This article was originally published in The UB Post on February 28, 2020.
For a number of years, I worked at a record store, and for a number of years before that I had been a customer at said record store. Every time I went into the store, I noticed one of the managers there had a button on his name-tag that read “Physical Goods Still Rule”.
Since the turn of the century, CD sales had been on the decline. Vinyl was starting to make a bit of a comeback, and cassettes had a cult following among those who still had cassette players in their vehicles. The statement on that button didn’t mean much to me at the time. I had always bought CD’s, and as long as I had been shopping at the store, I had bought vinyl too. My ignorance was not knowing that I was an anomaly.
When I got a job at the store in 2016, I quickly realized that people were not as enamored with their CD’s and records as I was. It was commonplace for us to buy back more media in a day than we would sell. We would often ask a customer why they were getting rid of all of their music. Sometimes the answer was that they were moving, or that a family member had passed away. But more often than not the answer was that they no longer needed their physical media… they had switched to Apple Music or Spotify.
I became the classic disgruntled record store employee, furious with both the people that refused to buy anything and the dozens of old men that would come into the store and lecture me about their favorite groups. Despite the fact that I probably knew just as much if not more about a wider range of music, these people talked at me for hours on end sometimes, and it seemed as if the culture that surrounded the record store nerds was toxic. We had our customers that we loved dearly, but after a while it barely made up for all the bad ones. With more and more used trades and less and less foot traffic of paying customers, failure was less of a question of if and more of a question of when.
While vinyl sales continued to go up, it was not enough to save a sinking ship. Record and Tape Traders, which had been a Baltimore institution since 1977, closed its doors for good in January 2019. That might sound like the end of the story, and it certainly doesn’t prove a point that physical goods still rule, so what gives?
After the store closed, I probably didn’t buy any music for a month or more. I didn’t have Apple Music or Spotify or any other streaming service. Sooner or later, however, I found that I needed something new to listen to. At that time (and still), Baltimore really only had two big record stores: The Soundgarden in Fells Point and Trax on Wax in Catonsville (as well as several smaller stores). Both were a hike compared to Record and Tape, but I felt an obligation to do my part to help keep those stores afloat.
Now that I had more time to listen to music at home, I remembered what made me love physical media so much in the first place. You can hold it; it’s tangible. The sound quality of a record or CD compared to that downloaded MP3 played on your phone is dramatically better. While I sit in my living room with a record on, I can read about the record from the packaging it came in. I can learn who played on the record, who produced it, where and when it was recorded among many other things. Through this you feel a deeper connection to the music. You learn that the people playing and making this record aren’t just a name and an album cover, they’re real folks like the rest of us. But the tangibility of these pieces of music is only half the reason why physical goods are superior.
I had mentioned my disdain for those old men who lectured me constantly about records that were already in my own personal collection. By the summer of 2019, I hadn’t really interacted with any of those old men for about six months, since the store had closed. Now believe me, I didn’t and still don’t miss the lectures. In July 2019 I went to a record show for the first time. Private sellers lined aisles in a bingo hall and were selling records out of their own personal collections. I saw people I hadn’t seen in months, mostly regulars from the store buying and selling, and maybe turning around and selling the records they had just purchased.
On this occasion though, I didn’t find myself angry with these people, in fact, I was rather happy. Hundreds of people had come to one place on their day off from whatever they usually do to buy, talk about, and sell music. People were learning knew things about groups they legitimately had never seen before. There was fellowship that spanned generations. I personally had a conversation with a gentleman that consisted of 60’s and 70’s garage rock before we found a mutual interest in baseball. All in all we talked for over an hour.
That’s the beautiful thing about it. Music, physical music, has this unique ability to bring people together and facilitate conversation. When you subscribe to a streaming service instead of buying the CD or the record, you don’t have anything to talk about, because you won’t know anything about what you’re listening to. Some argue that physical media is too expensive, but I guarantee I spend less on records per year than a Spotify subscription and I probably get more out of it. If you have a library card, most libraries carry CD’s and sometimes vinyl (including new releases) that you can check out and listen to if you’re hesitant about a certain album or if you don’t have the money to purchase the album.
When I see that manager from Record and Tape, who is now a close personal friend, we always talk about what records we’ve had on the platter recently, and it’s relieving to know that despite the downfall of our record store, physical goods, do indeed, still rule.
Tony Sheaffer is a Staff Writer for the UB Post who writes a weekly music column, Friday Groove.