What The Record Store Could Learn From The Wine Store Print E-mail
Monday, 03 March 2003

One of the great pleasures during my college years at the University of Southern California in the early to mid-1990s was going out as many as five nights a week with my buddies to shop for CDs in Hollywood. We’d make it a habit to be at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard at midnight on Monday nights waiting for new releases from our favorite artists. The next night, we would be tearing through the used bins at Penny Lane Records in Westwood.

Most of what we were doing, in a pre-Napster, pre-affordable CD-burner era, was speculating on new artists and/or more obscure albums. With limited financial resources but a seemingly incurable thirst for new music, there were risks. Often a new Prince (he was a symbol then) record would come out and it was a real stiff. That makes your $18 (with tax) investment worth $6 in store credit – if you are lucky. It was tough to swallow then, but if you really wanted to find new music, you had to gamble to find the gems. With peer-to-peer file-sharing services thriving even after the death of Napster and every college kid with an iMac or a “Dude Your Getting a” Dell loaded with a CD burner, speculating on new music is less tempting when you can make an exact copy of a disc or download a mp3 version online. Record retailers like Virgin have made a certain level of effort to address the problem by installing quite a few listening stations, but they only cover a very small fraction of the overall titles.

A possible solution might be found at the high-end wine store. Establishments like Wally’s in West Los Angeles sell lofty wine and spirits to booze enthusiasts for big dollars per bottle and in some pretty serious volume. Much like a CD in most record stores, you can’t always taste the goods Wally’s is selling (although they do have quite a few wine-tasting events), but almost each bottle on display has some sort of description on it. These little handwritten blurbs describe the taste, report a Wine Spectator rating and say something like, “If you like big Chardonnays with lots of oak, then this is for you.” Some CD packaging has reviewer quotes, but they are always raves and rarely do they describe the flavor or genre of the music. For example, if a disc said on the back, “If you like Coldplay, then you’ll love
this record,” it would take some of the risk out of investing $18 in a new artist for many of us. The record store in LA that I like best, Aaron’s Records, does a little of this sort of thing, but they are not up to speed with Wally’s in terms of description quality and quantity.

Labels could possibly rethink the way they package CDs so that they sell directly to us, the consumer, right in the stores, making the assumption that the record store staff has little to no input in what we buy. Unlike Wally’s, the record store attendant with the chain running from his left nipple through his right ear and attached to his lip, is slightly less enthusiastic about John Coltrane compared to the attitude toward various vintages of your wine salesperson, who is taking classes to become a Master Sommelier in his or her spare time.

In another venue, online retailers like Amazon.com give you a chance to hear a bit of the songs prior to purchasing, which is definitely an advantage to buying from them, there but let’s face it – it is fun to go to the record store. The physical experience of flipping through discs and hanging with other music freaks makes for a good time.

Perhaps there is a compromise to be found between the advantages of the way music is sold (and swapped) online and the traditional record store. Imagine if a music retailer took a music server system like ones made by ReQuest and put a large number of the discs available in the store onto the music server. They could use touch screen panels near the bins and headphones to allow people to hear selections from the discs. Obviously, this is costly in terms of hardware, but the labels have every reason to support an idea like this. The next level would be to get the labels to compile the reviews, descriptions, rare photos, exclusive clips from the bands and move into an easily usable interface designed for the retail
market. You’d have the best of the Net- right at your fingertips while physically in the record store.

People are always going to be buying new music but for the last few years, the music business has been fighting new technology with even more vigor than normal. The result is, right or wrong, a consumer revolt. It is time for the labels to understand their retail distribution is not very capable of selling their artists all that well these days. However, with the help of better packaging, music servers, on-line databases and the Internet, the labels could revive the music buying experience. It isn’t going to be easy or cheap, but it would be well worth it.

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