Music for the community
When you walk into Aboveground Records at the Triangle in Edgartown, you might sense some nostalgia for a time when a record store was a fixture in every community. In this high-speed age where songs are streamed online and entire albums are available instantly at just the click of a mouse, it is easy to forget that we once relied on something and someone other than the Internet for our music needs. Yet despite the recent decline of the record industry in general, Aboveground continues to be the undeterred foundation and symbol of the Island music community.
Since owner Mike Barnes garnered attention as a local-kid opening a record store in 1995, the Aboveground name and logo have been synonymous with the Island music scene. Over the years, Aboveground has hosted nearly 200 concerts, supported numerous Island musicians and of course offered Islanders a top-rate record store in the process. However, today Aboveground and thousands of stores like it are faced with difficult challenges resulting from vast changes in the music landscape.
No industry has been as profoundly impacted by the information age than the music industry. Record sales have been steadily declining since 2000 due to the steady rise of the mp3, which has allowed consumers to either download music from file-sharing websites, or purchase music digitally through vendors such as the iTunes store. Since 2003, roughly 1,000 independent music stores in the U.S. have been forced to close their doors. However 2,000 others, Aboveground included, have survived and surprisingly even outlived major chain mass-media retailers such as Tower Records and Virgin Megastores. Today, the number of independent store closings has leveled off and hopefully this trend will continue.
When asked about the impact of file sharing and the mp3 medium, Mr. Barnes is more positive than one might imagine. Ultimately he concedes that the vast diffusion of music online is actually good for music. "It's a great thing for music," he says, "anyone can get anything now, and people are able to hear things for themselves, straight from the source, rather than have someone else deciding what they hear." In terms of business, however, some changes have had to be made. "The mp3 is a new medium and a new way of consuming," Mr. Barnes explains, "so naturally we've had to adapt, work harder, and be more selective with our selection."
Aside from mp3 sales and downloads, Aboveground faces more direct competition from on-line cd-stores such as retail giant Amazon.com, who Barnes says is his biggest competitor. The "Amazon Effect", as he describes it, has caused the focus of the store to shift slightly towards used rather than new cds, which are too often overpriced and too easy to get elsewhere. Yet rather than showing resentment for the new trials his business faces, Barnes sees it as "a very challenging, but interesting time for the music industry and to own a record store."
While the recent slew of record store closings, both big and small, may have marked the end of an era in music retail, it is good to know that a passionate record store culture still remains. Barnes adds that people even still buy vinyl, and are generally more excited about buying traditional records than cds, although the majority of sales still comes from cds. "Where we have an advantage," Barnes says, "is that we offer something tangible, something that people can wrap their arms around."
Aboveground has always given back to the community that supports the store. Says local musician Farley Glavin, "They've always really helped to support Island music, whether it's by bringing bigger acts to the Vineyard, or by helping to promote local bands and musicians. Plus they've always offered a really wide selection of great records and they really know what they're talking about."
Since the store's opening, Mr. Barnes says that he has always felt the full support of the Island community, and believes the Vineyard's strong sense of community has also helped the store: "People have always appreciated our presence here and since we opened we've always felt people had our back and the same is still true today. Record stores are definitely a dying breed, but if anyone can keep a store like this going today in 2010, it's this Island community."
While Mr. Barnes may rely on the Island community to keep Aboveground afloat, what he offers is irreplaceable. In spite of easy and inexpensive access to music these days, there is still no substitute for the human contact and personal experience you can find only at a local record store.