Skip to main content

Alison Faith Levy at San Francisco's Amoeba Music, April 14th, 2012.

Record stores – the best ones – used to be hubs of communal knowledge. Some still are. They induce loitering, as fans soak up what's playing on the stereo and get an education from liner notes.

But thanks to taste-making websites such as Pitchfork and the capacity to pre-sample seemingly any form of music online, that certain something about record stores no longer seems so essential. Which is why the industry is pulling out all the stops with in-store events and one-day limited releases for Record Store Day today. Their assertion: The record store hasn't lost its allure – it's just generating a new kind of special.

Take Amoeba Music, a chain in Hollywood, Berkeley and San Francisco. It's legendary for its massive, sometimes arcane selection. But it also acknowledges the power of bricks-to-clicks tie-ins: its website includes the feature What's in My Bag? which shows video interviews with artists about what albums they just bought, yes, in the offline store.

From DJ Quik and Japan's Acid Mothers Temple to The Smith's Johnny Marr, their picks extend the deep lessons of record stores, with information on rare discs and the avant-garde. The are also a way into the artists' minds – their private exploration of the stacks and their mulling over which records to buy.

"Record stores were always kind of special, and during these times we have to really make that extra effort known to a broader audience," says Erin Stanley, assistant manager of another acclaimed West Coast shop, Vancouver's Zulu Records.

Zulu holds in-store performances, vinyl listening parties and has a beefed up website announcing a plethora of new arrivals. But as it's moved more into vinyl, given the slowdown in CD sales, the store's trick has been to maintain its strong tie to the local scene. One wall of the shop, for instance, features obscure local releases, some even home-recorded on outmoded cassette tapes, as if deliberately defying the new technology of the last 20 years.

"We try to be creative, because we want people to come back and hang out and be part of the music community," Stanley says.

And Eric Hill, manager of the musical touchstone Backstreet Records in Fredericton, adds that his store of new and used records has expanded online – even if he doesn't sell off his website. Like Zulu, the idea is to use the web to draw customers into the shop, while catering very specifically to locals.

"That translates into not as broad sales, but sales which go deeper [among New Brunswick buyers] Items stay in the region. Someone who buy a bunch of music over a 10- or 20-year span, there's the tendency when they shed extra items to bring them back to us," Hill says.

He emphasizes the advantage in being small enough to respond quickly to new demands. There's the rapidly growing market for vinyl, particularly among young record buyers reared on iTunes who now want something more tangible.

For others, such as Taz Records, which is nestled amidst Halifax's robust music scene, the aim isn't to use a website, but to tap social media to alert buyers to new releases and to keep the kind of dialogue customers might hear in the store churning outside the shop.

"The death of the record industry is not as broad as a lot of people have made it," says Hill of Fredericton's Backstreet Records.


Sometimes it's their esoteric purchases. Sometimes it's the insights the musicians give into why they bought this or that album. Either way, here are some of the best discoveries from What's in My Bag? on Amoeba Music's website, where artists are interviewed on camera about the records they've purchased at the California record store's various locations.

The Horrors: The young English group show great taste, with an appreciation for early experimental albums such as the Well-Tempered Synthesizer as well as oddities from artist-arranger David Axelrod.

Johnny Marr: The guitarist for the Smiths takes us from rare soundtracks by Ennio Morricone to jazz-rock guitar great John McLaughlin's landmark acoustic album My Goal's Beyond. Marr, like many of the customers interviewed on the site, is also after copies of rare, older discs.

Peanut Butter Wolf: The hip-hop producer and record label founder chooses a widely eclectic mix from the ska band the Specials to a 12-inch remix of Michael Jackson's Stranger in Moscow.

Acid Mothers Temple: The Japanese psychedelic group shows an affinity for Celtic music and a disc of chants by the late Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba.

Any special memories or experiences you'd like to share? Please add them in the comment section.