The Record Store Slash Venue: A Quaint, Necessary Reminder of Pre-COVID Times

In St. Paul, after imaging Afro Deli, I stopped into Eclipse Records, a mainstay of the Twin Cities retail music scene. I remember hanging out in previous iterations of the nomadic establishment– my most recent trip being to the University Ave. location in 2010. This one is in a 1920’s building in downtown St. Paul with a retail space and a neat-little two-story area in the very back, replete with sweeping, streamline railings and a curved staircase that looks elegant under the fluorescent illumination and shabby, drop ceiling. If I’m recalling my history lesson, it was purpose-built as a retail storefront, and hosted a stationery shop for many years.

Vinyl Lives– or does it?

Vinyl has enjoyed a revival in recent years, as evidenced by the graph. Cassette tapes– invented in their modern format in the early 60’s but eclipsed by vinyl until that medium waned in the 1980’s until its near-demise by the end of that decade- were more or less dead by 2003, except as the periodic novelty item. The market share of compact discs was similarly eroded by p2p digital sharing in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, becoming progressively more popular over that decade, until paid streaming services blew up in popularity after 2015.

I confess that I’m not much of an audio snob. I’m not one of those obsessive audiophiles who will tell you about how vinyl is fundamentally better than digital recordings because of blah blah blah. Or how lossless audio is so much better than lossy compression. Or how, you know, these speakers with a fancy, glowing vacuum tube that was hand-formed in the gentle caress of a German man with designer eyeglasses, or whatever. I really can’t tell the difference. In fact, I rather enjoy my $25.49 Bluetooth headphones. Fight me.

I do, however, like vinyl, probably for the same reason that other people like vinyl– because it’s fun. I also like it because people don’t sell CDs anymore, and it seems kind of dumb to drop $10 or $20 on an album unless you get something physical for it. There is something that frustrates me to my core about the idea that I should have to pay $1.29 for something that costs $0.00 to transmit over the internet wires, while a trillion-dollar company revels in its corporate profits, whatever. Beyond that, I am probably in the minority of people who still, quaintly, likes to own things instead of subscribing to them. I’ve had bad luck translating my thoroughly eclectic musical taste from even iTunes into the age of music-as-a-service. I like a couple of my Pandora and Spotify stations, but I’ve also had bad luck using either platform to discover much in the way of new music. (Get off my lawn, kids).

Performance in the age of the plague

So, as part of my stubborn, nostalgic affinity for the quaint notion of human-scaled economy not completely controlled by the Bezos-brain, I still hang out in record stores. Or, at least, I did before COVID. Eclipse is a great spot in St. Paul. I grew up with the still-doin’-it classic Stan’s Records in my hometown. Toronto has some good’uns. And Dr. Disc is a favorite in Windsor. I talked with the owner of Eclipse about The Future, and it’s apparent that no one really knows what COVID is going to do to the music scene. What is apparent, though, is that it’s still possible to produce live music– without an active audience in the venue itself. Sure, you lack the excitement of holding an abnormally large, unreasonably expensive domestic beer in your hand while you dance along to the song. But there’s nothing stopping you from doing that from the comfort (and cheaper retail beer environment) of your living room.

Thinking about the business model, it’s hard to imagine an experience where people would pay a cover charge without the immersive experience of being able to, well, get down on the dance flo’, bask in the multi-colored lights, nod their head to The Beat. But it’s not hard to imagine how such an experience could actually be brought to a much larger audience through the World Wide Internet. DJ’s have been doing this already through cultlike massive social media followings. There’s no reason why proper bands– or, really, any kind of performing artist- can’t do this. And honestly, being able to watch part of a show without having to pay a full cover fee or take the time to physically go into a venue– I might end up spending more money than I would otherwise, since I could shop around more. It’s certainly something worth thinking about.

Enjoy the model!

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Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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