Virgin is closing its US megastores. It could be said the megastores and big boxes are riding down the mainstream record biz’s steep down slope. You know, the one the industry mistakenly helped fashion.

Joy Press, in Salon; Like a Virgin Megastore, shut for the very last time

The author remembering walking into the Oxford Street, UK, Virgin Megastore in the 80’s,

“I can still feel the special frisson of entering what appeared to be a music-lover’s paradise: an enormous space pulsating with music and light, packed with miles of aisles of cool vinyl.”

My memory is visiting the Tower Records Annex in NYC in the late 80s. At that time the gathering wave of CD sales made NY a vinyl shopper’s heaven. Likewise with the Central Square used record stores in Cambridge, Mass. Back at my desk in the rear of the record department, I’d pore over cut out catalogues from One Way and Scorpio.

Here in Cleveland, over the last few years, Borders Books and Music has degraded its music departments to the point where it is hardly worth a trip. The best local indy, My Generation closed 5 years ago. Record Revolution, an indy I first walked into in 1967, hollowed itself out over 15 years. Cleveland today is not in any way a record town. Once one of the great ones, today that reputation has perished.

But if I say to myself ‘good riddance’ to great music browsing, it’s partly informed by my spending 11 years on the front lines while managing an indy record store in Middlebury, Vermont. My tenure there ran from the dawn of the disco and punk era to the flowering of the compact disc era, 1976-1986.

Yet the writing was on the wall for the indy record shop by 1981. After several years of deep discounting of the top hits–starting in NYC and spreading from there–after the holiday season of 1979, the major labels turned the small store’s spigots off in the aftermath of the labels’s being buried in post-holiday returns. (Thank you, Rovert Stigwood!) Polygram led the way in imposing account minimums and this in turn forced indies into the arms of one stops and their 10% higher prices, if they wanted to stock the high turning hits and major label catalogue. Although my store was somewhat immune from competitive pressures, when another indy arrived a block down the street in 1984 and implemented pricing to undercut my own store, there was not much I could do except race with my competitor to the bottom.

Hundreds of indies and many regional chains went out of business in the first part of the 80’s as the majors doubled up on their bets on a big pipeline ending in the deeply discounted end caps of the big chains and new fangled big box general merchandisers and the cynical loss-leading big city shysters.

The way I look at it today, 8 years after I departed from a failing Cleveland area regional chain after a 5 year stint, this history is the proper context for how the major labels completely mishandled the rise of the web. Certainly as early as 1997, there was no substantial indy base for the majors to work with ever again. It’s nowadays maximally ironic that what the web realized was the world’s biggest free and compellingly diverse and sticky and deep record store. How righteous that the indy aesthetic thrives on the music forums and mp3 blogs.

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