Other Music

I get asked this question quite a lot by two distinct groups of people. One is the retailers themselves. The other is the group of people passionate about independent music stores. The customers.

And therein lies the answer to the question and the solution to the problem: there exist the requisite two groups of people required in order for the answer to be a resounding YES!

Independent record retailers want to survive. Their customers want them to survive. Both groups are invested in the outcome to the current challenges.

I was interviewed for an article in Business Week about this very issue, and the ways in which New York store Other Music (a shop I really love) are coping with the transition to the online environment. And there’s a single, simple solution to their success.

It’s about people.

Despite what you might think, most people don’t frequent record stores because of records.

The smaller the independent store, the more it seems that there’s a pool of expertise and informed taste that goes into the ordering and selection of the stock held. In short, people shop at independent record stores because of the people who select and recommend the music.

Now, it’s important to realise that what I’ve said isn’t actually true. But it is useful.

Of course people shop at record stores because of records. But you solve the problem of people NOT shopping in record shops by choosing to believe that it’s about people. And that’s what’s important here. More records will not solve this problem.

In fact, that’s the cause of the problem. The online environment is so jam packed with riches, that the problem is not one of availability. The problem is one of filtering. There may be 6 million songs on iTunes. More, probably. You may be able to find anything you’re looking for on Amazon. And then some.

But music lovers — and I’m talking about real enthusiasts here, the bread-and-butter customers of indie retailers, not the casual chart shoppers — want to be introduced to music that they don’t yet know they will absolutely love.

More than ever, the opinion leader rules. And the opinion leader works in, or owns, the record store. They do it because it’s important. They do it because they’re passionate about the music.

Let’s face it, opening a record shop (or getting a job in one) has never been the greatest get-rich-quick scheme in the world. But then, neither has deciding to become a musician. But the motivation to devote your life in this way is a noble one. These people are heroes of our communities and deserve to be rewarded.

But for that to happen, they need to be smart about the changing environment, and use the new technologies to play to their strengths, rather to try (and fail) to emulate the corporates.

Independent record retailers will survive and thrive in direct proportion to the extent that they can provide a guide to the more interesting nooks and crannies of the Long Tail, rather than the extent to which they can make all of it available.

This is why my little record store experiment, Liquid Crunch will only ever have fifty items in stock — and why I’m calling on real experts for their recommendations. And I’m going to be profiling them so you can get to know them and trust the recommendations they make.

Interestingly, one of the best marketing tools for the bricks and mortar music retailers is the handwritten recommendation on the sleeve of the record itself. That, and the phrase “I think you should check this out – I reckon you’ll really love it,” are the things that physical record stores should be trying to capture and reproduce online. Think of it like a browsable, real-world mp3 blog.

One of the things the customers of independent retailers love about shopping at those stores is the fact that it’s not a corporate shopping mall experience. It’s human interaction, an experience, an encounter with a musical guide, entry into a world of expertise and deep knowledge about a particular kind of music and a sense of shared enthusiasm.

When deciding how to cope with the online environment, music retailers need to think about how to maximise that interaction in order to not only survive – but thrive.

There are more ideas in the Business Week article and slide show.

This blog post was written in the cafe part of my local, independent music retailer, Jibbering Records, where I was greeted with a handshake by Oli, one of the owners, had a chat with Rich (behind the counter) about the Five Corners Quintet 12″ that flew off the shelf the moment it was played instore, enjoyed a cup of Earl Grey tea — and ended up buying a record I was listening to as I typed.