What will future record stores look like?

Newbury Comics in the Northeast U.S. is testing out custom mix-CD technology, similar to what the folks at Starbucks are rolling out. I’ve been saying for some time (to paraphrase Dan Poynter) that record stores are pretty lousy places to sell records.

That’s because retailers have only a limited amount of “bandwidth” at listening posts and on endcaps to expose their customers to new music. With major labels churning more of their promotional budgets to buy space, independent releases that manage to get distribution often end up stuck in the stacks, where it’s unlikely that folks are going to stumble upon them.

Places like Best Buy and Wal-Mart sell music to the “folks who don’t buy music” — a tongue in cheek reference I apply to folks who tend to buy chart-topping discs that have already hit the tipping point of Top 40 Radio (or near enough).

Yet, there’s still a need here — a social need. Why do folks still buy music at Borders, or Schoolkids, or other record stores that do a good job of making music buying more than a mere transaction? It’s because people love to explore on their own, and to commune around their decisions.

Are kids getting music for free off the ‘net? Sure. But they still go to stores when they want to interact with each other. If you gave them access to the celestial jukebox without the hassles of mining through Kazaa junk, you could create a fun, communal, IRL experience.

So, in the spirit of Derek’s open-source ideas policy, here’s my free idea for someone to implement. If you combined CD-technology with little soundbooths or pods in a restaurant or diner setting that let groups of folks (especially mall kids) experiment with listening to new music together over shakes and fries and get a few copies of their combined mix-CD at the end of the play-meal, you could potentially have lines out the door. If you did it right, you’d have parents blocking out reservations for kids during the day, and adults enjoying listening parties in the evenings. And you’d probably even get some major label marketing money to highlight new releases.