Much like “video killed the radio star,” the independent record store — idealized in movies such as “Empire Records” and “High Fidelity” — is the next dinosaur on its way out.
As music buyers turn more and more toward the Internet to obtain their music, both legally and illegally, indie music shops have been hit hard. Since the 1999 inception of Napster, a file-sharing service that paved the way for Internet downloading, record stores have been struggling to keep their doors open and survive in a world where a song can be obtained, often for free, with the mere click of a button.
“Every year, business is dropping another 10 to 15 percent,” said Gus Joannides, 50, the owner of Sound City Records II in Astoria, which has been in business since 1991. “It’s just a matter of time before music is available on the Internet only. When you’re losing that much each year in sales, you reach a point when you can’t do it anymore.”
So far, Joannides has managed to keep his store alive by selling vinyl and music-related collectibles. But with a lease that is up next April, he says he’s fighting to stay open. “It’s going to reach a point of no return,” he added.
Breakdown Records, a Bayside staple for 20 years, is another store that so far has been able to roll with the punches. As owner Anthony Cascella, 41, saw sales of new CDs decline, he decided to turn his store into “a rock ‘n’ roll museum” by selling used CDs, $2 vinyl records, specialty items and collectibles. “You feel like you’re going back in time,” Cascella said. “Plus, with a recording studio in the basement, it’s kind of a cool place to hang out. A lot of kids are fascinated by it all.”
He’s also embraced the technology that caused the slump in his CD sales by utilizing MySpace and craigslist to advertise his shop. He also maintains an eBay store, selling used CDs, vinyl and collectibles online. “It’s an easier and quicker way to sell,” Cascella said. “We’re doing whatever we have to do to keep things going. … You have to constantly change and keep your pulse on what’s going on.”
On the other hand, Frank Chavez, 38, owner of Liberty Records in Ozone Park, continues to sell brand-new CDs of all genres of music, both contemporary and older. Like many record shop owners, Chavez says it’s simply a labor of love for him to keep the store going, despite constantly waning sales. “Business from 10 years ago, it’s not even one-third of what it was; it’s like one-half of a third of where we used to be,” he said. “Ten years ago we used to do $1,000 a day in sales. Now it’s like $150 to $200 a day.” Because he owns the building, making money from renting the rest of it, he can afford to stay open.
Chavez has seen many competitors come and go over the past five years. While he agrees the Internet is the primary reason, there are other factors. Because big box stores such as Target and Best Buy purchase their CDs in bulk, they’re able to sell them at lower prices. “They sell the product for less than what we pay for it,” Chavez added. “We pay $12; they sell for $9.99. Sometimes I go to Target to buy it from them. Sometimes, it’s cheaper to buy it there.”
In fact, Best Buy, Circuit City and Target sell CDs as a loss leader — meant to generate foot traffic that leads to other purchases — according to Joannides. “The first week a CD comes out, they have all the top sellers on sale for $9.99. They get people in the store to buy bigger ticket items, so they don’t mind offering CDs as bait.”
Another factor is that the music industry has become inundated with watered-down, copycat versions of high-selling artists, as labels market anything they think will sell big. While this might mean labels make a lot of money selling singles, album sales are way down.
“I don’t see any quality albums being put out there,” Chavez said. “There’s a lot of one-hit wonders out there. Even the top artists make just one or two good hits and people don’t feel like buying a whole album.”
Joannides agrees. “There’s not a lot of Mariah Careys or Bon Jovis out there,” he said.
The store owners know what needs to be done in order to level the playing field: Distributors need to drop wholesale prices of CDs and the music industry needs to crack down on illegal downloading. But as long as today’s teenagers — who were weaned on both music and technology — feel a sense of entitlement to music, this isn’t likely to happen.
“Music will always be around and people will always want it. It will just evolve into different ways of buying it or using it,” Cascella said.