The AudioFile: The Record Shop of the Future

Ever since Tower Records closed its doors for good late last year, I’ve been wondering about what record stores are going to be like in, say, 10 years’ time. Will they be nothing more than rooms full of self-serve digital music kiosks? People are buying digital music online in droves, and there’s only growth in sight as broadband penetration [eeeww] marches on and new distribution models emerge. Perhaps the right question to ask is: Will record shops even exist?

People are lining up to pay for legal digital music downloads from their desk or home. And every time I walk into Virgin Megastore in Union Square (NYC), people are still lining up to pay for physical media in the store. But will they line up to pay for legal digital music downloads in a store? That’s the promise of self-serve music kiosks from companies like Seattle-based MOD Systems, whose forward-looking kiosks are set to replace Hewlett-Packard’s at many Starbucks locations.

A few years ago, music kiosks seemed poised to take over the retail CD sales world at places like Wal-Mart by letting you create and burn your own mix CD from a limited selection of tracks. This already seems hopelessly out of date. MOD’s kiosks give you access to a far wider selection of tracks, thanks to their deals with four of the Big Five labels announced at CES 2007, as well as support for WM DRM (PlaysForSure). More important, they let you download tunes to portable devices over the air.

And in case you haven’t noticed, the number of portable music players with wireless capabilities is growing fast–SanDisk, Microsoft, and Archos are all in the game already, and Apple won’t be far behind. (iPhone, feh… Phones suck. I want a WiFi iPod.) Even Sony Ericsson is jumping into the game with its own kiosks that will deliver music wirelessly from its M-BUZZ service.

As CD sales backslide, eventually we could come to a point where majors will eliminate the overhead of producing physical media by ceasing production of CDs. But wait, you say–the majors still release vinyl, so they’ll never stop producing CDs. Not true. Vinyl offers something CDs don’t: different sound quality. Most vinyl enthusiasts call the sound better, though many modern listeners prefer their music free of pops and scratches. The simple fact is that there will always be people who agree with musician/engineer/journalist Steve Albini, who in the 1980’s wrote “The future belongs to the analog loyalists. Fuck digital.”

So what will a modern big-chain music store look like in the year 2017? (Assuming, of course, that the planet hasn’t been destroyed by then.) Aside from the obvious “vintage” section over in a dark corner somewhere, with a handful of physical CDs and the lingering remains of vinyl, I think it’ll look much like the stores of today. But the stores will use their space much differently, with more of it devoted to advertising and movies.

The racks will still be there, but they’ll contain jewelbox-size digital picture frames with the album art and other info. Purchasing music–including digital versions of the artwork and liner notes–will be done wirelessly for those with wireless-enabled players or phones, which will likely be well more than half the people out there. Content will be served up by in-store wireless systems whose throughput speeds will make 802.11n devices seem like dial-up.

What about those who still don’t have a wireless player? Flash memory will be cheap enough by then that stores will be able to sell 1GB players at the door for the equivalent of $5 today. The have-nots will use self-serve kiosks to download content to their players. Want fries artwork with that? No problem, just print out the booklet from the kiosk. It’ll be a bit like going through a toll booth–some people will fly through using EZ-Pass, while others will have to wait in line.

The future of mom-and-pop shops–like Amoeba Music in San Francisco and Academy Records in New York City–is ensured by people like Steve Albini and the thousands of vinyl collectors out there. But CDs and DVDs are very different from vinyl in that they are simply holders of digital files. And make no mistake about it: They’re on their way out, while the high-tech record shop is looming ever closer.

(This week’s illustrations were created by Leah Perrotta, a Brooklyn-based artist and all-around lovely gal. Check out more of her illustration work here.)