English: Rough Trade

English: Rough Trade (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today sees British record label Rough Trade open up a new record store in Brooklyn, NY. At a time when physical record sales are at an all-time low and digital channels are spreading everywhere, this might seem like a strange move.

Not so, says an independent music institution that has weathered three decades of changing technology and music business models.

Record Stores Resurgent?

“The Internet has polarized record stores,” says Rough Trade East’s store director Stephen Godfroy. “At one end of the spectrum you have the complete commoditization of music, and at the other end the specialists that celebrate music as an artifact. The ones that fall in between fail – which is the reason HMV failed.”

The HMV chain to which he refers died a slow death, clinging to the standard formula of trumpeting mainstream hits and big name release dates. When the same products are available in Walmart, Target, and with one-click on a laptop, it becomes harder and harder to entice customers into a store specifically to buy music.

For Rough Trade the opposite has been true. It opened a second, much larger London location in 2007, and clearly feels the confidence to expand across the Atlantic, even as streaming services make music even more accessible and affordable. Oddly enough, it seems to be the move to digital and abundant music that makes stores like Rough Trade and Other Music, in Manhattan’s expensive NoHo neighborhood, able to win their smaller battles in the wider war to maintain record stores.

Although the latter may be lost, it does seem like there is enough demand for independent exceptions to prove the rule. Records stores may not be resurgent, but that doesn’t mean that individual locations maintained by trusted names can’t survive, perhaps even thrive.

Technology Offers Choice, Stores Offer Selectivity

Although record stores are less vital now than in the pre-digital days, they still offer something that technology has so far failed to provide. They are an important place to gather when we want to be enveloped by the experience of selecting music. Not all fans want this and will continue to download or stream the many digital alternatives now revolutionizing the music industry. But enough fans exist down in the niches to justify supporting those that make an effort to give us that experience.

This is why Rough Trade can open up a 15,000 square foot facility in one of the priciest neighborhoods outside of Manhattan and have every expectation that it will succeed. It’s also a small sliver of hope for anyone who continues to enjoy wiling away hours among the record bins and has been made to feel like a dinosaur in recent years.

Technology will continue to change how we consume music, but there’s a reason that classics like the record store endure.

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