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When the Music's Over
by Milo Miles
MAY 4, 2009 TAGS:
For music obsessives like myself, the essence of visiting a new city is going to the hippest, most knowledgeable record store in town. In Las Vegas, that would be Big B’s Records and CDs, and when I was there last year I determined I would track down this rich palace of both the new and used. When I pulled into the parking lot, the sign on the door said it all: FOR RENT. Crushed, I walked into the saloon-café across the street and asked the young dude behind the bar, “How long has Big B’s been closed?”
“You’re not the first person to ask that,” he said, with the clear implication that there were other dried-up music geezers with the same concerns.
At least I shouldn’t have been surprised – the Big B’s of America are going under as never before. The New York Times reports that 3,100 retailers have shut down in the last five years. And back in 2006, the same paper noted that the shoppers in the stores that remain open are a fast-aging group. Sales of recordings are down across the board, but music stores have weathered previous slumps, especially the smaller, more specialized retailers.
Even so, while music stores may not go the way of the 78 RPM disc, they look certain to wind up as marginalized as LPs. One sure sign an institution is in trouble is when the owners dedicate a day to cheerleading for it. The most profitable retailers nowadays don’t even look like record stores. They hawk so many jewelry trinkets, clothes, graphic novels, action figures, gag novelties, DVDs and other items that recorded music is all but an afterthought. But there’s nothing timeless about pure-music stores. Like the LP and the CD, they were a 20th-century invention, and records themselves started as a fad.
In the earliest days of records, from around 1915-1930, Americans outside the big cities encountered discs in general stores, as products they might pick up with harness equipment or a sack of flour. And many of the performances they would hear would be by regional favorites, folks you might see every summer at the fair or even at the local roadhouse on weekends. The rise of the national radio network, however, caused the first crisis in record sales. Gramophone discs were considered passé because radio amounted to a free music collection. (See this concise history of records, or the more expansive Wikipedia account.)
Records rebounded along with leisure time after World War II, and the new 45 RPM format that appeared in department stores and musical-instrument shops featured artists from across the country. For many years, 7-inch discs introduced a more worldly generation of youngsters to not just new tunes, but also unknown worlds of culture. A rite beautifully illustrated by Mary Fleener’s classic autobiographical comic, Turn Off That Jungle Music! The eruptions of rock and then hip-hop seemed to indicate that the record party would just keep going and getting bigger generation after generation.
So what went awry? The decline of record stores is like the extinction of the dinosaurs in that too many explanations are offered – not all causes are relevant and some are even contradictory. It helps to note that big, national-chain stores have a different set of problems than smaller, specialty stores. The threat to giant retailers is well laid out in Brendan Toller’s documentary, I Need That Record! – The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store. On their way up, the major chains like Tower, HMV and Virgin Records forced many corner stores out of business. But these were mostly small operations catering to a general audience. Decades ago, the canny co-founder of the indie-music Newbury Comics Mike Dreese was asked if he was worried about the mammoth Tower superstore opening down the block. He replied that the two operations’ inventories didn’t overlap all that much, and that fresh customers might get the hits at Tower and then come to his place for the hip sides.
Now the major chains are being undercut by the same loss-leader tactics they once used, this round going to so-called big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target. Increasingly, this is where the hordes of casual music fans go to pick up the latest title being pumped by Clear Channel radio. Everyday records have come full circle, from tucked away in the back of the general store to tucked away in the back of the big-box megastore. In the old days they would sell you all you wanted and more than you knew, and today they sell you anything you imagine and less than you need.
But this doesn’t explain the downfall of the independent record store, which went their separate way long ago. In I Need That Record! Ian MacKaye, leader of the bands Minor Threat and Fugazi and for 26 years operator of the indie label Dischord Records, remarks that as soon as he heard punk, he turned off the radio forever and stopped paying attention to mainstream music. He has only a vague notion of what Oasis sounds like. Aren’t there enough like him to sustain specialty retailers? Not according to modern economics.
Worldwide, selling recordings is not the money machine it once was. Hence all the ancillary merchandise in music stores – like the performers, retailers are making money off the T-shirts, not the CDs. And, as I Need That Record! demonstrates, all it takes is one greedy landlord, crazed by the real-estate bubble, to end the indie-store adventure. The operations that survive will be hard-nosed and fast-moving, aces at marketing, unlike the zany, chummy, overstuffed corner shops memorialized in the predominant piece of record-store literature, Nick Hornby’s Hi Fidelity. The romance of such places was real, testified to in I Need That Record! and by the response of Philip Smith, owner of House of Records, the oldest music store in Los Angeles, when I asked him what would be lost if record stores disappeared:
“There is no substitute for the physical interaction among music fans and record collectors. A good record store functions as a community hub and meeting place for like-minded people. How many bands started from chance meetings in the rock section? How many romances began in the punk section? How many favorite bands were discovered through in-store play, clerk recommendations or album cover art? How many record-store employees went on to become rock stars, DJs, critics, producers or music-moguls? How many shoplifters went on to a career in politics? There is a certain visceral quality to thumbing through albums in a bin that cannot be replicated in a virtual space. Also, you won't accidentally put your hand on somebody else's old chewing gum while browsing the disco section on iTunes.”
House of Records opened up back in 1952, as a supplier of jukebox 45s. It had persisted through the booms and droughts, the fads and flops of a near-geologic length of time in the music business. Researching this article in L.A., I determined I would visit this trove of survival wisdom. Smith informed me the store closed 10 months ago.
This is a list of America’s Most Revered Independent Record Stores. Honor them while you can.
Milo Miles is the world-music and American-roots music critic for NPR's Fresh Air. He also writes for Rolling Stone magazine, The Village Voice and the New York Times.
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Anonymous wrote on July 20, 2008 9:05am
This is a really good story [Report Comment]
anonymous wrote on June 21, 2008 4:17am
There are now new and different ways of finding what I consider a much wider spectrum of music. It is a great time to be a music lover and music hunter. Of course there are advantages and disadvantages of every method or approach and indie music stores are no different. Luckily, I am old enough to have visited several small hard to find retailers when I needed that record. Unfortunately, another common trait of the indie store is the mean grumpy owner who charges way too much for his "rare" finds, Trust me it is much better today to go on am musical tour of youtube and myspace to the pirate bay and leave with hundreds of songs and dozens of new unheard of artists. And the sign of the times is that us pirates will go on to be the politicians, but that is a discussion for another day. [Report Comment]