Midtown Record Stores Find Innovative Ways to Withstand Changing Industry



Inside Rock and Soul DJ Equipment and Records on West 37th Street. Photo: Kaniya Rogers

When the streaming takeover began in the early 2000s, some music fans left record stores behind. More than half of record stores in the United States have been forced to close their doors since 2003. In Midtown, a few local stores changed with the times until they found the thing that worked.

Fred Cohen opened the Jazz Record Center, a specialty store focused exclusively on jazz music, on West 72nd Street in 1983. Cohen said he was around to see some landmark New York City record stores close over the years, including Tower Records on East 4th Street and Broadway, and the Virgin Megastore in Union Square. “They just left, leaving me, this little place, as the only game in town for jazz in a major way,” he said.

In 2003, there were more than 8,000 record stores in the United States. Now, there are less than 2,500 according to IBISWorld, a market research database that tracks thousands of industries worldwide. Confronted with a shifting music industry, many remaining stores have survived by specializing in a niche genre of music, or new ways to attract customers, moving from exclusively selling records and CDs to a variety of music-related products, a decision that some Midtown independent record store owners said has kept their doors open for more than 30 years.

Since 1983, Cohen’s store has changed locations. The Jazz Record Center is now on West 26th Street in Midtown, but one thing remains the same, the store’s specialty: jazz. The store carries vinyl and CDs, tote bags, and films and books that focus on the history of the music genre. According to Cohen, having a unique focus has kept him in business, adding that the larger record stores were trying to cover too much ground in a changing industry. “It was too expensive. They had to have too much inventory, too much debt,” he said.

In September, IBISWorld reported that record store industry revenue has declined exponentially over the past 18 years. But in 2020, vinyl sales surpassed CD sales for the first time since 1986 and, in the first half of this year, vinyl sales increased nearly 100% to $467 million nationwide, according to The Recording Industry Association of America. Despite some renewed interest in physical formats, a promising trend for record stores, both reports showed that streaming continues to be the main source of music consumption.

Cohen said most of the Jazz Record Center’s customers do access music digitally now, yet they still want physical copies of what they’re listening to. “People love to shop. And when you’re shopping online, it’s a two-dimensional experience. There’s no relationship between what you see and what you’re ultimately getting,” he said.

George Howard, an associate professor of music business and management at Berklee College of Music, agrees. “Vinyl are most dominantly being sold in physical locations,” he said. “There’s an entire culture and generation of people that are actively seeking out the kind of experience that you can’t get from online services. There’s a huge demand from people who want something different, and I think that’s the void independent record stores have always filled, so it’s not surprising that there’s demand,” he said.

Sharon Bechor owns Rock and Soul DJ Equipment and Records on West 37th Street in Midtown. Her parents opened the electronics and vinyl store in 1975. Shortly after, DJs gravitated to it to shop its large selection of records, influencing the Bechors to sell DJ equipment. “The whole store kind of like evolved into this DJ ‘mecca’ Store,” she said. 

Rock and Soul’s diverse merchandise proved to be an advantage, but when DJs abandoned records for digital formats, it posed another challenge. Bechor said the transition marked the second time the store was forced to consider quitting records. The first time, she explained, was when CDs hit the shelves. “We kind of waited it out because at the heart of who the store was, was a record store,” she said. “Even though we had equipment and other things, we just kind of waited out the storm.” Now, in addition to selling records and equipment, the store offers DJ classes and hosts networking events and free workshops.

Despite vinyl’s reemergence into pop culture, IBISWorld reported that the record store industry is expected to continue declining at an annual rate of more than 10% over the next five years. By 2026, it is predicted that the number of record stores in the United States will decrease by more than half.  The industry is also expected to face decreased revenue and employment, and increased competition from mass merchandisers and digital retailers.

“When the music world went completely digital, we lost that kind of physical connection to music, and vinyl kind of fills that void and its growth is monumental,” said Howard.

Academy Records & CDs on West 18th Street opened as a bookstore in 1977. After a year, the store introduced records and now, owner Joseph GaNun, said vinyl is here to stay. “If records are hot, it’s because people decided that records are cool and hip,” he said. “The mediums do not change. It’s just the perceptions that people have of the medium that changes.”

“A lot of people like streaming, but maybe they were never my customers anyway,” said GaNun.