For music lovers of a certain age, the infatuation goes well beyond the sounds themselves. Fans of all stripes have long fetishized the media by which tunes are transmitted, from old-time 45s to shiny compact discs. But with broadband downloads and portable MP3 players replacing the old means of distribution, the era of the collector may soon be over.
As a youth, I remember the thrill of buying a new cassette tape, and the peculiar yet pleasant smell of the packaging - an olfactory combo of molded plastic and grape bubble gum. As a teenager, I enjoyed perusing my parents' (and girlfriends' parents') vinyl LPs, marveling at the gatefold art. I particularly loved Roger Dean's fantasyscapes on Yes albums and Hipgnosis' unforgettable Pink Floyd designs. The music was pretty awesome, too.
When tapes died out, I eagerly embraced the compact disc. This new format promised not only more space for tunes, but also to be virtually indestructible. The former was definitely true, the latter not so much. Although CD packaging lacked the dynamism of vinyl (or that awesome cassette smell), I still made regular pilgrimages to my local record shop to confer with the hip and knowledgeable employees. For a young music obsessive, there was no better education.
But school, as Alice Cooper once declared, is out for summer. With the death of the CD seemingly on the horizon, retailers - from big-box chains to neighborhood shops - are struggling.
Almost everyone agrees that the CD is destined to become extinct. What's surprising is how quickly it's happening. Like glaciers and decency in politics, the compact disc will soon be a thing of the past. Some industry analysts are predicting the 2007 holiday season will be the format's last hurrah.
So what does this mean for Vermont's independent music retailers? Many of these stores, including Barre's Exile on Main Street, Montpelier's Buch Spieler Music and Burlington's Pure Pop Records, have been around for more than a quarter-century. Most are still hanging in there, but there have been casualties: Plattsburgh's 23-year-old Peacock Music closed its doors last December. The Flying Disc, a St. Albans-based shop, recently shuttered its Enosburg satellite store, and no longer sells new CDs. Instead, it offers used discs and, according to proprietor Ben Maddox, "coffee smoothies, musical-instrument accessories, video games, DVDs and wi-fi."
Despite the ubiquity of the iPod and the phenomenal popularity of "American Idol," the record industry is clearly ailing. Sales of all music products, from disc to download, declined a shocking 20 percent this year. Mega-chain retailers such as Tower Records have shut down operations completely. Can the independent stores be far behind? It seemed like a good time to get their read on the state of the industry.
It's no secret that CD burning and downloading has taken a huge toll on sales, but many owners and managers blame the major labels themselves for the slump. "They go for the easy buck," says Pure Pop manager Michael Crandall. "I've read that the majority of CDs sold in this country are from non-music stores, like Best Buy or Wal-Mart." Those big-box stores can easily undercut their indie competitors on price.
And there's more on that subject: When the industry wants to break a hot new act, they lower tags to as little as five to nine bucks. Once the artist hits it big, prices can rocket to $17 or $18. This tends to alienate customers, and even drive them to illegal downloading. "If the labels would lower the price of CDs, I think people would be more willing buy them," Crandall says. "Because a lot of them still want to own the physical product."
Pure Pop has taken pains to diversify, carrying such non-musical items as books, magazines, T-shirts and candy. The store is lucky to be a member of the Coalition of Independent Music Sellers, or CIMS - a national organization that provides its members with listening stations and exclusive CDs such as Pearl Jam's recent Live at Easy Street, which was recorded at a CIMS outlet in Seattle. Until recently, the coalition had been working to bridge the widening digital divide.
"We [CIMS] were in negotiations with a lot of the big labels to have stores be able to sell MP3s to their customers through their own websites," Crandall offers. "But that's kind of stalled right now. It wouldn't obviously be that big of a deal for us, but for some of the larger indie stores it seemed exciting."
One unexpected area of growth is a blast from the past. "We have younger customers that are really into vinyl," Crandall reports. "And a lot of the bigger indie labels are reissuing their back catalogue on LP. I know someone who is selling off all of his CDs because he can keep it all digitally in his computer or whatever. But when he wants something to collect, he buys the vinyl."
Kevin Brown, a manager at Buch Spieler, echoes many of Crandall's sentiments about the dire state of the biz. But he also sees an upside. "There's been so much news about CDs dying," he says. "Yet there seems to be something of an anti-anti-CD backlash. I don't know if it's enough to save a dying industry, but there are people who are waving the flag and saying, 'I still want to buy CDs.'" He's more circumspect about the long-term future of music retail, however. "I think we're inventing it every day," Brown says. "Whatever happens, it'll be a boutique thing."
Brown claims that Buch Spieler's roots in the Montpelier community and strong support of area artists helps the store's bottom line. "The whole local Vermont music thing has really been happening for us," he explains. "It's keeping us afloat, and it feels good. It's nice to help support something that really matters."
Brown also blames the major labels for the dwindling interest in commercial CDs. "It's deeper than downloading," he says. "It has to do with the record companies not having a clue as to what they're doing. The opportunity to create a value-added product was just not taken. When you think about all the great album covers, they were works of art. But when was the last time someone saw a CD cover and said, 'Wow, that's beautiful'?"
Exile on Main Street owner Sandy Thurston is likewise miffed at the industry suits. "My own opinion is that the music business did this to itself," she states. "They jack the prices up so high it's ridiculous. Somebody's making money off it, but it's not us. And they don't invest in their artists long-term. They see somebody they think is gonna be hot, but it's only for one song."
Like other retailers, Thurston sees an upswing in the old-fashioned LP. "I've got a lot of vinyl buyers," she says. "It's really interesting - they're ranging from high school age right up through [adults]. The most excitable vinyl buyer right now seems to be male and in his early twenties."
Thurston knows why her shop stays afloat in today's turbulent retail waters. "People talk here. It's a conversation. They browse, they visit, they compare the old records. It's very much a social atmosphere, so the customers are more loyal. They see the value of small, independent downtown stores."
Ben Maddox of Flying Disc believes customer relations are key. "I think we provide a valuable service to many who have no [access to technology] or prefer to listen to CDs," he says. "We happily special-order both rare and common discs. We also offer patient research and service to people whom Best Buy would simply hang up on, or a mall store wouldn't have time for."
All the local shops have seen a "graying" of their customer base. This is most likely due to the on-demand lifestyle of today's youth. Maddox still gets some kid customers, those "whose parents don't have computers, credit cards and broadband access." For the time being, anyway.
Gary Peacock, former owner of Peacock Music, gets philosophical when asked why CD sales are suffering. "One of the biggest problems is what I like to call the 'devaluation' of music," he relates. "People from my era remember things like their first kiss when they hear a certain song. I don't think that's the case with the digital generation. And then you have music being used in commercials, like The Beatles' "Revolution" in a Nike ad. It changes people's relationship to the song."
Peacock is not as comfortable speculating on where music retail is heading. "I'm so bad at predicting the future," he confesses. "Here's an example: When CDs first came out, the local press came to talk to me about it. I said something like, 'Vinyl is here to stay!' And, of course, in two years it was all gone."
Peacock sees the aging of CD buyers as a particularly bad sign. "No business can survive if it isn't attracting another generation of customers," he notes. "In our last few years, we weren't seeing younger kids anymore."
There were several reasons Peacock decided to quit the music-selling game. Personally, he wanted time to do some traveling with his wife. But, despite what he says about predicting the future, he could also read the writing on the wall. "I didn't want to get to the point where I couldn't pay my employees," he says. "We could've stayed around for a couple more years, but I didn't think we'd be in any better position. It's like being in a band and doing an encore. You don't want to kill it by staying on stage for too long. Always leave 'em wanting more."
Whether anyone will still want CDs remains to be seen.