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Lew Prince has been telling the story of Carter Carburetor for more than a decade. The St. Louis auto-parts maker, he explains, thrived for nearly 40 years by serving the needs of the Big Three.
"They did everything right as a company," says Prince, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl in University City (and an RFT opera critic). "They improved their product, their delivery, their pricing." But, he adds, "What they never saw coming was fuel injection. They didn't learn how to make fuel injectors, and they went out of business."
The shaggy-bearded Prince first told the carburetor story when Vintage Vinyl was in the middle of a fifteen-year ascendancy that saw gross income jump between 10 and 20 percent per year. By all appearances, the store had few worries, as it was thedestination for music fanatics throughout the Midwest. But Vintage and other mom-and-pop record stores saw dark clouds gathering on the horizon: Internet retail. The Carter Carburetor cautionary tale was Prince's way of explaining the need for Vintage Vinyl to adapt to the times.
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That need is more pressing now than it was a decade ago. The arrival of Internet retailers was a mere portent. File-sharing software such as Napster and LimeWire followed, and signaled a sea change in the way society consumed music. Now, legitimate download stores like iTunes, Rhapsody and eMusic offer legal alternatives to "stealing" music, and consumers are growing more accustomed to storing their music not on shelves but on hard drives. This change has decimated the retail landscape.
It's like Carter Carburetor facing not only fuel injection but teleportation.
According to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks sales data in the music industry, sales at independent retailers in 2006 are down 27 percent from the same period from last year. In 2000 as many as 5,500 independent music stores spanned the nation. At the end of last year, that number had shrunk to 2,600.
Vintage Vinyl, despite its sterling reputation, is not immune to the vagaries of the market. Since the boom times of the 1990s, Vintage Vinyl has eliminated nearly half of its 40-person staff. Last year the record store laid off its longtime general manager, Steve Pick, and recently Vintage cut the jobs of three other managers. Pick is now a part-time manager at Euclid Records.
While customers could once be assured of finding the best musical selection at Vintage Vinyl, the pickings are now far slimmer. A fan looking for, say, the newest release on the hot Southern Lord Records imprint will come up empty.
Even with much advance warning, effective strategies to compete with the monolithic changes in the business have left the store feeling a bit helpless.
"I feel like we see it all coming," says Prince, "but it's at a level where perhaps we won't be able to compete."
It is reasonable to ask whether record stores are still relevant. If, for example, one wants to find out about the new Gnarls Barkley CD, or doesn't care to spend hours scouring bins for the best new music, there's Pitchfork (www.pitchforkmedia.com), the eleven-year-old Web magazine that can do the sorting for you. After reading an album's Pitchforkreview, one can order the CD from hip online independent stores InSound (www.insound.com) or Other Music (www.othermusic.com), and the e-retailers will send the music the same day. There's no real need to visit Vintage Vinyl.
That wasn't the case a decade ago, says a frustrated Tom Ray, who, with Prince, founded Vintage Vinyl 26 years ago at a Soulard Market booth. "For a lot of people in St. Louis, there were two gatekeepers Vintage Vinyl and KDHX. Now, with the Internet, there are a million fucking gatekeepers."
"The record-store guy you trust is, in a lot of ways, being replaced by the music blogger," seconds Darren Snow, a manager at Euclid Records. Snow, a former Vintage Vinyl employee and host of Rocket 88 on KDHX (88.1 FM), adds that sites like Gorilla vs. Bear (gorillavsbear.blogspot.com) and Stereogum (www.stereogum.com) offer the same service that once belonged solely to the record-store clerk. "They're replacing the hip record store guy and the friend that makes you mixtapes."
Visit Google's blog search engine and, within 0.14 seconds, a list of dozens of bloggers will arrive, with each offering his or her opinion on Gnarls Barkley. Fifteen years ago, all a music geek had were the record stores. If you wanted to know what shows were coming to town, Vintage Vinyl was the place to go. Tickets to a concert at the Fox could be had at Streetside Records. Those days are gone.
All of this may seem blasphemous to many older music enthusiasts, who prefer the tactile pleasure of flipping through discs to find some hidden gem. But the younger crowd seems not to care. Why pay attention to Lew Prince's opinion when noted jazz critic and comic-book hero Harvey Pekar waxes poetic about his favorite albums at eMusic.com?
Every CD store in the nation could shut down tomorrow, and music fans will still get their fix. They can log in to their Amazon.com accounts, head to iTunes or access BitTorrent (www.bittorrent.com), where they'll unearth millions of songs, for free. With the click of the mouse, a hundred Sun Ra classics will instantly appear on their hard drive.