the one scary thing, because vinyl is such a huge help in keeping stores going,” Turner observed.
Whatever happens with vinyl sales in the long term, record stores can probably safely bet on the cult of diehard record collectors for whom an album is a fetish object as much as a source of music. Indie labels, in fact, are already targeting this audience with various deluxe vinyl editions. As one example, the band Okkervil River made its 2011 album “I Am Very Far” as a special box set, encased in wood and accompanied by an individually signed letter from singer-songwriter Will Sheff. “In the age of everybody aiming their music down to the lowest common denominator, record stores can serve as a beacon of audiophilia, and a beacon of beautiful artwork,” Sheff said on the phone from Paris, where Okkervil River recently played a gig. “People who care about music are willing to pay more.”
To be sure, not all record stores that have closed in recent years have done so because they couldn’t afford to stay open. In some cases, store owners just looked at whether or not to renew their lease and decided it was time. That said, the abrupt closure late last month of Louisville, Ky., institution ear X-tacy comes as a bad omen. Honored as one of the best independent record stores across the country by Rolling Stone, SPIN and GQ, owner John Timmons’ store appeared to be doing so many things right, offering plenty of in-stores and a vast vinyl selection in a city that prides itself on being local and weird. The ear X-tacy closing took place just as Criminal Records in Atlanta — another top-15 store nationally — said it might also be forced to close.
Singer-songwriter Jim James of the Louisville band My Morning Jacket, a former clerk at ear X-tacy, posted an eloquent eulogy for the store on his group’s site. More recently, in an email interview, he expressed hope for a new, more community-based store that might sell coffee, jeans, an old stereo or a vintage guitar as well as vinyl — stores that create a need for people to come out and visit them. “The mp3 has done a fantastic job of killing the traditional idea of what a record store used to be … ” he said, with his capitalization and punctuation intact. “but as the cliche goes, and when you think about this subject in broader terms, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger … and i think in a bigger sense we are going to see a new generation of locally based stores and communities pop up in the real world that are stronger and better than ever. it’s just going to take some time.”
James might have been thinking of a store in nearby Lexington, Ky., called Pops Resale, which targets a single demographic with multiple categories of products. According to owner Dan “Pop” Schorr, vinyl is the store’s best-selling department and takes up about half of its 600-square-foot space. Its next-seller is vintage clothing, followed by vintage video games and systems; the store also sells old-school audio gear, vintage toys and other items. “I still have a hard time understanding in smaller cities how some record stores that are just record stores continue to do it,” Schorr said. “What we’ve tried to do is find niches that nobody else bothers with.”
Plenty of record stores carry audio equipment, but according to singer-songwriter John Vanderslice, they could be selling more. There are certainly downsides, ranging from handling returns to dealing with a new set of suppliers, but Vanderslice sees the products as a natural fit, like pipes at a medical marijuana dispensary. “If I were to open a record store, it would be vinyl-only, and it would be paired up with a very cool and working-class-priced audio equipment store, where you’re selling all-in-one devices,” he said. “If I’m intimidated walking into a stereo store, and I own like $700,000 worth of audio equipment, then there’s something wrong with the culture of audio equipment — if it’s paired up with a record, then all of the sudden it’s everyday shit.” Another advantage: The specifics of buying a turntable — determining whether it has the right connections, and so on — makes it one of the few purchases that’s still more easily conducted in person.
Stores with a strong reputation and the right set of circumstances can expand into still other potential revenue sources. Other Music also does music supervision types of work for various brands or businesses, and the store has generated money and publicity by holding live events at the SXSW music conference in Austin the past several years, according to Madell, the co-owner. Still, while those projects came about as a result of running a record store, doing them doesn’t exactly require paying rent on a record store. “It’s hard to envision a turnaround in the way the industry is going that would be in our favor,” he acknowledged.
Shapiro, “The World’s First Perfect Zine” editor, aptly summed up the conundrum. ”The way I feel about patronizing record stores,” he wrote in an email, “is probably the way everyone feels about things they know they should be doing but don’t actually do enough: heading to Occupy Wall Street after work, doing the pile of dishes in the sink and sparing their roommates, leftists not shopping at liberal-seeming megachains (Urban Outfitters, Whole Foods) whose owners hold beliefs and donate money to politicians that are inimical to leftism. I’m glad there are people who do these things, and if I had the constitution to do what I believed in 100 percent of the time I would buy all of my music at record stores, but alas … ” Unfortunately for record-store enthusiasts, it’s not a perfect world.
Marc Hogan is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in SPIN, Pitchfork, eMusic, Playboy.com, the Village Voice and Paste magazine, among other publications.More Marc Hogan.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)