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Record shopFirst Tower Records, and now the independents. Just face facts and close your record store. It’s all over.

I’m a fan of the independent record store. I think there’s something special about rifling through the shelves and bins and discovering treasures, rubbing elbows with other real music fans and talking to the experts behind the counter to learn more about obscure and arcane music trivia.

While it seems obvious and apparent that the increasing popularity of the digital download poses a threat to music retail — especially in the wake of Tower Records’ recent bankruptcy — commentators close to that end of the music business have long thought that independent record stores, for the most part, will survive. They’re small, they’re adaptable, they are based on a community of music collectors and enthusiasts and they can adjust their music ordering and bring their overheads to a bare minimum if called upon to do so.

But recent anecdotal evidence suggests that while the big chainstores are beginning their slow crash and spectacular burn, the indie music retailers are quietly shutting up shop one at a time and either heading online to be reinvented as specialist mail order companies, or simply calling it a day. Which, it goes without saying, is a tragedy.

There are a good many reasons for this.

First, there’s the simple inability to compete with the prices that the bulk-ordering supermarkets are able to charge. ASDA, Tesco and the like (substitute your national grocery megalith as applicable) use CDs and DVDs as loss leaders to encourage people into the stores and sell vast quantities of music at absurd prices.

Second, there’s the fact that more and more record labels and artists are providing their own web retail outlets. One of the most under-reported and perhaps most significant phenomena of online music is the fact that when record labels build a website, they suddenly become retailers. For the vast majority, they would have never had any ambition to fulfill that function before, and nor would it have occurred to them to go into competition with their own distribution outlets. Now, if you build a label website, the first thing you install is the cash register.

Third, much of the competition for record stores is not digital downloads, but internet-mediated catalogue shopping through sites like Amazon.com and Play.com. It’s not that people don’t want CDs. It’s that they don’t want to get dressed and leave the house.

And with affiliate programmes, anyone can be a retailer now. Hell, you can buy any book or CD you want from me right now without even putting your shoes on.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, independent music retailers seem to resolutely keep doing what they’ve always been doing either because it seems to them that the most important thing to do is to cling desperately to the traditions of record retail and hope to appeal to the nostalgia for that shopping experience, or because they don’t know what else to try.

So — if you do own a record store, it’s time to ask some very difficult questions. Like: exactly how important is it to you to retain the physical store? How do you propose to keep customers coming through the door? What isn’t working for you anymore? What haven’t you tried that might work?

One independent record store that I predict will survive and thrive (my local, as it happens) will do so because it is a meeting place for the local community. They serve a decent cup of coffee and provide tables and chairs. They’ve started exhibiting and selling artworks. They’re investigating online provision of some of their services, designed in such a way that it prioritises the centrality of the store itself as a physical location within the village, and they specialise in some very clearly targetted niche areas.

For the independents that sell a selection of the kinds of records and CDs that can be easily found elsewhere, which do not prioritise the site as a meeting place or haven for music loving locals, or which do not at least entertain the possibility of radically changing the operation, the prognosis is not good.

Just to keep trying harder is no longer good enough. A working definition of insanity is keeping on trying the same thing and expecting different results.

Investigate Gemm.com. Is that any help to you? What about starting a store on eBay (no, really!) or clearing the old Bowie, U2 and Prince out of the bargain bins to make room for well-researched specialist and niche catalogue that people will travel to browse?

What about (and I can hear the groans already) using your website as a platform for interaction with the community you serve? If your staff are experts, why are they not blogging their recommendations and preferences? Or podcasting? A chat with select independent labels may well enable you to give away promotional samples on your website that will encourage people to browse out-of-store and then come in to buy. Why not link to reviews of your specialist records that appear in publications that many of your customers may not be aware of — or even write your own?

Hell — you want a community? Start a forum so that your customers can discuss their purchases and make their own recommendations. You could reward regular purchasers with discounts and incentive programmes — but better yet, why not invite them to publish their own music reviews and recommendations? Give them a t-shirt or something, and get them to work.

Ultimately, the pressure is on. The days of music retailers acting as the sole — or even primary — method of music acquisition has now definitively and permanently gone. Change something about what you do, or you’ll be gone too.

Got any ideas?
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