Just as video killed the radio star a quarter century ago, downloading is murdering the record store today. Stores large and small have closed or downsized: Tower is long gone; the music department at Borders seems eviscerated. That's the doom and gloom, but radio is still a part of stardom, and many independent record stores are hanging in there as vital parts of the music community.
Saturday, many of those stores celebrate their existence on the second annual Record Store Day. In Philly, the unofficial start of the event is an in-store performance tonight by Smog's Bill Callahan at AKA Music on Second Street.
In his early years as Smog, Callahan, like many fledgling artists, depended on local record stores. "When I toured, I used to sell my records to indie stores direct. I'd only get maybe $50 or something, but it seemed huge at the time," he says via e-mail.
Smog's song "Cold Blooded Old Times" appeared on the sound track to the quintessential record-store movie, High Fidelity, in 2000. Now Callahan's doing a weeklong tour of independent stores in conjunction with Record Store Day and with the release of his new album, the soberly beautiful, lushly orchestrated Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle.
According to Eric Levin, one of RSD's founders and owner of Criminal Records in Atlanta, the day was conceived less as a way to "save the record store" than as a way for independent stores to highlight their role in the community and as an excuse "to throw yourself a party."
"It exploded last year way faster than we expected," he says.
The organization works with record labels and bands to create promotional items and giveaways, with offerings, many on vinyl, from a host of artists ranging from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Metallica and Radiohead to the Jesus Lizard and My Morning Jacket. Most of these are limited editions, and not all stores will stock all the releases.
Many local stores will have in-store performances or other events. Tomorrow, Australia's Youth Group (doing a weekly residency this month at the M Room) and locals Good Old War will be at Main Street Music in Manayunk, and popsters the Spinto Band at Rainbow in Newark, Del. Gospel singers Jessica Greene and Isaiah D. Thomas will be signing CDs at Jaz Sound on 11th Street.
"I like doing in-stores," writes Callahan. "No muss no fuss. You get to meet people. 'Cause it's more casual than a club show. And the night is over early. And parents get to come. And it's nice to perform in an unusual place. With no stage or blinding lights. It's just an up-front way to do things."