2010.16 | Record Stores & Technology

With this weekend’s celebration of record store day, I became nostalgic and thought of how buying music worked in days gone by.  I thought of my first album purchased from the local record store, the whole asthetic pleasure of buying music in those days.  The spurious decoration in the store.  The sketchy characters that worked in record stores.  Taking home the physical object.  The art on the cover, the smell of the new CD, the booklet with the words.  It was an experience. 

Over time, the pleasure of that experience was chipped away by massive piracy.  The rise of Napster and Limewire and then iTunes and the iPod chipped away at the record stores.  The pleasure of the music purchasing experience was overcome by the convenience and simplicity of obtaining music from these places for a younger generation.  The stores where I used to browse as a youngster slowly disappeared – A&A, Sam the Record Man, Tower Records and many others.  Those that survive are re-inventing themselves for a very new situation. 

I obtain all of my music online.  I frequent places like the iTunes, the sixty-one, and last.fm to listen to, hear about new music and get suggestions for new material.  I can look at endless blogs like quickbeforeitmelts, cavacool, or Cover Lay Down as well.    I sometimes buy music directly from the bands themselves.  In fact, I was listening to an NPR technology podcast last night that was talking to a band who has never released a physical CD and yet make a living from their music. 

If there has ever been a retail segment fundamentally impacted by technology it has been record, er, music stores.  What lessons can be learned from the demise of the record store as we knew it, and what could the music stores do to ?

  • There is no way to control the sorts of technologies that overcame the music industry and its’ retailers.  The Internet and social media have such a huge hold on society today – and particularly the young monied demographic that they serve, that it would be more productive to embrace it and use it to advantage than to fight it with old strategies.   For example, if you are a used music store, use Twitter to tweet about recent additions to stock.  You can develop a following.  The internet is all about niches and leveraging them.
  • Consider selling things that can’t be downloaded electronically.  Many music stores are jumping on this very well – selling vinyl is picking up again for audiophiles – and video games for Xbox and Wii still require physical media.
  • Find a way to drive traffic using the technology – foursquare is gaining a foothold with retailers as a way to drive traffic with special deals for the mayor or those who check-in at their stores
  • Provide an experience that can’t be had online – Starbucks provides a sensory experience.  It’s certainly possible to do something similar in a music store to cater to a specific demographic.  Build a physical community that can then leverage the one online.  Why don’t have digital downloads for customers in the stores?
  • Go local – Align with local bands who haven’t been discovered yet that are playing venues in the neighbourhood of the store – whether on Myspace or by a label.  Building a relationship with them brings their fans along, and shows those that love the medium that the store is part of the local fabric.  Make the store a gathering place for like minded people.

All of these things are much easier said than done, and I don’t have the answers – merely the benefit of hindsight.  In fact, I think physical music stores are doing many of these things, and probably more.  One thing is certain – as a retailer – or owner of any consumer facing organization, it is now important to understand the business impacts of technology – it goes beyond ROI and a CIO.  It is important to consider how any new consumer technology trend could fundamentally undercut your business.  If you don’t, there will be someone to take the business from you with their unique business model – directly or indirectly.

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