Guilty, Your Honor

Ethelbert Nevin

[September 2006.]

Tower Records has filed for bankruptcy again. I feel responsible not just for the collapse of this chain, but for the severe downturn of all brick-and-mortar music sales. After all, it was my disposable income that helped fuel the cycle. I have the CDs to prove it, shelf upon shelf.

And I’m old enough to discuss the LP era wherein I made most of my purchases at several specialty stores in the quaint college town of Cambridge, MA. Back then, the clerks (never sales associates) could recommend a Klemperer over a Kleiber or passionately discuss the differences between American and European winds. The quarterly Schwann catalog was our bible. We browsers would queue up to consult the foxed tome.

At first the shopkeepers stocked CDs along the periphery. Browsing merely involved glancing at a wall. After modifying the playback rig to accommodate the new technology, the big philosophical debate centered on whether to duplicate existing LPs or to acquire only new releases. One could have worse problems to deal with.

I remember when the market’s direction finally defined itself. One revered shop dumped its LP inventory throughout summer-long weekend sidewalk sales. Budget pressings from Deutsche Grammophon, London and Nonesuch could be snapped up at five for a tenner. I remember collectors staggering away from the bins under armloads of vinyl. Were they filling gaps in their holdings, oblivious to the sea change?

In an otherwise attractive medium, CD longboxes provided something to gripe about. The stores liked them because there was no need to reconfigure LP displays and bins, with shoplifting concerns serving merely as a ruse. Consumer outcry (eradicating the need for CD-enclosing cardboard would save the planet), saw the shrink-wrapped jewel box emerge victorious. Retailers, who begrudgingly redesigned to accommodate the smaller, lighter package, soon saw green, having come to understand that compact packaging increased revenue-per-square-foot, with under-cabinet inventory storage further increasing sales areas. Smaller product also eased distribution, as exemplified by panel vans shuttling between chain stores equalizing inventories.

When mega-chain Tower Records first arrived at my outpost, we resented the encroachment on our little shops, threatening the livelihood of salespeople we knew by name. But the chains soon seduced us with free tee-shirts and deep inventory. Sales operated as a further enticement. On many occasions I lugged home filled-to-bursting orange-and-yellow bags. HMV opened an anchor store blocks away for a piece of the action.

The gigantic CD chains stocked everything — a browser’s dream. It became possible not just to acquire everything you wanted, but to rebuild an entire collection from scratch, with public libraries the beneficiaries of discarded LP collections. The giants’ volume sales permitted lower profit margins on imports and oddities, at the same time undercutting the independents. The niche stores had lost their edge.

The chain-stores’ employees were generally kids with excessive body piercings who endured their employment in the Classical section as a spell in jail. It never failed to amuse me that each store put Classical behind soundproof glass. If you wanted more information on a recording, you could come back later and hope for an untattooed grownup. But, ultimately, it didn’t matter. In that brief period when the Internet was mostly about information, we got our minutiae online and, as a bonus, connecting with like-minded souls. The clerk who had memorized each Bach cantata’s BWV number became a sideshow oddity.

Tower eventually grew careless about pricing. Rumor had it that multi-disc sets could be bought for the single-unit price because cashiers had no experience multiplying. Some advertised sales were suicidal, permitting customers to buy imports at less than their wholesale value. I know about this firsthand. Small wonder several distributors cried uncle. The big chains, having saturated the market and squashed the independents, suddenly retrenched.

To find CDs on my last visit, I had to navigate past disorganized racks heaped with birthday cards, magazines, “art photography,” condoms, gum, travel books, soap, incense, candles and batteries. Desperately hurting, the big stores will sell anything now. I only enter major chains to inspect the new releases, never to buy. Today I complete my purchasing online, directly with labels and the bigger distributors. I also patronize used-disc retailers. I feel that my money is going into hands doing the actual work rather than nameless shelf-stockers lorded over by some corporate lummox. Brick-and-mortar stores hold no bargains now. (With their different importers, it’s not quite the same in Canada and Europe.)

As local record stores convulsed, sheet-music retailers also vanished. Boston used to have its own Tin Pan Alley, a street of shops devoted to sheet music and pianos. Most are extinct. As a sad example of decline, one of the region’s oldest music-publishing houses decamped across town into a parking garage’s street-level retail space. Of course, astronomical real-estate prices were also contributing to these problems. I can name only two independent sheet-music stores in the greater Boston area. Otherwise they’re gone from malls and town centers. Presumably junior goes online for his beginning piano method.


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