In the face of both legal downloading and piracy, the friendly neighborhood music store lives on.
Bart Stinchcomb owns Bart’s Music Shack, located in a residential neighborhood on the far west end of Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado. The shack is literally that — a single room of at most a few hundred square feet. Vinyl records, used CDs, and cassette tapes line the walls. An acoustic guitar, an amplifier, and a few turntables are among the bric-a-brac. A customer, Larry Rasmussen, peruses the wares, slowly rebuilding the collection he lost in the Fourmile Canyon fire.
In 2010, Stinchcomb closed Bart’s CD Cellar, a massive two-story storefront located in a high traffic area on the Pearl Street Mall.
When asked to recall the days before music downloading became popular, Stinchcomb remarks, “The first thing that comes to mind is there were tons of record stores.” Boulder once hosted no less than 16 such stores. Today, only three survive.
Music downloading, both legal and illegal, has drastically altered the music business. Many, Stinchcomb among them, consider it a change for the worse. “When a new record came out, there was a buzz,” Stinchcomb recalls. “It doesn’t seem to be the same.”
“The convenience of the storage [in digital formats] is great, but what’s happened is the amount of people who want to have the record store experience has shrunk dramatically in the last 12 years,” he adds.
Stinchcomb likens record stores to coffee shops — places for people to gather, socialize, and form community around music. “After school, it was often where we went. They were so cool to hang out in. People would show up, drop their backpacks, and hang out for hours,” Stinchcomb remembers. He bought his first album, Frank Zappa’s “Freakout,” after hearing about it from a friend. “We were all listening to it and singing it and talking about it in a few weeks.”
Stinchcomb sees this communal element of music as one of the casualties of the shift in the market to downloading. “I think one of the main things is just human interaction,” he says. “It’s fun to get information that way.”
He likens downloading to viewing a sports game on television. Today’s music consumer sits alone, bathed in the glow of the computer, clicking away at the sterile screen. But going to a record store is like being in the stadium, cheering alongside the other fans.
Counteracting the popularity of downloading, to a degree, has been a resurgence in the popularity of vinyl records. The medium almost went extinct, but saw a renaissance in the early 2000′s as DJing became more popular. “Everyone was DJing,” says Stinchcomb. “We sold a ton of vinyl 12, 13 years ago.”
Vinyl’s popularity has been holding steady, across age demographics. “I think there’s a realization of how good it sounds,” explains Stinchcomb. “The sequence of songs on records and CD is often the way the artist intended for it to be heard, which creates a piece of art in and of itself,” something that can be easily lost when downloading popular individual songs. The physical size of vinyl records also allows more detailed album artwork and liner notes, and vinyl recordings exist that have yet to be digitized.
Stinchcomb does not see the other record stores in town as competitors. “I think we definitely find our own niches and work together,” says Stinchcomb. The culture is to refer customers to one another’s shops, “kind of like a survival unit.”
As for the future of the business? “I think it’ll survive,” says Stinchcomb. “I don’t know how much it will grow.” The allure of vinyl, by its very nature impossible to digitize, and the communal aspect of the local friendly record store, keep them both alive.
“I honestly don’t think people want any less of it. Even if you don’t buy physical music, it’s worth your while to go into a record store. It’s a great experience, and it’s worth it,” Stinchcomb says.
Greg Eckard is an editorial intern at elephant journal. He studied History at Occidental College. He plays keyboards for Shiftybox, a local band, and has been a music enthusiast from a young age. Also an aquarist and amateur magician, he has lived in Boulder for three years.