Like the plague victim in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, “I’m not dead yet!” is the obstinate cry of independent record stores coping with lockdowns and reduced foot traffic during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Brooklyn’s northwest corner, two Williamsburg record stores have announced the closing of their brick-and-mortar locations, leaving a temporary void of arts and culture in a neighborhood already disappearing under commercial chain stores and high-rise apartments. Rough Trade NYC and Human Head Records both say they have plans to reopen in new locations later in the year, but their vague announcements made me nervous.
In order to assess the health of my favorite record stores, I donned a surgical mask and set out to check on them. I spoke to employees at a distance while safely indulging my own vinyl habit. As I observed the life inside their walls, I found an atmosphere still charged with the search-and-you-might-find excitement that makes physical record stores so enticing.
During my 10-minute conversation with the cashier at Generation Records in Manhattan’s West Village, I watched him advise a couple on where to find a cassette deck in the city, and listened as a young man in his early twenties purchased a vinyl album and a CD, saying that it was his first time in a record store, but now he has a turntable and is starting a collection. The man behind the counter rewarded him with a smile, a free sticker, and a warm invitation to return.
I left with a live recording of Rage Against the Machine’s 1995 concert in Irvine, Calif., and a used copy of Jimi Hendrix’s debut, Are You Experienced. I also came away with a new friend, and my faith in the next generation of analog music lovers restored.
Vinyl as a conduit for music declined as a result of the convenience of the compact disc in the 1980s. But unlikely as it might sound, vinyl has been experiencing a resurgence since 2007. Rough Trade NYC and Human Head Records opened their doors in 2013, riding the wave of new interest. They were not alone, as close to 400 new record stores opened nationwide between 2012 and 2017.
In addition to the argument that audiophiles like to make– that the compression used in the processing of CDs and MP3s results in a “flattening” of the sound and a loss of subtle detail– a vinyl record is a disc that only does one thing: play music. There are no commercials, no notifications, no unwanted texts from your mother. Electronic devices overwhelm our senses with distraction. Vinyl asks us to relax and appreciate the music on its own terms.
Ask anyone what the first album they ever bought was, and a story of saved allowance and a carefully chosen record, CD, or cassette often follows. Ask someone what the first song they streamed was, and it’s doubtful they’ll have any recollection of the act.
Another reason to opt for purchases over streams is to consider your support of the artists you love. It takes on average 1,250 streams of a song to generate the same revenue as the sale of one album. An album can be purchased as an MP3 and still generate sales revenue, but a new CD or vinyl record (which often includes a free download with purchase) can also support a local music scene that only survives through street-level interactions around music.
After closing his store in December, Travis Klein, owner of Human Head Records, said that regular customers and the intimate community of neighbors who help each other out in times of need are what he misses most. He agreed that physical music stores are vital to the health of creative communities. He confirmed that Human Head Records is getting ready to reopen along the Williamsburg/Bushwick border, maintaining their reputation as a neighborhood favorite.
In the heart of Williamsburg, Earwax Records suffered their share of financial loss during the height of the city’s lockdown. A recent visit to their storefront on North 9th reassured me that it’s closer to business as usual in their small room of specialized goods. The owner offered his assistance to the allotted four customers at a time, demonstrating his cyclopedic knowledge of their inventory. I listened as he sold a woman on the cost of records (a new album is usually $22-$35), saying that you’d pay more for a concert ticket and have nothing to take home. A record is cheaper and you can listen to it over and over. She agreed, saying that Covid-19 caused her to replace her concert budget with records in order to get her fix of music.
Rough Trade NYC’s large warehouse-style store has been a destination for music lovers in New York City for nearly a decade. In addition to high-quality new vinyl, they operate an in-store coffee shop and sell books and apparel. They also house a full concert venue, further supporting the city’s up-and-coming musical acts. Their last day of in-store operation is scheduled for March 21.
The store’s management could not be reached for comment, however an announcement on their blog assures customers that Rough Trade “will retain its presence in New York,” and promises to share more details in the coming months. The reopening date is vaguely set for “later on this year…”
Rough Trade conducted a survey on the state of music in New York and asked customers where in the city they would like to see the store reopen, indicating that they do not have a new location secured. I’d be down to see them move to the heart of Times Square, reviving the Virgin Megastore that once dominated the intersection of Broadway and 45th Street.
In the absence of physical locations, record stores have turned to online retail through their websites, or the digital marketplace known as Discogs. The year-end numbers bode well for their continued success, as nearly 12 million records were sold on Discogs in 2020, a 40.75% increase from the previous year.
The Covid-19 pandemic will be short-lived compared to the era of the CD, but we still need to help these record stores survive. In a neighborhood that claims to be a hotbed for the arts, it’s critical that we foster a community where new music is recommended by an aficionado behind a counter instead of an algorithm.
As a child, I moshed in our living room only to be scolded by my mother when the music really took off: “Don’t jump so hard, you’ll make the record skip!” I’m hopeful that my own generation will raise our children in living rooms with delicate turntables and a physical connection to music. For now, I’ll continue following Williamsburg’s record stores carefully as they weather the storm of the pandemic. It’s been a difficult year, but they’re not dead yet!
Holly Seefeldt is completing a Master of Arts in music journalism from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized study.