You probably don’t need UWeekly to tell you that independent record stores are drying up at an alarming rate. With piracy, iTunes, Spotify, and the dozens of other 21st century music services available, buying physical things seems weirdly archaic. Sure there’s a certain retro fashion to it, but that’s hardly a long-term, sustainable market. We don’t buy records anymore because, to a huge segment of the population, the idea of an album as a physical thing is a lot more alienating than a dozen mp3s arranged in a sequence.
All of that makes the death of Encore Records that much more sad. Always a boutique record shop with an emphasis on extreme metal and all its children, the store is currently in the process of selling off the rest of its capital and shutting its doors for good. These are the disheartening moments where not even a city like Austin can maintain its grassroots initiatives.
“It’s a real shame what happened with Encore,” said Waterloo Records owner John Kunz. “Unfortunately they just couldn’t get the customers.”
Austin’s notoriously active music scene obviously spills over into the record-selling industry. We’ve got a number of great stores like Waterloo, End of an Ear and Encore, all of which are facing their own issues in a changing landscape. Record stores are closing, and record stores are opening. It’s an indie-minded thing with the ethos to back it up. But all that comes with a strange caveat. Most cities can easily maintain two or three stores, but Austin boasts a much higher concentration, and the numbers don’t always add up. It’s strange thinking about these companies as competitors, but there really isn’t any other way to frame it.
“There’s always going to be rivalry and competition,” said Kunz. “But there’s also camaraderie and friendship. We have good relationships with each other. In this day and age, every store is an indie. Our biggest competition comes from places like Barnes & Noble.”
Kunz goes on to explain that during Record Store Day, Waterloo actually offers a discount if you bring a receipt from another participating store. They’re all in it together, even with the opposition.
The closing of places like Encore Records only makes the legacy of Record Store Day feel that much more poignant. Originally envisioned as a sort of celebratory fundraiser for the world’s last standing indie record stores, Record Store Day has grown to a massive international size. Every year some of the world’s most influential artists put out limited-edition pressings that can only be purchased, you guessed it, in independent record stores.
“It was an excuse to throw a party,” said Michael Kurtz, one of the founders of Record Store Day. “The artists who got involved made it meaningful.”
Kurtz and his organization are essentially the first line of defense for the traditional record store and the traditional physical format. He is stoutly anti-piracy, he laments the loss of the communal aspect of music-buying, and he comes off as a genuine, idealistic audiophile. His adherence to old-world statutes is resonating.
In a changing world, one where a free service like Spotify has elementally redesigned the way we think about our investment into music, he may be a member of a dying breed. Kurtz, of course, disagrees with that statement.
“It’s important to remember that according to research the majority of record store shoppers are under the age of 36,” said Kurtz. “It’s not something restricted to an older generation. Parents are taking their kids to these stores. It’s like a tradition.”
He also mentions that 80 percent of all albums—not songs, but albums—are still listened to in physical format. Start to finish, with no Facebook breaks in between.
But the most important statistic he mentions? The reality that even in the golden age of music buying, 80 percent of all records were only bought by 20 percent of the population. It has always been a niche thing. As the record-selling industry continues to be redefined, with an uncertain future in the horizon, it’s a comforting fact. Some people will still buy albums because some people still care very much about music. It’s hard to think of music ever returning to the cash crop it once was, but if the establishment can get by on the people who always cared the most it’ll be a cleaner industry all around.