More than most cities, Buenos Aires hinges much of its personality and appeal on its enthusiastic celebration of the arts. From its festivals, activities, and shops to its thriving live music scene, the city is steeped in the arts, evidence of a rich cultural history and tradition.
This extends from the collective to the individual; passion for the arts is an intrinsic part of the porteño identity, with many latching onto the work that speaks to them and advocating for it over other works with the intense fervor of a devoted hincha. It could be argued that porteños incorporate their love for culture as a fundamental part of their own individual identities, a bond that goes well beyond casual interest.
And yet, even with this fervent artistic devotion, there is a type of business catering exclusively to one of the most popular mediums that is currently in the slow process of succumbing to time and the modern age: the city’s record stores.
Buenos Aires famously enjoys an abundance of bookstores, something that is rapidly becoming scarce in the rest of the world. According to a recent study by the World Cities Cultural Forum, Buenos Aires has more bookstores per capita than any other major city worldwide, with approximately 25 bookstores for every 100,00 people residing within city limits. This figure doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon, as bookstores all over the city continue to move merchandise at a rate that seems absurd when one considers the deep economic crisis the country has been experiencing for a long time now. Print media is such a fundamental part of Buenos Aires’s cultural scene that bookstores appear to be effectively crisis-proof.
This is not quite the case for record stores, which have been forced to fundamentally alter the way they operate in order to adjust to the evolving times and avoid financial ruin. This is despite the fact that Argentina actually has an overwhelmingly rich and vibrant music scene (check out our recent round-up of local indie bands you should check out). Many of the city’s once-thriving record shops have already been forced to board up and liquidate their wares. Meanwhile, the survivors are hanging on for dear life.
The way we interface with music has changed considerably over the course of the last 20 years. Long gone are the days of waiting in line for a long-anticipated album release, purchasing a physical copy of it, taking it home, loading it in the CD player, and reading along to the lyrics in the album booklet. The concept of music as a tangible product has become, to the general public, a relic of the past. Our ability to simply open an app and access a long-tenured artist’s entire back catalog in the span of seconds has made physical collections entirely redundant; useless plastic and shellac taking up precious space in our living rooms. We don’t need these clunky containers to access what we really want – the sound contained within. So why even bother with them?
This shift has also affected the way we value music. Our interest in a song is as a purely experiential concept no longer tethered to a physical object. This song can be accessed quickly and easily through a number of online platforms, many of which are free; why should I pay for that? If a song is a purely ephemeral thing – just information arranged in a certain way and conveyed digitally through the air – then its monetary worth must also be minimal.
This means of valuing music is only upheld by the increasing prevalence of the streaming-platform model, where a small monthly fee will grant you access to an entire world of tunes. This fee represents less than it used to cost to buy a CD (considering inflation) and considerably less than it costs to buy an average vinyl release in 2019. And, as consumers, we can then rest easy, because we are effectively “paying” for our music – never mind the fact that a service like Spotify pays artists a hilariously low amount of money in royalties.
On top of all of this, we must consider the effect of Argentina’s current financial crisis on culture as a whole. With the peso on an endless slide of depreciation, the average person is stuck in a state of financial anxiety that will have a clear effect on their consumption of non-essentials. A recent poll released by the Sistema de Información Cultural de la Argentina reveals a sharp decrease in all manner of cultural consumption, including live music, film, theater, and museum attendance. Plunking down upwards of AR $1,000 to buy a reissued piece of vinyl seems, to most, a non-starter.
We are faced with a model that is stacked up against artists and seems to bypass shops altogether. Consumer indifference to music releases has caused giants like Musimundo to shift focus and become, essentially, Garbarino analogs (even then, they’ve been forced to close down many locations). So how have the surviving record stores in Buenos Aires stayed afloat? Well, the answer might seem a bit counter-intuitive, but they’ve actually made things less accessible for the average consumer. By leaning into physical releases as collectibles and deluxe items, they’ve been able to court the very particular brand of music fan that still finds value in the actual product.
Step into Rock N’ Freud (Arenales 3337), an excellent record store located at the Paseo del Sol right behind the Alto Palermo shopping mall, and what you’ll find yourself faced with is a veritable haven for music obsessives. As well as several walls lined with CDs (which seem so charmingly anachronistic to possibly even start coming back into style soon), you’ll also find rows of expensive vinyl; new releases, reissues of classics, luxurious box sets, rare imports. Not only that, but you’ll also find staff that is friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic, happy to guide you in whatever direction. I remember many years ago telling the clerk “I want something psychedelic, but, like… pretty,” and his immediately handing me a copy of the first Melody’s Echo Chamber album.
Similarly, a place like Exiles (Honduras 5270, in the heart of Palermo) is driven by a passion for the art form; the owner frequently engages customers in conversations about music, and providing history lessons for people who may not be familiar with the specifics of Argentine music history. Of course, the place isn’t made up entirely of rock nacional – in fact, their catalog of funk releases is particularly interesting, including everything from enduring classics of the genre to one-off oddities that you won’t hear a lot of people talking about. Whatever genre you’re looking for, you’ll likely get enthusiastic recommendations from the staff.
There are other stores that focus more on specific genres, such as Tempo de Borges (whose main focus is jazz), and Thor (metal, punk rock). Others thrive on vast catalogs (such as Cactus) while others focus more on hard-to-find rarities (such as El Gallo Cantor). But what these places all have in common is they’ve abandoned the notion that physical releases are something that the general audience will find interesting, and instead have leaned into vinyl fetishism as its own selling point.
It’s hard to say how much longer these places will continue to exist. If things continue on the path they’re on, many of these businesses will undoubtedly fall prey to the market and perish. Though Argentina considers music incredibly important to its cultural makeup, the places that are dedicated entirely to its have been all but pushed to the wayside into an unsustainable business model, and physical releases of music will eventually be confined to a few small rows near the back of a corporate megastore. An album will eventually be seen as merely a souvenir from a song you heard on Spotify once or twice; trinkets of a long-forgotten time when we thought these things actually meant something.
If you’re wondering what we can do as consumers to help keep these places alive, the answer is very straightforward: consume! Next time you walk by a record store, maybe pop in and see if there’s anything that catches your interest. Participate in things like Record Store Day, or La Noche de las Disquerías; activities that are meant to stimulate local businesses and generate interest in what these stores have to offer. Even then, however, things are looking bleak in terms of long-term prospects.
It could be that this is simply the way the cookie crumbles, and lamenting its downfall is a fool’s errand. Nostalgia is a toxic impulse, and we’d be foolish not to acknowledge that much of our bellyaching is born precisely out of that. For now, though, we’re happy that there are a few of these places still around, still putting up a fight, still waving that flag about. That alone feels like its own quiet kind of victory.
Record Stores in Buenos Aires
Rock N’ Freud | Arenales 3337 | Monday – Saturday 2PM – 9PM | Facebook
Exiles | Honduras 5270 | Monday – Saturday 12PM – 8PM | Facebook
Tempo de Borges | Jorge Luis Borges 1666 | Monday – Sunday 10AM – 10PM | Facebook
Thor | Bond Street – Av. Santa Fe 1670 | Monday – Saturday 10AM – 8 PM | Facebook
Cactus | Uruguay 290 | Monday – Friday 10AM – 7PM, Saturday 10AM – 5PM
El Gallo Cantor | Galería Apolo – Av. Corrientes 1382 | Monday – Friday 10AM – 8PM, Saturday 2PM – 8PM | Web