Flip side of downloading may keep traditional music shops in Flint afloat

Mary Ann Chick Whiteside, The Flint Journal, Sat, March 20, 2008

Carter McWright, owner of Music Planet record store in Flint, says business owners need to cater to customers and learn to adapt to survive rough times. In an age when digital downloading and Internet bootlegging play a large part in sagging CD sales, what is a local record store owner to do? As disc sales continue to decline year after year, smaller local stores are feeling the pinch.

While neither Music Planet owner Carter McWright or Wyatt Earp Records proprietor Al Steele would cite specific sales figures, both admitted they have felt the sting of downloading. And the owners of the shops, both opened in 1981, are counting on their loyal, longtime clientele to help keep things rolling.

McWright and Steele say the key to surviving is good old-fashioned customer service. "When downloading first started happening, there was a small decline," McWright admitted. "But it's been modest. And we've been dealing with it. It has hurt us somewhat, but it hasn't been devastating. We're holding steady.

"It's not like it used to be," he added. "But we've been here for a long time, and a lot of people still like CDs and DVDs; they like to read the credits. They may not buy as many as they did, but something that also helps us is convenience. We're right in the heart of the community. We're familiar with this music, and knowledgeable about the artists."

McWright said his Carpenter Road store serves as a consistent base for those who haven't changed the way they consume music. And McWright maintains there are many of them.

"A lot of people don't like 75 songs on an iPod," he said. "They still like 10 or 20 songs. And if someone like B.B. King makes a new album, they're going to come in. They're not downloading it.

"I still get a lot of young kids, too, because we're located around a lot of schools and churches. But it's very hard to measure because the economy is bad. I'm trying to figure out if it's the music or the semi-recession. But when things change, we have to adapt. We have some good days and some bad days, but we feel good about the music right now."

Steele's also had to deal with the changing times, but since his Corunna Road store also has a built-in customer base, he remains optimistic about the future.

"I would say it took away one-third of the industry," Steele said of the latest downloading trends. "We lost some customers. But I see record stores going on in the digital age. It's going to be far more service oriented, and those who don't take care of their customers are going to go out of business."

He said sales have been picking up for his store lately after a decline in the early part of the decade.

"Sales over the last few years haven't been great, but they've been up," Steele said. "People still want to support local businesses. And I'm quicker than any of the online sites."

The past few years have seen all kinds of firsts for the music industry as more and more music fans have taken their business online.

Madonna, Trent Reznor and British rockers Radiohead were among the first to embrace the changing tides, with Madonna signing last year with concert promoters Live Nation, leaving behind Warner Music, her label of 25 years.

Reznor and Radiohead released new projects as downloads only, although the latter band's "In Rainbows" also was released later in a traditional CD format.

Steele, who took over Wyatt Earp Records after former owner Doug Earp died in 2004, said sales of the CD version of Radiohead's newest have been brisk.

"It's done well," he said. "It's still doing well. I think CDs are still about value for the money. People still want the physical product. I think the labels need to use the technology online, but not give people the CD-quality bit rate. If they want CD quality, let them buy the CD."