I’ve often said around these parts that collecting music also incorporates something of a haptic experience. Collectors that I know don’t only go for the music, although it is certainly the central aspect of their endeavors. Some collectors get off on special packaging and exclusive collectors boxes, others are wild about cover design, label discographies and liner notes. No matter what, there’s more to it than the music itself.
Because, in retrospect, I have really been collecting music more or less from the time I first came into contact with it, I also know that actually touching the object of desire, turning it around in your hands and analyzing its various parts used to be an important part of the purchasing process. Many of the LPs and CDs I have were also not planned purchases, but spontaneous purchase decisions that were influenced by the object itself rather than a mere description of it.
All of that has changed.
The advent of the Internet and the global access to information in form of reviews, forums discussions and written opinion of basically any type or form has certainly reduced my own forays into ye old(-fashioned) brick-and-mortar media emporium that I used to haunt, err frequent.
Yes, I’m guilty myself: The past decade or so I’ve increasingly caught myself purchasing CDs online after having checked them out in said stores, simply because online they were cheaper. In short, I spent hours in the stores checking out new releases or reissues in detail, trying to determine if they were really worth my time and money, only to run home to start searching for the cheapest offer online.
In the long run it became clear that just about everyone I knew was doing it that way and that the stores were beginning to cut back on their stock. Many of the items weren’t available anymore to check out and after some time, I found myself frequenting stores less and less, simply because they usually didn’t have what I wanted to look at. As more and more customers were turning to the cheapest online offer, the local stores were taking substantial hits … so much so, that today hardly anything that is older than a few days is still available locally.
On July 16th, the New York Times ran an article by Alex Williams, entitled “The Graying of the Record Store“, which was then discussed in the various music forums around the Net. This somewhat nostalgia-tinted piece is filled to the brim with alarming quotes – alarming, if you used to be a frequent customer at such shops. It tells of an owner facing massive financial losses and a totally bleak outlook into the future. As basically a whole generation of potential customers has disappeared, the 12-to-15-year-old market (that’s the one cited, although I suspect the problem is much more far-reaching than that), the future of just about any local record shop has become about as bleak as it can get. In this example, the owner had turned down the chance for another 10-year lease and opted to pull out of the business four years down the road. He’s giving up.
Yes, there are still plenty of older folks seeking out advice in local stores, but as is evident in my area, even that is decreasing because any sort of useful advice is usually not to be found anymore. The knowledgeable sales person has been replaced by your average student trying to make some extra cash, and if you try to ask those for the sonic qualities of this or that reissue, you usually draw a blank. They know neither the artist, nor the label, nor have a clue about production values. They’re there to make a fast sale, not to actually know anything about the product. My experience is that most of today’s sales people are lost without their computer and just trying to figure out if this or that release is actually stocked by the shop has become a major problem. Again, it’s not a surprise, because expertise costs money, and money is not what today’s average customer leaves at the shop of his choice.
Most of you have probably experienced what I have just described, and you’ve probably also been faced with the consequences that I can see all over the place here: Besides the aforementioned lack of current releases on display, competition for those few customers still willing to buy their music at a store has led to the disappearance of most smaller stores and some of the bigger ones. Left are those that are still wagering their money on the business, meaning those that have other fields of expertise to allow them to lose money on the CD retail business. The shops still available in my area are multimedia stores, selling mostly electronics (=income) with music on the side (=loss). Funnily enough, the music section in all three of the major shops has been forced to either the back of the store or the furthest recess of the uppermost floor, and from there it isn’t far to complete removal.
In 1994 I moved to this area and, at the time, there were 6 major stores in the next big town, interspersed with a few smaller shops catering to special tastes. Today there are three big ones left, all of which are either electronic mega stores or your regular shopping mall with a smaller music section. One second-hand shop has survived and all the other smaller shops are gone.
One guy I know well, who first worked at a smaller store, then at one of the major ones with a huge music section and, last and least, in one of those faceless mega stores, put it like this the other day: “If you are looking for the Boston reissues (which I was), look online. We had two, and they’re gone.” He himself is probably the last expert working in any of the stores left, a man (American, by the way) with an incredibly broad knowledge of music and music history, and he told me that his expertise is basically wasted on trying to help the by now dismally few customers find the latest plastic release on the shelves. As I stated above, hardly anyone comes in anymore to actually ask anything worthwhile and he told me that he had asked for a transfer to another section, then being in charge of advising people on portable media players. In short: One of the last dinosaurs gone (to waste).
Does this development sadden me? I’m not sure, really. Of course I miss hanging around talking to people with similar interests, experiencing the passion oozing from someone trying to pimp the latest release unknown to me, discovering that elusive limited issue I simply hadn’t heard of until told by someone in some record store, but the times have changed and record stores seem to be an anachronism about to be wiped off the face of the earth.
The one thing that’s missing today though is being able to check things before you buy them because, and I’m speaking from experience here, finding reliable online sources that cater to one’s taste at least informationally are really hard to find. It has happened many times that the members of some site or forum hyped a certain release endlessly and when I finally received it, I was disappointed. I could see why others liked it, but it didn’t do anything for me. Today, of course, one takes that purchase and throws it up on eBay or any other such site.
Yep, times have certainly changed.
And the world keeps turning.