Indies on the Edge: What's a record store to do?
By Jeff Miers NEWS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Updated: 10/28/07 9:55 AM
It is in many ways the perfect storm. Recent events locally show how it’s playing out. Home of the Hits, a longtime favorite, closed its doors for good last year. New World Record, a fixture on Elmwood Avenue for 17 years, opted for a larger, lower-rent store at the edge of the city in a strip mall at Delaware and Hertel.
A top-heavy industry edifice is wobbling in the wind, and clearly headed toward the unforgiving pavement 100 stories below.
Consumers grown weary from years of exploitation at the hands of the music industry are finding a crack in the foundation and beginning to take advantage of it, quite successfully. Artisans responsible for creating and providing the goods that industry has always depended on begin to explore avenues that no longer include that industry.
These elements have combined to create a maelstrom. The record business is going under. What does the dissolution of the industry mean for the long-suffering bastion of popular-music integrity, the independent record store?
“It feels like we’re the last men standing,” says Scott Rankie, assistant manager at Record Theatre’s University Plaza location. “By now, we can see the tangible effects of the whole filesharing thing, and obviously, business has suffered as a result. I still believe that there are people who want to use the whole ‘free music on the Internet’ thing as a research tool, and that people still want the whole album experience, with packaging, and liner notes and the whole deal.
“But it’s probably a minority that is really still interested.”
New World Record owner Govindan Kartha is much more blunt regarding the shape of independent record stores.
“Indie stores have become the middle man to push out of the equation,” he says. “The record industry is dying, it can’t be denied, and is now casting about desperately for new ways to stay alive. Meanwhile, musicians are looking for new ways to reach listeners as well, and those listeners are tired of paying what they believe is too much for a disc, when they can go to a big-box store and pay less than cost for that disc, or go online and grab it for free.
“The truth is, the record industry is now interested in marketing directly to listeners. There is not much interest in the retail level. That puts us in a pretty tough spot.”
So what? Why should we care? Isn’t this just the natural flow of business, the way the market reacts to new technologies? And really, how can anyone honestly believe that free music is a bad thing? Reasonable questions.
But there are very real consequences to the whole notion of “free” music. Some say what has been lost in the “Wal-Martization” of music purchasing is the very soul of the whole exchange. “It’s like in the movie ‘High Fidelity,’ “ says Rankie, referring to the John Cusack adaptation of the novel centered around a group of indie record store employees. “The staff is knowledgeable, because they’ve centered their lives around music, and they know what they’re talking about. So the stores are stocked well. Then there’s the social aspect – regulars come in, hang out, talk about music, share enthusiasm, buy something. You just don’t get any of that sitting home alone on your computer.”
Record stores were once a major core of the music-loving community in many cities. Home of the Hits was a gathering place for folks who comprised the independent music scene in town. When the Ramones and Patti Smith played at UB decades back, they hung out at the store. Relationships that would develop into enduring marriages were formed at Home of the Hits. Musicians met there and formed bands. Kids purchased their first records there, and many of them went on to maintain music-rich lives.
Suggesting that where one gets one’s music actually matters, in an era when pretty much anything you desire is a mere mouse-click away, is a tough sell. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Let’s make a deal
For several years, as traditional, legitimate record sales have declined with dramatic consistency, it has seemed that, for the indie record store, things couldn’t get much worse. In the last few weeks, however, they did.
In a combined effect akin to a steel-toed jackboot in the ribs, a host of major artists brought their business elsewhere.
First, British art-rock collective Radiohead offered its new album to listeners on a pay-what-you-please basis via its own Web site. The album, “In Rainbows,” has moved more than a million copies, and many fans chose to pay between $5 and $15 for the download. All of that money goes to Radiohead, none to a record label, and none to a retailer.
Madonna cut her ties with Warner Bros. Music and signed a deal with concert promoter Live Nation, which will market her music via the Internet. That’s a few million record sales no label or retailer will get a piece of.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are releasing a much talked-about box set of DVDs and a CD, centered around a brand new Peter Bogdanovich- directed film on the band. That set will be available exclusively through Best Buy.
The Eagles, one of the most successful groups in rock history, haven’t released a full album of new material in more than 25 years. When the band’s new double-album “Long Road Out of Eden” hits the streets Tuesday, it does so solely via Wal- Mart’s shelves.
Both Best Buy and Wal-Mart sell CDs as a loss-leader, meaning they plan to lose money on discs, but more than make up for that loss by pulling people into their stores.
“Those stores sell those CDs under cost, because they don’t make their money on music, they make it off electronics and appliances and so on,” says New World Record’s Kartha. “An indie store can’t do that. We can’t sell CDs under cost, or we’ll go immediately out of business.
“In my opinion, this sort of thing has been a far bigger threat to the indie record store than downloading and file-sharing. By a mile.”
Quantity vs. quality
“It all happens so fast, and it’s all so easy to get, that it’s forgotten about almost as soon as you get it.”
Record Theatre manager Steve Galbraith is talking about the preponderance of musical information floating around the Internet at any given moment. The whole experience seems to have left Galbraith, an admitted “music head” who has no problem surfing for tunes on a regular basis, feeling a bit wistful, a victim of a sort of existential overload.
“It’s sad, kinda, because there is this instant gratification, but then you’re left feeling a bit cold and alienated in the end. There’s so much, and it’s so readily available, that it has been devalued.”
Ah. There’s the crux of the biscuit, as Frank Zappa would say. If we follow Galbraith’s lead here, then by extension, it’s reasonable to suggest that there is a law of diminishing marginal utility in effect – the more you get, and the easier it is to get, the less it is actually worth. This theory applies particularly well to popular music, where quantity has replaced quality with a startling authority. If music is only worth a quick bit of entertainment, then why should anyone want to pay for it?
“There certainly is a surfeit of information, musically speaking, out there right now,” concurs Kartha. “That can be daunting. But in a way, it has pointed out a strength of the indie stores: We can help you whittle that information down, because we have expertise in the field.”
Kartha has a vested interest in this argument, of course. But his convictions are evident as he ponders the consumer mind-set that has at least partially contributed to the critical state of the industry today.
“It has always amazed me, the fact that it’s become so easy to spend $5 on a latte that will be gone in a few minutes, but the idea of spending $15 on a piece of art that very well could stay with you – and could even mean something to you – for the rest of your life is seen as ridiculous. I just don’t understand that.
“Look at it this way. You buy a pair of sneakers made for $2 in a sweatshop in China, for $100. That’s a serious markup. A CD has a cost bottom-line of $13, and I sell it for $15 or $16. That’s far less of a markup. But for some reason, that is no longer cool with consumers, or at least, with some consumers.”
Record Theatre’s Rankie whittles this idea down to the quick: “We’re kinda screwed. But we’re working on ways to turn it around.”
Countering the digital and lossleader insurgency is the business of the indie record store today, and it’s a situation that requires a creative ability to think outside of the “big box.”
One facet of the new indie thought process involves the embracing of new and different products – T-shirts, posters, rock-based lunch boxes, action figures. New World Record is a member of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, an Alabama-based group that works with its clients to use forward-looking product tie-ins – ideas like bonus products with purchases, etc., and has been doing this for years. Record Theatre recently began stocking hipster T-shirts.
In-store listening stations, digital downloading areas that allow custom- burned discs to be created by customers on-site, the stocking of used discs and vinyl record albums, a deep line of catalog items, the ability to special order any product in print – all of these are avenues the indie record stores in our area have been exploring in an effort to prove their necessity to the community. Some of the signs are encouraging.
“The catalog stuff continues to sell well, maybe even more so than prior to the whole downloading explosion,” says Record Theatre’s Galbraith. “We’re seeing a lot of college kids coming in and buying vinyl, both old and new, and a lot of it is classic stuff. Read that to mean whatever you want it to mean – maybe that kids are starved for something that has some sort of lasting quality.”
There’s a suggestion of some hope in this development. Still, it’s likely to take more than the niche market interested in vinyl and cool rock Tshirts to plug the hole in the indie store ship. The very thing that helped create this mess may be what solves the problem in the end: Internet downloading.
“I’ve always seen the Internet as an amazing research tool for music lovers,” says Kartha. “It’s a great way to find out what’s going on, what’s bubbling under. It also encourages involvement with music on a deeper level. And an involved, motivated, enthusiastic customership is the only thing that can change this situation.”