Indie Record Stores - Is the End Near?

A couple of days ago, I received an email from a like-minded music friend in Minneapolis. At first, this email appeared to be one of those idiotic spam messages that are passed around to everybody…usually multiple times. You know the type – stupid penis or breast jokes, conspiracy theories regarding the far left or right, unsubstantiated urban legends regarding soda pop and fast food chains. In other words, pure junk.
Before I zapped this message, I took a quick look at the contents. This piece of email may have had the tell-tale look of forwarded spam, with its multiple right-arrows (or whatever they’re called) indenting each line by five or six spaces and a recipient list longer than my list of sexual conquests. Oh wait, that wouldn’t be a long list at all.
While the body of this message may have been a mess, the contents were not. The message originated from Ryan Cameron, the owner of Let It Be Records in downtown Minneapolis. Detailing his lifelong love of music, Cameron shockingly announced that his store will close “on or around” June 15.
Let It Be Records may not have been my favorite Minneapolis store (Treehouse, for their collector/indie mentality, and Cheapo’s, for their used selection, get those nods) but it was still one of my major stops during any trip to the big city. Their selection of local music, import singles, and catalog items were second to nobody. Their vinyl section was a haven for not only record collectors but for DJ’s looking for that obscure r&b or jazz album to sample. Reportedly, their basement archives even featured still-sealed 78’s.
What was refreshing about this message, however, was Cameron’s refusal to use the standard complaint that downloading is killing the industry. “Over the past 5 years”, he states, “the music industry has changed dramatically. What did not change was our desire to maintain a great store despite the changes. Music was always our concern. No bongs, incense, refrigerators, etc. Just music. Who knows how the music world will change in the future, but there will ALWAYS be great music. There will always be great record stores (virtual or brick and mortar). Independent record stores are the lifeblood of the industry. I encourage anyone reading this to support indie stores, as they are
ground zero for the music community.”
Almost every city has tales similar to Cameron’s. Record store after record store, from small indie dealers to some of the world’s largest chains, are either closing their doors or eliminating music space. Locally, Best Buy is slowly eliminating much of their inventory, and earlier this year their buyers were reportedly barred from bringing in any new releases that weren’t in their Sunday flier. They are months away from becoming nothing more than a Musicland-type store offering nothing but rows and rows of the Top 20.
But is Limewire, Soulseek, and other downloading sites really to blame? Certainly, it hasn’t helped…except in my case where the opportunity to discover new bands has actually increased my purchases. The real answer can be found in that same local store I mentioned earlier, and two currently cramped sections that will eventually move into the music aisles.
Of course, I’m talking about DVD’s and video games. Don’t believe me? Well, think back to late 2001, around the time the music business was first seeing a drop in sales. At the same time that Mariah and other so-called superstars were not appearing under Christmas trees, DVD’s of Shrek set a then-record with sales over 20 million in less than two months. Think about that – in just 60 days Shrek came close to equaling sales figures that took Pink Floyd and the Eagles over 25 years. And that was over three years ago.
Since then, Shrek’s record has been broken a hundred times, mainly by multiple-sequel titles such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. $15.5 billion in DVD’s were sold in 2004, with another $5.4 billion in rentals. Almost 400,000 titles are sold per day, and twenty million DVD players were sold last year. Video games have not quite matched those figures, but they’re not far behind. Ten billion dollars of video games were sold in both 2003 and 2004
Let’s be real. After paying for our cars, our homes, our food, our hookers, and our smack, there’s only so much money for other stuff. If DVD’s and video game sales are skyrocketing, then something has to suffer. Obviously, it’s music.
The labels have nothing to blame but themselves. They are the people who decided a few years ago that it was better to go after short-term dollars instead of career artists who would make money for them forever. They were the ones who created lip-synch divas who put their faces on album covers without any singing, performing, or writing experience. Promotional dollars used to be spread around an entire roster of artists; now most acts have to deal with no publicity while one or two select acts see millions of dollars spent to force radio, retail, and television spins.
The worst offender has to be MTV. In the past, the channel thrived by its diversity. There was something for everybody, and grass roots efforts had more to do with the success of the Cure, R.E.M., Green Day, and even Nirvana than any label hype. These days, MTV is a “lifestyle” channel, creating a fake world of hipness that is designed not to turn people on to music but to sell the cars, clothing, and makeup that make up the majority of their commercials.
Despite the glut of reality shows on the channel, there’s nothing real going on here. Battles between rappers have more than a bit of pro wrestling bravado seeping behind the scenes. So-called rockers appear to be cloned robots – they all look, act, and sound alike. And I refuse to go into the crimes against nature that we know as the Simpson family.
The fallout of this situation is that everyday more people turn away from music, or at least the search for new music. They can’t hear it, they can’t see it, and it’s become harder and harder to find in the stores. Therefore, it must not exist. That’s a shame, as every week there are new albums and bands that deserve a hearing – music for every age group and every nationality. Just yesterday, I spent $150 on new releases, and that’s not an unusual experience. In my case, however, discretionary spending on music probably costs me a social life. That’s fine, though, because my library of Westerberg, Costello, Wilco, the Boss, and my 4000 other friends will never let me down like certain portions of the rest of my life.


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