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Originally published Friday, April 20, 2012 at 10:00 AM

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Record Store Day: Swan song of a retail industry?

Record Store Day, a five-year-old promotion for bricks-and-mortar stores selling LPs and CDs, offers bargains and live in-store performances in Seattle. But it may not be enough to save the struggling retail industry.

Seattle Times arts writer

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Were you planning on a buying an album at a store Saturday?

If so, you better set an alarm. The lines form early. Country music star Dierks Bentley is singing at Easy Street Records, and singer-songwriter Dar Williams will be at Silver Platters.

The occasion is Record Store Day, a five-year-old promotion that has exploded into the single biggest sales day of the year for music retailers. In Seattle, it's become a fizzy festival, with bargains, deluxe limited-edition releases and live performances.

Yet for all the hoopla, Record Store Day may also be the death rattle of a retail industry.

Since 2007, CDs sales have plummeted 18 to 20 percent per year (except for 2011, when the bleeding was stanched at a 5.6 percent). Last year, for the first time, digital sales surpassed physical discs, taking just over 50 percent of the market. The great record store chains of yore — Tower, Peaches, Discount, Virgin — are gone.

And while 900 U.S. independent stores are participating in this year's Record Store Day — four major ones in Seattle that still deal in new releases — business has turned more and more to used product, accessories, books and clothing. Perhaps the most vivid writing on the wall is that tablets — and the next generation of laptops — do not have CD drives.

"Maybe I'll be [still] doing this in three or four years," speculated Scott Kuzma, owner of Portland-based Everyday Music, which just moved into a new location on Capitol Hill. "Or maybe this is my last year."

Fatalistic resolve is pervasive throughout record retail. In Seattle, both Sonic Boom and Silver Platters have closed branches and almost all retailers report a steady decline. The vinyl LP is making a comeback, but it's a boutique business.

Back in 2007, things looked more promising to Silver Platters, which then had four stores. The company took a bold, contrarian step by moving into a 42,000-square-foot warehouse on Lower Queen Anne (abandoned by the recently bankrupted Tower Records).Within months, the manager told the owners that the business would be broke by the end of the year. By 2008, that manager — and the store's majority investors — were gone. .

Today, Mike Batt, who started as a buyer in 1987, is the president and sole owner of the company. He's still having trouble seeing himself as the chief.

"Sometimes I just call myself The Big Cheese," said Batt, an approachable 47-year-old who loves baseball and teaches an art class at Kirkland Community School.

It's been a tough go. Silver Platters has gone from 55 to 38 employees since 2007. Overall sales have declined every year. Thanks to Redbox movie-rental kiosks and changing tastes, Batt said, his once-thriving DVD business has been halved. So how has Silver Platters survived?

The big secret, known well enough to anyone who regularly buys and sells albums, is that the markup for used records is 100 percent.

Twenty percent of Silver Platters' business is now in used CDs.

"I think I can safely say that there would be no record store today if it weren't for used business," said Batt.

Other stores confirm this trend. Easy Street, with outlets in Queen Anne and West Seattle, does 40 percent of its business in used records. Sonic Boom, still extricating itself from a disastrous retail deal on Capitol Hill that left the company with only its Ballard store, puts the figure at 20 percent. Everyday Music sells two-thirds used.

Another reason Silver Platters has survived, said Batt, is that he has "a higher pain threshold for not making money than most business people."

That's a euphemistic way of saying that he's making just about the same money now as he did in 1996.

The truth is that people who run record stores are in it for love as much as money.

"I've been doing this since I was in college," said Kuzma. "I'm not making what I was 10 years ago. Those days are over. But it's what I do. Once this goes away, I don't know."

It does seem likely that it will go away. Though rumors of the CD's demise are premature, with the rise of streaming and "the cloud" — accessing music online from a digital pool — the format is probably doomed. What will happen to record stores then?

"The general thought is that there's enough used product out there that a store can make it on used for the next five to 10 years," said Batt.

After that, it's anyone's guess.

Some owners are betting on the return of vinyl, which had sales increases of 36 percent from 2010 to 2011. Still, with sales of 3.9 million albums, it's less than 1 percent of the market. Batt thinks it's a passing fad.

"Every 10 or 15 years, everything in popular culture gets recycled," he said. "It's now 15-20 years since vinyl died."

The notion of vinyl as something warm and fuzzy and old — like black-and-white film (and your parents) — is being heavily marketed by Record Store Day.

Whether nostalgia can keep record stores alive remains to be seen. But in the meantime, the attitude out there seems to be, "Let's enjoy them while they last."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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