While records have dominated the home audio electronics business throughout the 20th century, little has been published about record stores themselves. With few exceptions, most record stores were family operated or were departments in larger stores. Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo have co-authored what may be the first comprehensive book on the evolution of the record store, Record Store Days: From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again. The book is due for release on April 6, 2010.
Records appeared as discs in 1900 with two major manufacturers, Columbia and Victor. One format was at 80 RPM while the other was at 76 RPM. It took an entire generation of listeners to standardize the speed to 78 RPM, in 1925. At that era discs were competing with cylinder recordings made popular by Thomas Edison in 1897. Vinyl records have undergone turbulent evolution as 78′s were replaced by long playing records and 45-rpm singles. Could someone in the late 1960′s, the era of the vinyl LP, been nostalgic for 78 vinyls?
The CD emerged in the 1980′s, after 8-tracks and cassettes fizzled. Since then, a debate continues about the qualities of analog and digital sound. Now music is wireless, seeming to be downloaded from the air. The authors of Record Store Days seem to believe that vinyl recordings may soon upset the digital wave. This could be a fun read.
Chock full of trivia, the authors interview some of the major record store owners and provide insightful histories of some of the larger record stores. During the 1960’s, New York City had dozens of large record stores, including a small chain called Sam Goody’s.
Sam Goody was larger than Tower Records and practically ruled New York City’s record kingdom with a comprehensive collection of vinyl discs through the 1970’s. Sam Goody is a music and entertainment retailer in the United States and formerly in the United Kingdom. It is owned and operated by Musicland, which itself is owned by former rival Trans World Entertainment. It specializes in music sales, and has historically been one of the major players in the music industry. The Musicland Group was once the largest music retailer in the country, operating at its peak more than 1300 stores — over 800 of them Sam Goodys — and earning over $2 billion in annual revenue.
After the close of Virgin Records in New York City, J&R Music World remains the only major record sales store in the area. It offers the most comprehensive collection available. While most stores rely on the top Billboard hits, J&R offers some archaic old classics and obscure titles. J&R also plays a significant role in ushering in a resurgence of vinyl records – releasing new recordings on vinyl. Serious jazz fans around the world have acclaimed their Jazz, International, and Classical departments.
In the January 2010 issue of AARP magazine Bill Newcott wrote an article about the revival of vinyl, How Records Got Their Groove Back. Newcott points out that “record companies are making money from vinyl again: vinyl-record sales soared 89 percent in 2008, while CDs, falling prey to Internet downloads, continued to trudge down the road to extinction. Music giant EMI has rereleased some 65 classic albums on vinyl, including acts ranging from Frank Sinatra to the Beastie Boys. U2′s newest album (No Line on the Horizon), Bruce Springsteen’s latest (Working on a Dream), and Harry Connick Jr.’s Your Songs have all done brisk vinyl business.”
In that same article, he quotes someone from Stereophile magazine, “”Vinyl will never be mainstream again, but it’s a growing niche,” says Michael Fremer, senior contributing editor for Stereophile magazine. (He owns 15,000 vinyl records.) “When a former vinyl listener reconnects, he or she says, ‘I remember that sound. That’s what I’m missing!’ And a new generation is discovering that vinyl sounds better and represents tunes sequenced as the artist wishes, rather than as a series of random events. I doubt kids will look back in 50 years and say, ‘I remember when I downloaded that!’ The forward-looking young people are going for vinyl editions of their important music.”
Avid music listeners are tapping the vinyl record market. On the other hand, I know people in their 20’s and 30’s who never saw a black-&-white movie, never heard of Casablanca, nor have any idea who Cary Grant is. I can’t convince my 27-year old niece to watch Ben Hur. So while AARP extols the emergence of vinyl, we really don’t know what the future brings with recorded music.
Disc records seem to be disappearing in the guise of ethereal downloads, with more stores getting into that business. Online and at their store, J&R continually attracts the purists and traditionalists who value the tangible ownership of recordings. Practically no other urban store in the United States devotes so much display space exclusively to a wide berth of audio and video recordings.
The really cool thing about J&R is that they also offer a really wide selection of audio and video players, including turntables – an item so many other stores no longer carry.
Gary Calamar, one of the authors, is a popular DJ on the west coast but grew up in New York City. He jokes that a phonograph needle first vaccinated him. I’m hoping for an insightful and refreshing perspective of a topic rarely written about. RNYK will be reviewing the new book in April.