Record Store: Minding the Store

Is There A Future For Music Retail?

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Record Store: Minding the Store

Anyone who’s lost countless Saturday afternoons flipping head-down through stinky vinyl or ?ngerprint-spotted jewel cases

in search of that rare promo or undetected diamond-in-the-rough understands the enormous divide between the nearby run-of-the-mill chain store and your local music temple. There’s the faceless, Allstate-of?ce-grey joint you might visit on your lunch break because it’s quick and convenient, and then there’s the Hall Of New And Used that’s worthy of your weekend.

As any music geek knows, there are stores where you can pick up the new Beyoncé album, and then there are stores that envelop your mind and soul and overload your senses. For more than two decades, Tower Records’ Sunset Boulevard store in Los Angeles was one such temple, a Hollywood landmark known for its near-riot-inducing in-stores, parking-lot concerts, mobbed midnight sales and trademark murals.

Opened in 1969, it was a place where you might catch Jimmy Page ?ipping through blues discs or Robert Plant thumbing through the 45s; where you could pass regulars like Elton John or celebrities diverse as Bette Davis and Chris Rock in the aisles; where Rivers Cuomo of Weezer (see sidebar) and the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli earned their rent; where Du? McKagan and Slash snuck into the mirror-windowed security booth the night Use Your Illusion I & II were released.

So, understandably, the scene was more than a little melancholy when Tower Sunset petered to an unglamorous end Dec. 21, just a few months after the beleaguered chain announced its impending demise. Like at all the doomed Towers nationwide, the pickings were slim: a crappy corporate-rock CD here, an even lamer R&B CD there. Though things had gotten ugly, longtime manager Todd Meehan couldn’t stay away. Now 40, Meehan began his Tower tenure at 15, and was let go in October, but he just had to be there for the end.

“My wife and I were actually moving to North Carolina that day when something just drew me in,” he says. “The movers were there and I looked at my wife and I said, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but I have to go in, I have to experience this.’ You have to understand, this is where I met my wife, where I met all my friends, where I got my music collection from. And I actually got the last sale of that store’s history … when you think about how many people went through that register, it was kind of cool for me to experience that. But it was real sad. They say nothing lasts forever but, man, I thought that Sunset was going to.”

While record merchants have been on a downward trajectory for several years now, the closure of Tower’s entire ?eet marked a new low. It wasn’t that long ago that stores like Tower Sunset seemed invincible, be they in Hollywood, Calif., or Hollywood, Fla. But, in recent years, the demise of such hipster halls has become an all-too-familiar occurrence. Smaller—but equally beloved—shops like Boogie Records in Toledo, Ohio; Manifest Records in Columbia, S.C.; and Aron’s Records in L.A. have all bitten the dust.

In the past six years, the U.S. record market has gone from bull to bear: In 2000, album sales climbed to a record 754 million. But with the proliferation of CD burning, ?le sharing and the ballooning presence of video games and DVDs, that ?gure fell to 588 million last year.

Evolve or Die

Struggling to contend with the meteoric rise of both Amazon.com and iTunes, an $18.99 list price for CDs, and the far-more-crippling low prices offered by big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy, favorite independent record-store owners face an ultimatum: Evolve or make way for a new Starbucks.

“We’re in the shakeout period,” says Don Van Cleave, president of the 70-shop Coalition of Independent Music Stores. “It’s starting to get tough for people who are weaker in business than they are in their knowledge of, say, who played drums on every John Coltrane record.”

If the closure of Tower’s 89 stores raised eyebrows, its case was unique: Originally revered as the chain that felt more like a collection of mom-and-pop stores on steroids, Tower began to lose its favor with record nerds years ago, upon centralizing its operations—the ?rst of a string of high-level missteps under which it would crumble. But, as with the smaller indies, it was dealt irreparable damage by the likes of Best Buy and Target, who take a loss on new releases priced between $7.99 and $9.99 in order to drive sales of non-music items like TVs and soap.

KNOW THY CUSTOMER

If your favorite local record store is going to survive, says Billboard magazine’s Ed Christman, it’s going to have to get to know its customers inside and out, something he says Massachusetts chain Newbury Comics has perfected: “You have to ?nd out who your audience is. If you’re somebody who’s selling to the masses, there’s no way you can compete with Circuit City and Best Buy, but if you have a niche store that specializes in whatever genre or whatever lifestyle, or in Tower’s case, the extensive collection, that’s the game you have to play.”

Despite the widespread belief that iTunes is taking over, digital sales have registered relatively little impact up to this point, Christman says. “The interesting thing is that, in the past, every time one format has gone away, and a new format has come in, it’s resulted in incremental sales, and this is the ?rst time that there hasn’t been an increase in sales.”

In an ever-shrinking industry where labels merge regularly, marketing, says Van Cleave, is essential to survival. “I still visit stores who haven’t collected the ?rst email address from a customer,” he says. “And it blows my mind, because that’s free advertising, A good record store, really strong ones like Twist & Shout [in Denver], they’re talking to 5,000-10,000 people every time they throw a blast out there.

“When you look at the thriving stores, they are very busy: They have tons of in-stores; they’re running a lot of communications to their customers with really fancy emails, a lot of niche marketing, and carrying exclusive stuff.” So what if these stores can’t keep up? What do we lose, besides a cool place to hang out? The discovery of music, says Meehan: “That’s what it’s all about—getting lost in a store, getting on a listening station for maybe 40 minutes and trying stuff out that wasn’t being shoved down your throat.”

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