Friday, April 13, 2007

The Decline of the Indie Record Store

Two articles below from the New York Times. I sent them to correspondents via Come Back Horslips fame Lee in SF and Shaz in faraway England, so why not to you out there too?

I have no ponytail. As you can see from that snapshot from my wife's digital camera, to break it in indeed, I am graying, however. And, marking me ineradicably as part of the sub-boomer demographic, I do remember "Frampton Comes Alive," if only how much I hated that album that was released just before punk broke, in the middle of high school. On that foldout cover, PF always looked like his hair was cotton candy, or what he'd call candyfloss, on the cover, his gob half open stupidly, stoned out of his empty gourd, staring out gulpingly at the idolatrous, similarly mind-altered, and obviously as they are paying to see the man stupid crowd of toadies. Now he's totally bald, apparently lives in the Hollywood Hills (I wonder if he and Morrissey chat?) and his remaindered albums from failed comebacks fill the shelves often of bargain bins at Rockaway Records, itself certainly a store like Norman's Sound & Vision in its rather scruffy, massively downsized, and grayish self these days. I think they stay in business mostly by selling memorabilia to well-heeled gray ponytailed clientele. Many customers and staff of a "certain age" (although older than me!) look like the Comic Guy on the Simpsons.

I guess we are all of that "certain age" by now when this rawk geek phenomenon that certainly enriched and impoverished my youth and young adulthood for decades now has begun to take on the rosy tinge of nostalgia or the bitter shade of anger. Never a collector myself, only a listener, I do understand the acquisitive lure. Boxes of CDs and stacks of LPs fill shelves of the house that I will never probably hear again, but which I can find no buyer for. Symbolic I suppose of the 80s and 90s of my life, however you take that. Layne told me when I was cleaning out the garage how earlier in both of our lives we tended to fill up the emptiness with lots of books and records, and while that attraction drew us together, it also showed how much we needed each other far more than all that stuff. It's taken me decades perhaps to find that out, but halfway (well, I hope halfway even though I wish it was more, and what can we mortals do but fill what time we have in the fulfillment of each other?) through my actuarially charted lifespan, I truly know that music means less than she does. Yes, of course I knew this all along, but acting on it, showing it, believing it took far longer.

Both articles show then, perhaps, what happens to our generation after so many tumultuous years have been consumed in leafing through vinyl, clattering through jewelboxes in search of the tangible rendition of the ethereal chord that found, answers and calms all our longing.

These articles express laments of not only the ponytailed boomers but we shorter haired malcontents (Johnny Rotten's t-shirt with "I Hate" scrawled above Pink Floyd) who followed those self-mythologizing, trust-fund radical, most coddled babies ever (until the vegan cupcake bakers, the alt-parents "Mommies who Drink," what rebels, came along in the past decade) in the wake of punk, then college radio, then alternative rock, and now-- well, when emo's mainstream, what's not? We all crave piles of stuff, for higher purposes of the aesthetic, so they are more excusable and admirably yearning than, say those who amass assault weapons, tattoos, or develop upon not open space but "undeveloped tracts" their soulless concrete McMansions, tiled-roofed strip malls, and more of what my wife recalls from that song now on "Weeds" as planned communities in ticky-tacky box forms of real estate (many within the last category rank next to child molesters in my own personal topography of the inferno). There's a whole genre now-- Neal Pollock of the hipster McSweeney's stable and his wife who's Richard Schickel's daughter now live in Highland Park and write about how trendy they are with their little Elijah getting kicked outta pre-school and Regina trolling about probably the same Whole Foods we (ha-- hoist with my own petard) shop at in some Aprica conveyance. Niall does love that store's chocolate fountain. Like Trader Joe's, Berkeley-based Whole Foods, probably owned by Ralph's now, hires baseball capped in many colors attractive, fit non-union employees but they seem the happier for it, somehow.

See how technological innovation, rapacious profits, stagnant corporate mentalities, and the inevitable passing of one generation's fashion into the next demographic's obsolescence all mark their inexorable traces across our now middle-aged lives. Read on about how we all bought into the system that promised that it spoke to us who wanted to Fight the Power and show The Man who's the real boss. Tower Records: Pay no more than $19.95 for the hottest new CD releases. Ameoba Records: does three stores make it a chain? We built this city on Rock n' Roll. The genre manufactured or real rebellion, selling millions the myth of non-conformity, itself begins to fade and wither.

July 16, 2006
The Graying of the Record Store

SO this is an evening rush?

On a recent Monday, six people -- soon enough four, then two -- were browsing the bins of compact discs at Norman's Sound and Vision, a music store on Cooper Square in Manhattan, around 6 p.m., a time that once constituted the daily rush hour. A decade ago, the number of shoppers might have been 20 or 30, said Norman Isaacs, the owner. Six people? He would have had that many working in the store.

''I used to make more in a day than I probably make in a week now,'' said the shaven-headed Mr. Isaacs, 59, whose largely empty aisles brimming with punk, jazz, Latin music, and lots and lots of classic rock have left him, many afternoons, looking like a rock 'n' roll version of the Maytag repairman. Just as troubling to Mr. Isaacs is the age of his clientele.

''It's much grayer,'' he said mournfully.

The neighborhood record store was once a clubhouse for teenagers, a place to escape parents, burn allowances and absorb the latest trends in fashion as well as music. But these days it is fast becoming a temple of nostalgia for shoppers old enough to remember ''Frampton Comes Alive!''

In the era of iTunes and MySpace, the customer base that still thinks of recorded music as a physical commodity (that is, a CD), as opposed to a digital file to be downloaded, is shrinking and aging, further imperiling record stores already under pressure from mass-market discounters like Best Buy and Wal-Mart.

The bite that downloading has taken out of CD sales is well known -- the compact disc market fell about 25 percent between 1999 and 2005, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade organization. What that precipitous drop indicated by the figures doesn't reveal is that this trend is turning many record stores into haunts for the gray-ponytail set. This is especially true of big-city stores that stock a wider range of music than the blockbuster acts.

''We don't see the kids anymore,'' said Thom Spennato, who owns Sound Track, a cozy store on busy Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. ''That 12-to-15-year-old market, that's what's missing the last couple of years.''

Without that generation of buyers, the future looks bleak. ''My landlord asked me if I wanted another 10-year lease, and I said no,'' Mr. Spennato said. ''I have four years left, then I'm out.''

Since late 2003, about 900 independent record stores have closed nationwide, leaving about 2,700, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a marketing research company in Studio City, Calif. In 2004, Tower Records, one of the nation's largest chains, filed for bankruptcy protection.

Greta Perr, an owner of Future Legends, a new and used CD store on Ninth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, said that young people never really came back to her store after the Napster file-sharing upheaval of the late 90's; she has responded by filling her windows with artists like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. ''People come in and say: 'I remember when I was 20, Steve Miller's second record came out. Can I get that?' '' she said.

Industry statistics bear out the graying of the CD-buying public. Purchases by shoppers between ages 15 and 19 represented 12 percent of recorded music in 2005, a decline from about 17 percent in 1996, according to the Recording Industry Association. Purchases by those 20 to 24 represented less than 13 percent in 2005, down from about 15 percent. Over the same period, the share of recorded music bought by adults over 45 rose to 25.5 percent, from 15 percent.

(The figures include CD's and downloaded songs, with CD's still an overwhelming share of the market in recorded music, 87 percent, in 2005.)

The dominance of older buyers is especially evident at smaller independent stores in metropolitan areas, where younger consumers tend to be more tech-oriented and older music fans tend to be more esoteric in their tastes, said Russ Crupnick, an analyst with the NPD Group, a market research firm.

At Norman's, which is 15 years old and just around the corner from New York's epicenter of punk, St. Marks Place, shoppers with nose rings and dewy cheeks are not unknown. But they may only be looking to use the automatic teller machine. A pair of teenagers -- he with ink-black dyed hair, and she in ragged camouflage shorts -- wandered in one evening recently and promptly froze in the doorway, stopped in their tracks by an Isaac Hayes cut from the 70's.

They had the confused looks of would-be congregants who had stumbled into a church of the wrong denomination; they quickly shuffled off. Most of Norman's other customers were old enough to remember eight-track tapes. Steven Russo, 53, for instance, was looking for jazz CD's. Mr. Russo, a high school teacher in Valley Stream, N.Y., said that he values the store for its sense of camaraderie among cognoscenti as much as its selection. ''It's the ability of people to talk to people about the music, to talk to personnel who are knowledgeable,'' he said.

Richard Antone, a freelance writer from Newark whose hair was flecked with silver curls, said his weekly trip to the store is a visual experience as well as an auditory one. ''I remember how people admired the artwork on an album like 'Electric Ladyland' or 'Sgt. Pepper' as much as the music,'' he said.

The lost generation of young shoppers -- for whom a CD is a silvery disc on which you burn your own songs and then label with a black marker -- will probably spell doom for Norman's within the next five years, said Mr. Isaacs, the owner. Several of his downtown competitors have already disappeared, he said.

Some independent owners are resisting the demographic challenges. Eric Levin, 36, who owns three Criminal Records stores in Atlanta and oversees a trade group called the Alliance of Independent Media Stores, representing 30 shops nationally, said that businesses losing young customers are ''dinosaurs'' that have done nothing to cater to the new generation. Around the country, he said, shops like Grimey's in Nashville, Shake It Records in Cincinnati and Other Music in New York are hanging on to young customers by evolving into one-stop hipster emporiums. Besides selling obscure CD's and even vinyl records, many have diversified into comic books, Japanese robot toys and clothing. Some have opened adjoining nightclubs or, in Mr. Levin's case, coffee shops.

''Kids don't have to go to the record store like earlier generations,'' Mr. Levin said. ''You have to make them want to. You have to make it an event.''

But diversification is not always an option for smaller stores with little extra space, like Norman's. Mr. Isaacs's continued survival is due in part to a side business he runs selling used CD's on Amazon and eBay. He buys them from walk-in customers who are often dumping entire collections.

Unlike the threatened independent bookstore, with its tattered rugs, dusty shelves and shedding cats, indie record stores in danger of disappearing do not inspire much hand-wringing, perhaps because they are not as celebrated in popular imagination as the quaint bookshop. (Record geeks can claim only ''High Fidelity,'' the book and movie, as a nostalgic touchstone.)

Still, the passing of such places would be mourned.

Danny Fields, the Ramones' first manager, points out that visiting Bleecker Bob's on West Third Street in the late 70's was ''like experiencing the New York music scene'' in miniature -- it was a cultural locus, a trading post for all the latest punk trends. ''Dropping into Bleecker Bob's was like dropping into CBGB's,'' he said. (You can still drop into Bleecker Bob's.)

Dave Marsh,the rock critic and author of books on popular music, noted that rockers like Jonathan Richman and Iggy Pop honed their edgy musical tastes working as record store clerks.

''It's part of the transmission of music,'' said Mr. Marsh, who recalls being turned on to cult bands like the Fugs and the Mothers of Invention by the clerks at his local record store in his hometown, Waterford, Mich. ''It seems like you can't have a neighborhood without them.''

April 5, 2007
Op-Ed Contributors

Spinning Into Oblivion


DESPITE the major record labels’ best efforts to kill it, the single, according to recent reports, is back. Sort of.

You’ll still have a hard time finding vinyl 45s or their modern counterpart, CD singles, in record stores. For that matter, you’ll have a tough time finding record stores. Today’s single is an individual track downloaded online from legal sites like iTunes or eMusic, or the multiple illegal sites that cater to less scrupulous music lovers. The album, or collection of songs — the de facto way to buy pop music for the last 40 years — is suddenly looking old-fashioned. And the record store itself is going the way of the shoehorn.

This is a far cry from the musical landscape that existed when we opened an independent CD shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1993. At the time, we figured that as far as business ventures went, ours was relatively safe. People would always go to stores to buy music. Right? Of course, back then there were also only two ringtones to choose from — “riiiiinnng” and “ring-ring.”

Our intention was to offer a haven for all kinds of music lovers and obsessives, a shop that catered not only to the casual record buyer (“Do you have the new Sarah McLachlan and ... uh ... is there a Beatles greatest hits CD?”) but to the fan and oft-maligned serious collector (“Can you get the Japanese pressing of ‘Kinda Kinks’? I believe they used the rare mono mixes”). Fourteen years later, it’s clear just how wrong our assumptions were. Our little shop closed its doors at the end of 2005.

The sad thing is that CDs and downloads could have coexisted peacefully and profitably. The current state of affairs is largely the result of shortsightedness and boneheadedness by the major record labels and the Recording Industry Association of America, who managed to achieve the opposite of everything they wanted in trying to keep the music business prospering. The association is like a gardener who tried to rid his lawn of weeds and wound up killing the trees instead.

In the late ’90s, our business, and the music retail business in general, was booming. Enter Napster, the granddaddy of illegal download sites. How did the major record labels react? By continuing their campaign to eliminate the comparatively unprofitable CD single, raising list prices on album-length CDs to $18 or $19 and promoting artists like the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears — whose strength was single songs, not albums. The result was a lot of unhappy customers, who blamed retailers like us for the dearth of singles and the high prices.

The recording industry association saw the threat that illegal downloads would pose to CD sales. But rather than working with Napster, it tried to sue the company out of existence — which was like thinking you’ve killed all the roaches in your apartment because you squashed the one you saw in the kitchen. More illegal download sites cropped up faster than the association’s lawyers could say “cease and desist.”

By 2002, it was clear that downloading was affecting music retail stores like ours. Our regulars weren’t coming in as often, and when they did, they weren’t buying as much. Our impulse-buy weekend customers were staying away altogether. And it wasn’t just the independent stores; even big chains like Tower and Musicland were struggling.

Something had to be done to save the record store, a place where hard-core music fans worked, shopped and kibitzed — and, not incidentally, kept the music business’s engine chugging in good times and in lean. Who but these loyalists was going to buy the umpteenth Elton John hits compilation that the major labels were foisting upon them?

But instead, those labels delivered the death blow to the record store as we know it by getting in bed with soulless chain stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart. These “big boxes” were given exclusive tracks to put on new CDs and, to add insult to injury, they could sell them for less than our wholesale cost. They didn’t care if they didn’t make any money on CD sales. Because, ideally, the person who came in to get the new Eagles release with exclusive bonus material would also decide to pick up a high-speed blender that frappéed.

The jig was up. It didn’t matter that even a store as small as ours carried hundreds of titles you’d never see at Best Buy and was staffed by people who actually knew who Van Morrison was, or that Tower Records had the entire history of recorded music under one roof while Costco didn’t carry much more than the current hits. A year after our shop closed, Tower went out of business — something that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. The customers who had grudgingly come to trust our opinions made the move to online shopping or lost interest in buying music altogether. Some of the most loyal fans had been soured into denying themselves the music they loved.

Meanwhile, the recording industry association continues to give the impression that it’s doing something by occasionally threatening to sue college students who share their record collections online. But apart from scaring the dickens out of a few dozen kids, that’s just an amusing sideshow. They’re not fighting a war any more than the folks who put on Civil War regalia and re-enact the Battle of Gettysburg are.

The major labels wanted to kill the single. Instead they killed the album. The association wanted to kill Napster. Instead it killed the compact disc. And today it’s not just record stores that are in trouble, but the labels themselves, now belatedly embracing the Internet revolution without having quite figured out how to make it pay.

At this point, it may be too late to win back disgruntled music lovers no matter what they do. As one music industry lawyer, Ken Hertz, said recently, “The consumer’s conscience, which is all we had left, that’s gone, too.”

It’s tempting for us to gloat. By worrying more about quarterly profits than the bigger picture, by protecting their short-term interests without thinking about how to survive and prosper in the long run, record-industry bigwigs have got what was coming to them. It’s a disaster they brought upon themselves.

We would be gloating, but for the fact that the occupation we planned on spending our working lives at is rapidly becoming obsolete. And that loss hits us hard — not just as music retailers, but as music fans.

Tony Sachs and Sal Nunziato own an online music retail business.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bleecker Bob's was on MacDougal Street in the late '70s
-anonymous pedant