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8 Reasons Record Stores Beat Online Services

James Stafford, Diffuser

Music streaming is back in the news, thanks to Taylor Swift yanking her music from Spotify, Dave Grohl not caring what Taylor Swift does, and YouTube introducing a new streaming service. These stories are just the latest flavor of the same old crud we’ve been hearing since Napster debuted 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, my local record store just keeps chugging along.

"I was raised in record stores."I was raised in record stores, first as a little boy sneaking peeks at Roxy Music covers, then as a junior high headbanger blowing his lawn mowing money on the Nuge and Van Halen. In my teens and early twenties I earned my income working in record stores, and I was sure I had the coolest job on earth.

It was, too, and it still is. Record stores have it all over streaming services and online download sites. Sure, the latter may be more convenient, but here are a few things you’ll never get with an online service:

1. Tactile Pleasure. There’s nothing like flipping through a bin of albums or CDs, occasionally pulling one and checking out the artwork, song titles, and liner notes. I guess you could full screen an image of an album cover on your tablet and wave it around, but come on.

2. Accidental Discovery. Of course your favorite online services simulate randomness, but they’re only as random as the algorithms beneath the covers.

By their nature, real objects enforce some degree of chance. Take a look at the photo above, for example. Those bins are well-labeled, but the punk is right between the bluegrass and the metal. I can’t isolate myself in my little punk rock bubble when I flip through this bin. I have to acknowledge the existence of other genres, and who knows? Maybe a folk album cover will catch my eye and I’ll broaden my horizons a bit.

And even if I stay in my genre’s ghetto, I may randomly stumble upon an album I’d long forgotten or never heard. Just the other day I picked up Jellyfish’s debut album for no other reason than I saw it while flipping through the “J” bin. Remember Jellyfish? I didn’t, until I saw that cover again.

3. Cost Effectiveness. If you’re paying a buck per song download, you’re getting suckered. Your local record store likely carries used albums and CDs, many of which are in the $2-$5 range. Assuming 10 songs per record for the sake of conversation, that’s 20-50 cents per song.

Sure, you’ll have to make a little effort to copy your purchase into your library, but is it really that difficult? (Spoiler alert: No. No it is not.)

4. Ownership. Ten bucks a month to stream all of the music you want sounds like a great deal, until you consider that’s $120 per year to own absolutely nothing. You might consider that a benefit — maybe you have a small place or you don’t like clutter.

Me, I like to have something to show for my hard-earned cash, and with ownership comes options. If things get tough, I can recover some of my investment by selling my collection. I can give favorites to friends, hang them on the wall, on and on. What can I tell you: I’m a collector.

One last note on the great deal you’re getting with all-you-can listen streaming for a low monthly fee: Streaming has been free for years. It’s called radio. Like cable television, streaming services monetize content once delivered to consumers for free.

5. Fidelity. Wave your finger up and down like you’re conducting an orchestra. Imagine that you’re drawing a line in the air as you do this. That’s what music is — it’s waves in the air.

Now chop that wavy line into three horizontal rows and throw away the top and bottom row. What’s left is what you hear via streaming services and digital downloads.

Vinyl preserves much more of that wavy line, so you’re hearing more of the actual song. The only sonic substitute for a record on a good turntable is listening to music live at a good venue.

6. Eco-Friendliness. I have absolutely no evidence of this, just opinion, but bear with me.

When I am streaming music, my device (phone, laptop, tablet, etc.) needs to be powered up, as does a router, switches, gateways, servers, even satellites. All those devices spinning the watts meter just so that I can listen to a song — what an inefficient use of energy.

Sure, there’s carbon footprint associated with both my trip to the record store and that album’s or CD’s trip to the same store, and I have to boot up some electronics to play my purchase, but I can’t believe that over time streaming content doesn’t waste more energy.

When it comes to used records and CDs, let’s not forget the old “Reduce/Reuse/Recycle” triangle. Once those objects have been manufactured and initially sold, they’re out there in the universe. Reusing them only makes sense.

7. True Love. My buddy Ryan met his future wife while both worked at my local record store. Has anybody ever found their soul mate on Spotify? Didn’t think so.

8. Community. The operative word in local record store is “local.” Those are your neighbors working at that joint; heck, your neighbors probably own the place.

They’re actually creating jobs in your community, and not just for the folks who work in the store. Think of all of the local services required to keep a record store running: The delivery trucks, the janitorial and maintenance services, bookkeepers, local printers, on and on.

When you shop locally, you’re quite literally investing in your own community.

"When you shop locally, you’re quite literally investing in your own community."Streaming and download services aren’t going anywhere. They’re like fast food — quick, convenient ways to super-size our music listening. But there’s nothing better than dropping into your local record store and browsing aimlessly, letting the music find you.

Who knows? While you’re there, you might even fall in love.

Next: Steve Albini Defends the Post-Internet Music Industry

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