Greatest Hits: Life, death and your local record store

Before my blogging days here and for CareerBuilder.com, I was a blogger for Madison.com, a news Web page that was for the Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.

I’ll be featuring some of my “greatest hits” from that blog over the next few days. This post from fall 2007, about music retailing, may be slightly out of date – purchasing music digitally continues to experience amazing growth – but some of the same issues and concepts remain. The editors of Post, a printed summary of some of the more dynamic posts from the site, chose to include this post in one of its issues.

The recent fine exchange of ideas and thoughts regarding the fate and future of bookstores in Madison got me thinking about a similar topic – the local record store.

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, my dream was to own my own record store. Well, it fluctuated between that and being an on-air DJ. I ended up going to college to be in radio – a goal I didn’t reach, although I’m not sure I regret that, since all but a few DJ’s make about as much now as a head cashier at Target.

I digress.

In any case, I was a mix-tape makin’, record-store-stalkin’ fool. “High Fidelity” was my life story. (Except for the part where he dates women, of course. I was nurturing my crushes on Michael Stipe and Henry Rollins.) I figured that having my own store would be a cash windfall and make me set for life. What a difference a decade or two makes, right?

The music business HAS changed a lot, and not to the benefit of the music retailer, be they small or large. Digital access to music has been blamed for a lot of this, and certainly, online access to music (and free or stolen music) has contributed. But I don’t think it’s the sole evil, or even the biggest.

Here’s some musings as to the reasons I think the music industry has changed so much:

One big factor?  RADIO. Radio was, for many years, the initial point of contact for many folks in terms of how they heard new music. Hearing a great new single sent people scurrying to the record store to buy that song, or the whole album. For many of my music-buying years, radio was a diverse place where you could hear a wide range of styles and genres. The 80s may be a bad flashback for some, but I can remember hearing music ranging from Dire Straits to Depeche Mode, often one right after the other. Pop, rock, alternative (or what alternative used to be), classic rock, R&B, and even some early hip-hop could be found on the same station in a given hour. Artists would have two or three songs become singles from an album in a year or so, and interest in that album would be really keen.

Two things happened in the 1990s to change this. The first is what I call “Clear Channel-itis”. Radio stations went through a round of consolidations and eventually, rather than a diverse set of program directors, you had Chuck at the Home Office programming the same sounds for 100 radio stations across the country. This tightened up the playlists a LOT.

The second thing that happened was around the time that the Soundscan system was implemented. That system captured a truer measurement of actual SALES of albums, but the weight that it was given on Billboard’s charts changed how songs were ranked, and it had the effect of slowing a song’s trajectory through the charts down considerably. Where an artist may have had three singles in a year, they were now lucky to have one song that would go through the whole cycle. (If you’ve been feeling that more recent-era songs are played to death, or don’t go away, this is probably why. How long now have we been hearing KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See”?)

Commerical radio also changed significantly – it’s more a mixture of personalities and comedy with a little music shoehorned in. What music is played is part of an incredibly tight, monitored playlist that isn’t aiming for the widest demographic, but instead is aimed solely at 12-18 year olds. Many of those tweeners can’t differentiate between a song and a ringtone (and don’t care to).  That’s how we get crazy things like Sting and Moby licensing a bunch of songs to car commercials and television shows just to get on the airwaves.

As far as the record companies themselves, they got very lazy and very, very greedy. I am more than willing to pay a fair price for an album, but when new releases at the Sam Goody I used to shop at were over $20, it seemed ludicrous.  (Note: This has changed significantly, but about 8 to 10 years ago, price-gouging on CD’s had really reached its peak.)

It’s sad, because the small retailers have really been crunched, and a lot of really cool places have closed their doors. One of my favorite record stores of all time, Sam the Record Man in Toronto, is closing forever. Tower Records has gone under, as well. In Madison, we’ve lost a few stores in the last few years.

I think a small store can still make it. We have a few great places in Madison that carry great stuff at affordable prices, and are helpful and knowledgeable. Places like that can still make it happen if they have the right location and a friendly, inviting space for customers to ask questions and make discoveries. (Side note to the State Street shop I’ll never step foot in again, EVER: The day your sullen, rude clerk THREW my bag at me and didn’t say ‘thanks’….Sorry, but ordering from iTunes? Much more fun, AND I can do THAT in just my underwear.)

I hope that the small stores can stay afloat, because like fair trade coffee and organic produce, it’s great when people know what something is and where the hell it came from.

And as a side note, I think the implosion of the big record companies as a viable model is going to ultimately be a good thing for artists. People like Ani DiFranco have been both artist and distributor for years. Prince is about to release a new album, “Planet Earth”, and much has been made in the news that he’s GIVING copies of it away in the UK. But he’s been promoting and distributing his own music for YEARS now, and he can (a) make whatever music he wants without a label interfering, (b) not have to worry about whether it charts, makes it to #1, or sells over a few million copies. Then he can (c) play all the new material during his tour, which is where he makes his money, anyway. (From the recording artist’s point of view, they’ve just ABOUT been giving away copies of their albums, anyway, at least from how the old points system worked out.)

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One comment

  1. This is a great piece. I have posted it on madcityradio.com I hope you don’t mind – I included a link back to your original site.

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