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State Street-goers peer into B-Side Records, a Madison landmark that will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The store’s owner reflected on the history of music sales in Madison with The Badger Herald. Check out page 3 for the full story.[/media-credit]

In the era of digital downloads, instant file sharing and a slew of portable music players, it is a rare occurrence to stumble upon a store that is dedicated to selling tangible discs, especially of the vinyl variety.

B-Side Records, a locally-owned record store on State Street, has been around long enough to witness the evolution of several musical formats, with the store nearing its 30-year anniversary this coming October.

The name, B-Side, fits the nature of the store. For those born in the era of Walkmans and cassettes, or perhaps even after that, the B-side of a record refers to the opposite side of a vinyl, where songs that were less likely to be aired on the radio were placed.

In an email interview with The Badger Herald, owner Steve Manley explained how he got started in the business and how it has changed over the past decades.

While he is not one of the original owners, Manley started frequenting the store when it first opened, when he bargained with the original owners on record prices by offering them his employee discount on sandwiches at the place he worked at the time.

After nine months of continued interest, Manley had been hired and was quickly promoted to manager, which let him decide which records to have in stock.

He later acquired the store when the original owners sold off their shares. Originally named B-Side Records and Tapes, the tapes section was dropped once cassettes became practically extinct.

Today, the store continues to sell records but also offers a selection of CDs and more recently guitar strings.

Manley, who remembers broadening his musical horizons by hanging out in record and stereo stores at a young age, admits that even he is surprised by the resurgence of record sales.

“I saw the near-death of vinyl as a format about 15 years ago,” Manley said. “Slowly, vinyl has made a very unexpected comeback, especially with people under the age of 30 or so.”

Manley attributes this renewed interest, a trend that has been growing for the last 10 years, to the idea that records are considered more “special” than simply a digital download or CD, as the records are thought of as pieces of art or artifacts.

Even with tough competition from the iTunes, torrent sites and department stores, B-Side is able to distinguish itself with unique offerings, including rare orders that arrive within a week and discs in stock many do not expect to find.

According to Manley, there is still a significant older demographic that enjoys browsing through a store, and there is a broad range of customers that prefers “the tactile experience of browsing in a physical store, as opposed to pointing and clicking from a chair.”

Piracy, a controversial byproduct of online music access, is something Manley said he disagrees with. 

“Free downloads are fine if that’s what the artist wants,” Manley said. “[But] it seems disrespectful to not compensate an artist for owning, and enjoying, something they created.”

Determination to buy a physical copy still exists, as Manley finds that customers are fairly loyal to shopping at record stores, even if it is not just one specific store.

Although he has been invested in the business of music retail for an extended period of time, Manley still sees a number of problems with the music industry and big name publishers.

He said record companies usually are operated by people who do not care about music at all, a process that has caused many of the companies to overcharge their customers. This ends up alienating their consumers and raising the advertised price in stores, including his own.

“Greed can, and should, backfire,” Manley said. “CDs should never list for more than $10 or $12, even for superstar artists. I say give music consumers a reason to purchase the actual disc [like interesting packaging to] have some added value over a download.”

Manley understands why vinyl costs more, as it is more expensive to produce, but said he thinks it is ridiculous that some companies still list their CDs for $19 and overprice certain records, making it more difficult to offer a competitive price in store.

Some major record labels have recently started to catch on, which allows B-Side to offer some “quality titles” for a price range of $6 to $10.

As for the future expansion of the store, Manley jokes: “We’re not going to start selling bongs. They do that next door.”

Although there are no new products to offer besides an updated and relevant music collection and the recent addition of guitar strings, in two months record stores around the world, including B-Side, will be participating in an organized event.

The fifth annual Record Store Day is scheduled for April 22, when special releases, storewide sales and other events occur. It would be as good a time as any to check out what local record stores have to offer.