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Some of Becker's concerns mirror those facing virtually all the world's print publications. If Option becomes an electronic magazine, he notes, "I can deliver without almost any manufacturing costs. Right now, I pay for ink and staples, and I'm asking myself why." Also, much of the magazine's core audience seems certain to be among the ever-swelling millions drawing most of their news, information and entertainment from their computers.
But Becker is more unsettled by what he sees as the ongoing "atomization of audience that has been taking place for a long, long time, not just in music but in the culture itself." The Web, he says, isn't really the issue, but simply "the next step in the evolution" of fragmentation. In this, his perspective seems to mirror that of critic Paul Williams, who started the first serious American music magazine, Crawdaddy!, in the mid-'60s simply so that he'd have a forum to share his experiences listening to Bob Dylan. Not long ago, Williams told me that the only difference between music now and music then is that "then, there was a community of people talking about the same stuff."
"There was a time," Becker says, "when the bands that sold were the counterculture. Even into the 1980s, you could say, 'Hey, I found a great band,' and everybody kind of knew what that meant." But with the relentless deluge of new releases from every conceivable source - major labels, indies, Web-only labels, homemade and distributed product - swamping industry and consumer alike, even what has traditionally been referred to as "mainstream" pop music has fragmented. "Audiences for Snoop Doggy Dogg and Shania Twain don't tend to overlap," says Becker.
And therein lies the key to the difficulties Option faces. In striving to cross genre boundaries and educate listeners about exciting releases in many different styles, Becker believes, his publication is a "horizontal magazine in an increasingly vertical world." For a while, Option's refusal to wave stylistic flags helped it survive, because it never relied on a single base of advertising or readership. But as more and more specialized print and electronic publications and catalog/review services appear to serve each new subcategory of music and music fan, the demand for magazines - and labels, and stores - aimed at a more general audience has begun to wane dangerously, because the general audience may no longer exist. Says Becker, "The last two years have been bad for the indie labels, for the majors, for retailers, even as the number of new releases continues to rise."
And that has begun to bleed some of the joy out of record retailing for Russell, though he says it's hard to quantify how much it has hurt his business at this point. As more and more new releases appear - some available only on the Internet, many more only distributed that way - he and his buyers have found it increasingly impossible to keep up with their clientele. "What's fun for Lou's," Russell says, "is being on the edge, getting new and unusual products to consumers first. If we don't have access to the product, or we don't know about it, our job becomes less important. And less interesting." Russell likes the way the Web has cleared a path for thousands of tiny labels to release and distribute product inexpensively, but he also says that "all that cottage distribution is tough to stay on top of." Mark Olson's Harmony Ridge Creekdippers CD, for example, would seem a natural for the determinedly alternative Lou's Records market, but Russell didn't hear about the CD until six to eight months after it came out.
Russell says that, ironically, the glut of new releases has him "thinking more regionally than ever before." Because he has no way of knowing which of the hundreds of new bands he has the opportunity to purchase CDs from every month will hit home with at least some portion of his clientele, he tends to focus initially on artists from Southern California who may create a local buzz.
Both Russell and Becker believe that there will be many fewer record stores in a very short time, and Russell is particularly grim about the future of independent stores like his own. "People will always want to shop, because that's an experience people want. But the product is already digitized, so it's perfect for the Web. People can get their music faster and cheaper that way. And that gives them one less reason to go to the store that day, or that week."
Russell believes that his store and others will survive in some form, perhaps as Web sites where people come for recommendations. "But a lot of the fun is dealing with the people, and with the product itself," he says. "Handling, pricing, putting it in the right spot so that people will come in one day and be stoked because they found something they'd been looking for." If the record store as we now know it ceases to exist, or becomes a place for product fetishists, "then the music industry will lose yet another large chunk of its connective tissue," says Russell, "and I don't want to be the old crotchety guy in the little junky used store, selling records to crotchety customers."