Monday, January 19, 2009
The two Orange County Megastores are still in their "Everything Must Go" death throes as the first, widely expected major casualty of 2009 is named - the Times Square Virgin Megastore, the largest music store by volume in the US, will close in April, leaving just five Virgins left in the country (and none in the UK, with the ludicrously rebranded Zavvi now in administration and shops closing by the hour), with the Union Square location almost certain to go this year as well, a victim, as the Times Square shop, of a predatory landlord. This leaves the only dedicated music/media chain the US as FYE, which runs a fleet of shops so fucking worthless in terms of price and selection that it's probably done just as much to turn the public off buying music as BitTorrent and Bono combined.
The US Virgin closings are actually something of a loss - still true "Megastores" in terms of size in an era where most of the British originals were pale imitations of the original concept. Obviously not the place to go if you're looking for an autographed Crucifucks bootleg or original Krautrock import vinyl, they nonetheless had a reasonably deep catalog, (at least prior to the recent shift of floorspace to mp3 players and shitty clothing) and decent sale prices. After the passing of Tower (a superior chain in every way), and HMV's retreat from the US, the Union Square location in NYC became the city's de facto mass-market record store, at least for those unwilling to get within a hundred yards of Times Square. (The hipsters may turn their noses up at the very idea of shopping at a chain, but I picked up 24 Hours of Throbbing Gristle on CD at the Orlando Megastore just two years ago, which a) says something about the selection, and by the way b) there's not a lot more satisfying than walking out of a store smack in the middle of the Disney empire with one full day's worth of misanthropic, bleak '70s industrial music - surely the only object in the place more fetishistic and vaguely fascistic than the omnipresent Mouse itself).
What's left, and frequently ignored, is an unaffiliated network of world-class independents across the country, differing wildly in terms of size and appearance but following three common models. First, the gigantic, record nerd warehouse, where your Crucifucks bootleg is available with three different covers, and well-priced used music nestles next to new stuff, staffed by people who own even more music than you do. Amoeba in California is the obvious example here (I'm off to worship at the San Francisco shrine this week); other enterprising souls try to stuff the same concept into 500 square feet (New York's Other Music, Good Records in Dallas). The second model adds movies, toys, books, shirts and becomes essentially a pop-culture mecca (Twist & Shout in Denver, Newbury Comics in Boston). The third focuses on a specific genre or subculture (Seattle's Singles Going Steady). These shops are still stuffed with people every time I go in, and the simple trick here is they've given people a reason to come.
The decline of physical media has been well established; the total death of it has been greatly exaggerated. The fact that, in the face of the choice presented by Amazon, eBay, etc., people are less prepared to go into a useless fucking FYE and drop $19 on a new release isn't cause for alarm — it's consumer common sense in action. Going to a record shop used to be like freebasing pop culture — a concentrated, exhilarating rush to the brain. The great ones, the ones that reflect their community; the ones that work inside the local music scene; the ones who refuse to hire some stupid cunting slack-jawed twat who doesn't know who fucking Joy Division are when I go in asking for the vinyl reissues, these will continue to breed loyalty much like the indie label that cares about packaging and listens to its customers (and artists, for that matter). The big chains act like the big labels, and no-one really gives a fuck about either of them.
Mainstream music may well be too far down the road to commoditization to survive in the traditional formats (although plenty of you bought the new Coldplay album, apparently), but music is as diverse as the written word - the fact that entire genres of books are produced exclusively in shitty paperback doesn't mean people aren't still buying leather-tooled literary works, or Taschen's magnificent art and design books. If your idiot 14-year-old sister is fine buying/stealing her Hannah Montana on mp3 (and presumably her Chicken Soup For The Teenage Soul books on Kindle), then that's fine, she shouldn't have nice things anyway, and FYE'll go down the shitter without her business, but it won't affect me buying interesting music from interesting people in interesting shops.