CD Death Watch: Record Store Edition

I’ve made a few posts in the past about the ongoing death of CDs, and, after some haphazard Googling following a bout of watching ‘90s music videos, dug up some news that hits close to home. A music store where I spent a lot of time in college, CD World, recently closed both of its locations. The owner of CD World, which had been in business for 16 years, related the situation in an interesting fashion: “The stores had become like a lovable, old three-legged dog — it was still lovable, but old.”

It’s hard to underestimate the impact that stores like CD World had on my music tastes. For someone who wasn’t rich, but had a decent chunk of disposable income (thanks to the various jobs I worked) and free time on his hands, these stores were a great way to explore new music cheaply. The fact that they had listening stations meant that you didn’t have to buy albums blind – the healthy supply of used CDs and cutouts likewise encouraged musical experimentation. They also stocked tons of imports in an era before it was easy to buy them online, which, given my musical tastes, was fantastic. “Going CD shopping” was a legitimate way to spend an afternoon, because you could really spend time listening to the music and debating its merits with your fellow audiophiles. The music-buying experience at your average big-box retailer is geared towards letting you find exactly what you were looking for, and then getting you to buy other stuff at the store too, to justify the loss-leader CD that you bought. Music is grudgingly accepted as part of their business model – a necessary evil, unlike the record store where music is it’s raison d’être.

The experience was friendlier and more “social,” in a way, than even my later experiences in other music stores, ones with much bigger street cred and stock like Amoeba. Amoeba’s problem is that their stores are perfect for the übernerd who knows exactly what they want – Amoeba’s selection is legendary, and it is generally well-organized and well-maintained – but terrible for someone who’s just looking to explore on their own. The lack of listening stations really dampens my interest in just “going to Amoeba” for the heck of it – I can wander around and flip through the racks for hours, but I’m much less likely to actually buy new stuff (that is, from bands that I am unfamiliar with) unless I can listen to it, or it’s in the bargain bin.

Strangely, for a time even one of the bigger players in the music market understood my concerns. I remember the old Blockbuster Music that I used to go to (formerly Sound Warehouse) had a rather impressive rack of listening stations, manned by a store employee. (One nice thing about Blockbuster in this regard was that their listening stations were well-kept, the headphones were in good condition, and the headphone jacks weren’t always busted, in stark contrast to many of the indie stores. There was also never a wait to use the listening stations, because they had way more CD players than I ever saw customers in the store.) The prices there fell into the “fairly-to-ridiculously high” category (which would eventually doom music retailers like Blockbuster, Sam Goody and Tower Records), but at the very least they understood that providing this atmosphere could encourage people to spend more time in their store, and, sooner or later, buy more stuff.

It’s hard to imagine these kinds of stores ever making a comeback. “Going music shopping” sounds like an anachronism now – with portable digital music players becoming ubiquitous, it’s actually more work for someone to buy a CD and then listen to it on their MP3 player. The artistic significance of albums is gone – consumers frame the music buying discussion in terms of “why should I pay money for the songs I don’t like?”, as if it would make sense to just buy and watch movie trailers since “they contain all the best parts anyway.” It seems that most non-dying CD stores are either downsizing (and trying to subsist on true specialty items alone), or becoming one of a thousand flea market merchants on eBay. Even the infamous Bill’s in Dallas (home of the “no price tags” haggle system/tax dodge) relocated to smaller digs and Internet sales. It’s sort of strange that, on the one hand, the Internet (or digital distribution) has really crushed the traditional CD store model, but on the other hand, it is providing a way for them to survive (and a more “efficient” market for consumers). When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Change is the only constant.

In the meantime, I’ll shed a tear in remembrance of a lot of “wasted” afternoons browsing the racks at CD World.

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