Online vs Brick and Mortar

Online vs. Brick And Mortar Record Shops

As a veteran record buyer, times have changed quite a bit from when I first started dabbling in vinyl digging.  Gone are the days of trekking into the city in my 1974 Audi Fox to wander aimlessly through stinky record shelves in hopes of finding gems that were actually affordable.  Tracking records down in the 90’s meant dedicating hours per week reading through the weekly music rags, writing down the items I wanted, checking my list, editing it twice, then hurriedly rushing down to the local shop to give my want list to the bleary-eyed store owner. 

Then came the hardened scrutiny of the local punk rock store from which I ordered all of my favorite electronic records from — if I was requesting anything other than music that came from guitars I was looked upon as a tasteless cockroach.  Phrases like “what’s an Aphex Twin?” and “how the hell am I supposed to say ‘Autechre’?” were phrases I heard more than once.  These discerning and intellectual questions were important steps in putting each and every record I own into a historical context.  Listening to records wasn’t just an activity where I sat in a room and enjoyed the music, but a social experiment where I could be accosted at any time by offending others with my musical inclinations.  Long story short, it forced me to get outside and interact with the world around me.  It was a required motivator to bump my ass out of the house and otherwise turn the solitary exercise of record cataloging into the practice of socializing and getting yelled at by people in a face-to-face way.

In 2016, it’s difficult to imagine going back to those times, however, sometimes I wish I could.  My daily routine now consists of internet, internet, internet, and then, oh yeah…the internet.  The rare times I actually feel nostalgic and fool myself into believing I’ll find a good deal in a brick and mortar shop typically ends in myself asking a disappointing “you want how much for that dollar bin trash?” type of query.  Part of why I feel a connection to my records is due to the effort it took me to acquire them.  Going to record shows, visiting other countries, stuffing them into suitcases, and mailing them back to myself are all parts of why the physical satisfaction of holding my records in my hands make them so much more special.  Digging for records now just consists of rolling out of bed, scratching my ass, contemplating pajamas over actually getting dressed, and then stumbling to my computer to make a purchase.  Hey, I do it all the time, and love it — the ease and simplicity couldn’t be better.  Adding to that, I can’t remember the time I actually bought a record in a store.  Why hassle with going to a store and realizing it’s not in stock if you know you can just purchase it online and quickly get back to your toaster waffles and bloody mary in the comforts of your own domicile? 

Online vs Brick and Mortar

After vast experience with both activities, I can’t decide which one I’d rather participate in.  I reckon I miss the old school way, but what practicality is there in that method any more?  If a seller can reach the entire world by listing their wares on Discogs and getting a fair price, why the hell would they bother stuffing it into a bin in their local shop and only reach an extremely limited audience?  An interesting case in point is Record Store Day, and how stores continually cease attempting to sell records in stores in favor of jacking the prices and selling online instead.  When Record Store Day first started it was devised as a way to revive the industry, and it worked.  It got people away from the internet to make their purchases, and forced us all to interact with the community around us.  The internet has a way of taking over, though — how many of us actually avoid the suffocating Black Friday/Walmart hysterical stampede of RSD in favor of just paying a few extra bucks to order it online instead?  I’d be a liar if I said I don’t do this because, well, crowds.  No thanks.  If my options are getting trampled by a herd of vinyl-clutching slack-jawed elephants vs. calmly perusing the internet on a quiet Saturday morning at home then I’ll take the latter option every single fucking time.  Which makes me a contradictory bastard, I know.  I still miss the benefit of going to the shops, though.  The effort.  The personalities.  The discovery.  The fairly-priced records.  Being pushed out of the way by an OCD record snob reeking of unwashed linens of various varieties.  Wait, I don’t miss that last part at all, actually. 

So what do you all prefer?  Online, or brick and mortar?  If both, what is the percentage breakdown?  Would you rather buy online and forego all humanity, or are you like me and wish you could find more of what you want in stores?  Someone please explain to me how to balance this out, because as of now I’ve got no clue how to do it. 


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19 Comments
  • May 3,2016 at 15:03

    mjb, you hit the nail on the head. I totally agree with your analysis. And although you describe a US situation, things are pretty much the same in Europe and more specifically in Greece where I live. There is a debate about the whys and hows, but I don’t think that they explain or answer the questions in full.

    The recent vinyl revival feels more like a quick easy buck opportunity for the big three record companies, while the buyers are still getting overpriced recycled product,most of the times not justifying the price. For instance, why buying expensive re-issues that are not made from the original masters? 180gr or color vinyl are in fact no guarantee for the quality of the records. Then it is the digital recordings that are cut in vinyl, usually with no much extra mastering work. This means that you get a poor digital version of a CD cut into vinyl. (See some of the latest “Kind of blue” reissues) . Why are all these records so expensive, when quality is not matched? Of course the explanations I get to listen about the prices (supply and demand) are simply ridiculous.

    The explanation I believe somehow, about used records mostly, is the fact that vast markets that weren’t connected to the music market a couple of decades ago, like Russia, China, Brazil, etc, are now at full play and have drained the market even of common and cheap records. As a result the prices went up and what’s more, the appearance of private sellers through electronic shops have magnified this price gap, even more.

    It is really a shame, because when I started buying records 30 years ago, the CD emergence made people sell their vinyl collections and I was able to find and buy the biggest part of my collection at affordable prices. The same records today, fetch prices so high that I wouldn’t be able to buy any of them now. Although I much prefer the vinyl editions and most of the music I listen to never stopped being pressed on vinyl, I simply don’t buy everything on vinyl anymore and go for the CD version which is dropping fast in price after a couple of months. Maybe if this is done collectively, might bring a balance to the market. Although the big companies (followed by smaller ones) are targeting the fans by issuing many different editions (at least one in vinyl and one Super deluxe limited, numbered etc), that force fans to buy them all, due to small differences. They claim that this way they make up for the illegal digital download losses, but this is illogical. Why should I pay extra to cover for those downloads? And in any case, why calculating these downloads as missing revenue? Most people that download, wouldn’t buy it anyway. It is a wrong perception of counting.

    Last but not least, why did record companies kill the indie record shop by giving the super markets CDs and now vinyl to sell? Can the record shops sell food and detergents? It is totally illogical and it is more insane if you take into account that big multi shops and super markets get a wholesale price so low, that they can retail sometimes lower than the wholesale price record shops get from the companies!!!! Like driving them to extinction.

  • May 3,2016 at 01:19

    I have pondered over this as I have toiled through the decline of vinyl, the rise of the internet and now to the vinyl revival. For example I spent more than 10 years hoping to find Future Days by Can in every shop in different countries that I could and NO LUCK. In the end I bought it online from France. On the other hand, there is nothing like browsing, not knowing what you might find. This allows for you to find the thing you didn’t know you wanted. For example I recently was in a great shop in Wellington N.Z, lots of old faves that I would love to buy, but I wasn’t feeling it, didn’t want to something predictable, in the end I came across a record, which I didn’t know what it sounded like, but the cover intrigued me (not a thumbnail on a screen, an actual 12 inch cover). I wasn’t even sure who the band were. I even resisted the temptation to google it (Another new-school strategy for astute record purchasing). It was far more exciting to get home and play this mystery disc for the first time… and yes I like it! So record shops are still the best, a great way to browse and allow yourself to be open to new music and in order to survive they all sell online anyway.. If you want a definite LP at the best price, the internet is a great option, hence discogs. I do browse Bandcamp and so looking for new music, in the absence of good music magazines (Well ones that aren’t obsessed with endless Rolling Stone / Springsteen stories). In the end i’m a record nut and anyway they come is good, it’s all about the music in the end.

  • Apr 8,2016 at 20:26

    Brick and mortar every time. I like not knowing what I’ll find on any given visit. Unfortunately, I now live in an area with zero record stores, so online is my only option. I hope to open a shop at some point in the future.

  • mjb
    Apr 8,2016 at 03:20

    In the early and mid-’90s I worked in a secondhand record shop that was one of seven indie and two chain record/tape/CD stores along a 1-mile strip adjacent to a university campus. The owner of my shop had a motto: “get the music to the people.” He kept prices low and put almost everything he bought into the bins. Only a handful of rare, pricey items would go into our next Goldmine ad. Our junk bins were 50 cents or 1 dollar. Whatever we didn’t sell in the shop, we’d take to the local record fair, where other regional vendors and non-local customers would come and “take out our trash” for us.

    The low prices, heavy turnover, and high likelihood of “good stuff” being in the bins helped keep a steady stream of repeat customers coming in, and word-of-mouth was so good there was little need to advertise. Turnover of our stock was incredible. Everyone who arrived with records to sell knew that they would get a fair deal (about 40% of the anticipated resale price) and everyone looking to buy used records knew that they would leave with a whole armload of good music for only $20 or so. The employees were all musicians and collectors themselves, so you would always learn about cool new music just by going to shops like ours and seeing/hearing what we were curating that day. Going record shopping was gratifying, every time.

    A couple years after I got out of that business, the college students responsible for the majority of our foot traffic pounced on CD burning and MP3 trading, and who can blame them? But the shop’s sales took a serious nosedive. Other shops closed, but ours was able to hold out until eBay and other online sales started taking off in the early 2000s. It very quickly got to the point where eBay sales—mostly to buyers in Europe—were propping up the brick & mortar business. There was no choice but to hold more and more “good stuff” aside for the online sales, leaving nothing but unsellable junk in the bins. The customers who were coming into the shop would leave empty-handed or would only find a couple of things they wanted, so of course they stopped coming in as often, or at all. It just stopped being gratifying for them.

    Even the garbage is overpriced now. A beat-up record would’ve been $1 or $2 up until about 10 years ago, now it’s more like $5 to $10—and those same records are sitting unsold month after month, never marked down since the online sales are all that matters, and also since the demand has fallen off. No shop can put the good stuff in the bins for cheap anymore anyway, because it would just get snatched up by locals running their own eBay businesses. If a shop is to survive, they have to cut out the middleman and sell the good stuff online for top dollar.

    Not only do more and more people buy records in shops to resell online than to actually listen to, but also the whole culture has changed. Music is losing out to other forms of entertainment. The kids just don’t live, eat, and breathe (and buy) music the way they did in decades past, nor do they even have players. What they do listen to is mostly streamed on their phones, and there is no desire to own anything. I say “they” but it’s the older generations, too.

    Somehow the store has survived to the present day, and the current vinyl revival is fueling sales, but how long can it last? Brick and mortar is basically dead, especially in the USA. The good old days aren’t coming back.

  • Apr 7,2016 at 21:29

    I’m a purist at heart. In that regard it’s brick & mortar as a way of life. I see the internet, Discogs specifically, as supplement. We all “need” the record we need. It’s nice to get that record without scouring the globe for 20+ years. At the same time it’s nice scouring the globe for 20+ years. In the end it’s all about the dig… in all of it’s forms.

  • Apr 7,2016 at 15:15

    The record store vs online thing also had a relation to my age and maturity. When I was in my late teens through the early 20s, that was the big window where the music I liked the most was considered “hip,” so it was possible to easily find releases by artists I was into in stores. Import albums and singles were plentiful. By the time I was 25, the next generation of hip buyers was replacing me in the marketplace, and the next generation of bands that catered to these buyers also replaced the older bands I still followed in the marketplace, so I naturally turned to mail order catalogs since what I was into was drying up in retail. Next came a Goldmine subscription, and then the internet. Now many acts I collect are still active but it is impossible to buy their music in store. It has been for decades. I suspect that this will occur for most music buyers over the course of their life; particularly those who do not live in a major metropolitan area.

  • Apr 7,2016 at 14:45

    Exchanging “CD” for “Record”, my shopping experiences depend on whether I want the satisfaction of getting what I want or the satisfaction of discovering something for a awesome price. It’s online if there is something I want – I can’t take the time to randomly search for it. Otherwise, shopping without any planned purchases has its own excitement.

    I am fortunate to have music stores in my area where I can flip through the CDs looking for first-pressings/Japan/Target releases. If it’s not that, then it’s all the way down to thrift stores, where I probably won’t find any target CDs, but I will find good music that I remember but never owned for a buck. I can occasionally find a first-run CD with a smooth-sided case and consider myself lucky.

    Like most everything, there is a tradeoff of time and money. I’ll spend a lot of time scrounging through shelves of $1 thrift shop CDs, or I’ll spend less time flipping through a music store’s shelves for quality $7 CDs, or I’ll go right online and spend $10 for the exact CD I want and wait for it to arrive.

  • Apr 7,2016 at 07:34

    Thanks a lot for responding everyone, it’s really cool to see your take on this. I think I probably miss shopping in stores before the internet because you really had no other choice but to go there. Everything you wanted could only be there, and you could also inspect it before purchasing. How many times have we all purchased something online only to see it was completely over-graded? Hell, it just happened to me today — now I’ve got a hassle attached with my purchase. I think it also helps if you only buy new records opposed to older ones. I’ve been collecting long enough where I have most of the older stuff I want, so I mainly buy new stuff. It’s rare when something isn’t as described because it’s new as opposed to buying used which is always a crapshoot. I also agree that it depends which city you’re in. Los Angeles is a really great city to go record shopping. Portland? Not so much.

  • Apr 6,2016 at 22:04

    Online almost 100% for me now, I miss finding good deals at shops (Disclaimer: I’m in the biz also) but always am much happier finding something I’m dying to hear or that I’ve been looking for a while in person. Hitting more antique malls these days for “hands on” buying, this site has become such a great help that I’m using it for most my buying these days.

  • Apr 6,2016 at 20:59

    Its different in other areas but I’m lucky to live in Portland, OR where there are at least 10-15 record shops around town who’s prices are usually on point with Discogs. After moving here I much prefer going out and hunting to ordering online.

  • Apr 6,2016 at 19:42

    I need both to satisfy my record habit. It’s about 50/50. Obscure/rare wish-list records seem nearly impossible to find in a brick and mortar, and I don’t have the patience to wait for that magical day. This is when I go the Discogs route. However, I live in Los Angeles, a city with many great record stores of every sort. Any chance I get I’m cruising the shops and I regularly experience the thrill of stumbling upon fantastic and desirable records (sometime even wish-list items). Nothing beats the instant gratification of carrying records out of the shop. Equally important is the chance to get out and interact, or at least observe other collectors. It’s about discovery.

  • Apr 6,2016 at 17:23

    In honesty it has become almost strictly Discogs. I price shop, so a lot of time I order direct form the label itself ( also getting limited and bundle offers ). I also live in New Mexico so there really isnt any good record store around me. Before that, I was in the Chicago/Madison area so I had some good shops. Online ordering didnt become popular for me just because I dont live close to any good record shops…I also like not feeling judged. Lets face it, the music you listed to is a window into your life. I shopped at a record store for years in Madison, WI and a couple of the employees were inclined to give me their “review” of what I was buying constantly. Usually not a bad thing but it gets irritating when you hear “all ambient albums sound the same” or “they used to be good” or “you like this album!?!?”. We have all been to the shop that the “cool – I know everything about music” 40 something year old works at. Also, these days record shops are hiking up their price for imports as well. I find I can almost certainly get a better price on new imported records if I am patient on Discogs. Patience is a virtue, my mother always says and the “I need this record now” mentality has added to the price gouging both online and at record stores. In closing, I miss the smell of the stuffy basement collections but love seeing the postman with a stack of cardboard mailers! Happy collecting!!

  • Apr 6,2016 at 11:36

    I am lucky to have a good record store with a large dollar bin. The owner also will trade so that’s fun. There’s always an obscure album playing while you shop. I grew up buying records, no internet. I’m in no hurry to get the records I want so there is no pressure just fun. I stay at home to listen to music, go out to socialize and dig for treasures.

  • Apr 6,2016 at 09:56

    I buy most of my CDs online these days as there is so much more variety that what my local stores offer. Ebay and discogs are the main sources. Also I buy from other collectors who want to get rid of their collections. Many of my favorite stores have since closed down and the few that remain have now devoted much of their floorspace to DVDs and games.

    I rarely buy new releases unless they are massively discounted, I prefer the older stuff which I can get from second hand stores, op shops (thrift stores) and the occasional record fair.

    One of the main differences between buying online and buying something from a store or fair is that I am more likely to part with cash for an item that I’m currently holding in my hands compared with an online item. You know that once you pay for it it’s yours and you don’t have to wait for it to arrive in the post. Having something tangible adds to the connection with the music, a physical object instead of a file on something.

    Hopefully record stores will make a comeback, while I don’t expect them to be as prevalent as they were in their heyday, at least a few good stores could prosper. They wouldn’t need prime real estate either, an old warehouse would be much cheaper and add to the atmosphere.

  • Apr 6,2016 at 09:20

    It has to be a balance between online and B&M, depending on the record.

    There are some hard to find records that you will never find at a B&M store, no matter how hard you try. For those you have to go online.

    Other more accessible records you should make an effort to go to B&M stores vs purchasing online. While local stores charge a few bucks more than say an Amazon prime, in the end it’s good supporting local stores to ensure they stick around. Amazon / Ebay / Discogs, are efficient when you know what you want, but you can’t beat the local record shops recommendations and tips.

    RSD is another beast entirely and you have to mix online and RSD every cycle. I will go to my local stores the day after RSD and see if there is anything I like left over. Agreed that it SUCKS to fight the crowds day of. What I don’t find at my local store I just go online and wait for random stores to put up their excess inventory.

  • Apr 6,2016 at 05:39

    I find some records are easier found online, and others locally. Some are also better priced locally. I prefer buying vinyl in person because I can judge the condition and value myself.

    I usually buy CDs used, and only online if it’s rare. Cassettes are usually used, and locally purchased. Digital is probably ~20% of my music spending, obviously that’s online.

    I also enjoy the randomness of buying music in person; walking in and not knowing what I’ll find.

  • Apr 5,2016 at 23:36

    It really depends on the day. There is nothing more wonderful then a day spent in a musty old record store, shooting the shit with the owner while I casually flip through a bunch of stuff I have seen before in the hopes that I may come across something fun. That is a paradise day for me. But that isn’t going to get me (unless I’m very, very lucky) that Henry Cow record that I’m looking for. So I get to do the same thing on discogs, pricing out different copies and sometimes I can even get away with doing it at work. So, either way I win. But, if I HAD to choose….brick and mortar.

  • Apr 5,2016 at 17:36

    It all comes down to “who has the records I want the most for sale?” Since 1985, the answer has been “people outside of a 500 mile radius with me at the center.” I love going to record stores, but they also vex me, because when I manage to find a want list item [and my want list is about a thousand releases] at any of them it is a shock. If I find two it is a singular day. Most records that I want have not been in domestic record stores in over 25 years if they were ever here. Many have never crossed the Atlantic. Sure, I go to record stores often. I can easily spend my scant entertainment money there but it leads to frustration because I am settling for what is available instead of what I truly desire. I started buying from catalogs in 1985 and it was a revelation. I could actually get the records that I wanted the most that I never saw in stores. Ten years later, the web multiplied that experience by a dozenfold/hundredfold/thousandfold/infinity over the last 20 years. Yes, the cost of postage is skyrocketing, but I’ve found as the marketplace gets more and more people selling their records in one way or another, that the actual cost of the release has plummeted in inverse proportion to the cost of postage. I still pay $20 for a record I want, but now $18 of that goes to Royal Mail or Deutschepost. For this reason, i try to restrict my purchases to domestic sellers in far more metropolitan population centers than where I find myself. There are many bargains to be found on postage with some dealers offering 1-100 records for $4.99. It boggles my mind that I can spend as little as $30 and get a box over an inch thick with many releases from my want list from the likes of dealer philadelphiamusic. I will still browse in stores,, but I am old enough to pass on impulse items to save my money for things that I actively want instead of spending it thoughtlessly, as I would have to on just what filters into my rural district.

  • Apr 5,2016 at 08:45

    B&M for me. Because you get to see what you buy, there is no waiting period from buying to getting the record, you help the local economy and you develop a relation with the shop, so eventually you get help for something difficult you might be looking for, or even suggestions for something good you’d otherwise have missed. But the biggest thrill of all is going through the bins in search of the lost, rare record you didn’t know you were looking for. Of course, the internet offers almost instant gratification, (with a waiting mailing period) in some cases better prices (lately the postage has become too high and it isn’t worth it, unless if it is a rare old record or the original price way low) and last but not least time to do other things than spending your days in record shops. ;-)

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