Music industry needs small-town stores, not chains

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    It is not uncommon for a movie to spark a need for civic involvement – this weekend it was the ’90s cult classic “Empire Records.”Nothing elicits a sense of urgency in the early hours of the morning like watching the struggle of the independent record store against a buyout attempt by an evil music chain.

    The Empire, of course, was saved from the greedy corporate demons at the end of the film. If a sequel were made to this 10-year-old film today, however, the independent store would drown in red ink and close, all thanks to the local Best Buy. Even the dreaded chain record stores that threatened to buy out every locally owned store would be crushed by the awesome power of the big yellow price tag logo.

    A decade ago, getting a new album meant walking into a record store, searching the racks, listening to new bands in a listening booth and discussing music with the knowledgeable cashier, whose album of choice played over the store sound system.

    Many times, the record you wanted would be out of stock or available only on CD when you wanted vinyl, so the clerk would special order the album. Sometimes it came in quickly. Sometimes you had to wait weeks for some obscure import. No one cared about this because the experience was the whole reason people went in the first place – at least that was what store owners thought.

    Over the past decade, a seemingly bottomless supply of albums by almost any mainstream artist, coupled with deep discounts, has lured the music consumer to the big box retailers. Those who rebel against the big box stores are left with an ever-changing lineup of smaller chain music stores in malls.

    The Internet has even driven some to order or download their music and never enter a store. Want an obscure import? Hit eBay or Amazon.

    It is hard to say, “Damn the Man” when “the Man” is all there is left.

    Around the same time consumers got tired of checking stock at stores for their next purchase, album sales began a steady decline.

    While costs for every industry have increased over the past decade, 2004 music shipments fell short of the $12.3 billion distributed in 1995, according to Recording Industry Association of America research. More money is going out, and less is coming in.

    Marketing music isn’t cheap.

    Erv Karwelis, president of Dallas-based music label Idol Records, said the $20,000 to $30,000 needed to simply get an album into a store makes publicizing new bands and maintaining old ones a difficult job.

    “Stores won’t stock on loyalty,” Karwelis said. “Even if a band’s last album went Gold, there is no guarantee the store will even put the album out on the floor.”

    The music industry has been quick to blame rampant piracy for the decline in albums sales. Since when, however, has the music industry actually known a thing about music?

    The industry has never been known for seeking unique bands.

    The Beatles were originally turned down by a label because guitar-driven rock had lost popularity.

    If a band builds a huge local following, the labels take notice, the band is successful on one label and everyone else in the industry finds a group with a similar sound to market.

    San Francisco gave us psychedelia; New York spit out Punk; Los Angeles spawned Hair Metal; Over-emotional Seattle metal and punk bands generated Grunge. Every rock music movement can be tied to a local music scene.

    Most of the bands signed to labels are just like someone else who is successful. We need a unique local movement if we want something new.

    Where did these bands promote themselves? In small record stores that carry local music and advertise local bands on their windows, while clerks push their favorite local music.

    Do you hear any local music on Best Buy’s in-store radio? Have Circuit City cashiers told you about news bands?

    With a legal download market that has tripled in size over the past year, however, the return of local music stores seems unlikely. We must find a new way to revitalize local music scenes in a digital age.

    The answer could be as simple as creating local music Web sites. Back in the good ol’ days of Napster, the built-in chat rooms were a quick way to find out about new bands and gave unsigned groups a new way to promote themselves.

    Chat rooms for local music surely still exist somewhere on the Web, but many more people must find them and join to make this method work in the same way.

    Another solution may lie in new venues for a wider age range that focus on live local bands and carry band merchandise and CDs.

    Ultimately, we can’t blame the music industry if we can’t find good music.

    Call it music’s “Circle of Life.” If we don’t take an interest and support local music, the music industry will decline even more, and we will have a smaller selection of lower quality music.

    Opinion Editor Brian Chatman is a senior news-editorial journalism major from Fort Worth.