Sunday, December 09, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 3: Digital Daze

A CD collection. Everyone point and laugh at Evanescence.
November 30, 2007 marked 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

If Christmas 1987 felt like a trial by fire, the following year at the store felt a bit like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books come alive as I started to broaden my musical horizons and learn about what I'd missed in the years before my "musical awakening." The chief catalyst for this process was my dad going out one night in January and buying a spiffy, imposing-looking rack stereo system to replace the one he'd had since I was a kid. Best of all, this new setup included a spiffy, sleek compact disc player, which thankfully erased the need for me to 5o out and buy one of my own ... at least for the time being.

With the means of playing these shiny five-inch platters now easily available, and being that I worked in a place that sold them (and could thus buy as many as I liked at a sharply reduced rate), I felt no need to test the pool water with my toes: I just did a cannonball right into the deep end. The day after the new stereo came home, I had picked up the entire Pink Floyd catalog and a handful of other longtime favorites on CD. What eventually turned into an almost embarrassingly large music collection was now off and running.

While I had taken some of the most tentative steps into so-called "classic rock" during my senior year at high school, what comes mind when I think of my first year at the store was a complete immersion into the form. Part of this was a re-discovering of familiar touchstones from my childhood: listening with different ears to such evergreens as Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles and Steely Dan. From exposure at work, I started falling into the dense, winding catalogs of Led Zeppelin, Tangerine Dream, Jethro Tull, Todd Rundgren and Yes: bands I'd heard people going on about throughout high school, but never paid much attention to as I was too busy keeping up with the state of the art in contemporary rock and Euro synthwave pop.

Four TDK SA-90s from various eras of designLargely as a direct result of this sudden shift in my tastes and buying habits, my primary indicator of an artists' true worth finally shifted from individual songs to full albums. Until 1988, like nearly all teenagers, most of the bands I'd followed through high school had been on a song-by-song basis and only rarely did I ever obtain a full album by even my favorite artists of the time (I had maybe 50 full albums in my collection when I turned 18, and maybe two-thirds of that total were dubbed onto TDK SA-90s from high school acquaintances or the vinyl collection of the Mentor Public Library). In effect, this shift in my listening and buying habits was exactly the way the whole music industry used to work back in the days when it was being run by maverick record men and not Ivy League-bred accountants.

For all you whippersnappers who came of age after the mid-1990s, this is the way it was: waaaaay back before there were mp3s, streaming audio and P2P networks, perpetually broke young teenagers such as myself would have to listen to the radio most of time to hear the music they loved. Occasionally, some kids would spend some of their allowance money on the songs they really liked in 45 RPM vinyl form (or, after 1987, cassette and CD singles). This early buying of singles was a crucial step for the industry in developing a viable customer base, especially on the occasions when a customer wound up picking up 2 or 3 singles from the same album. Perhaps emboldened by hearing 2 or 3 songs they liked, our young budding music fan might splurge one day and purchase the whole record (or ask for it as a Christmas present). If that whole record turned out to be good, the seed was then planted for the fan to start buying more full-length albums, especially once he or she started working and accruing discretionary income.

Ideally, a typical music fan's "graduation" into album buying would keep them in the habit for 7-10 years (typically throughout college and into bachelorhood). After the age of 25, though, the herd starts to thin considerably as customers begin to grapple with reduced leisure time and the intrusive, expensive realities of adult life: marriage, children, mortgages, and individual tastes or lifestyles greatly dictate how long a person will remain a regular music buyer. Not everyone gives up: some adults keep on buying music past the age of 30, and even fewer still past the age of 40. It's mostly the people at these latter points that become our most valued regulars at the store: these are the junkies, the lifers, the hardcore. What has changed the most since 1987 is the importance of these dedicated followers of the groove: without these people, Record Den in its current form would almost certainly not exist since the youngest sect of the old music buyers market has all but disappeared over the last eight years.

(OK ... getting ahead of myself here. We'll come back tackle this again later: for right now, let's stick with back then ... )

The horizon, circa 1988.If there is one feeling that was prevalent in the music industry in 1988 from the top echelons of power all the way down to a lowly retail clerk like me, it was of facing endless flat horizons in all directions, with no end or obstruction in sight. Following a period of sharp contraction from 1979-1983, this new era of booming sales and across-the-board upward momentum felt like music had been given a second chance and we were soon going to pick up right where we had left off in those heady, disco-fueled boom years of the mid-to-late 1970s. I can't stress enough how profoundly different this feeling was from the way things have felt since sometime around early 1997, (by which time the business was tangibly and unpleasantly different in character than the one I'd joined a decade prior). Sure, I might have missed the true "golden years" of the record biz by dint of being born too late, but I did manage to catch the "second wave" as it was building to a peak, and it was a helluva ride while it lasted.

Of all the sales rung up at the Den during my first year on the payroll, most were dominated by cassette tape (which at the time had been the biggest selling audio format nationwide for about 5 years), with a healthy dose of good ol' vinyl albums and a rapidly-growing share of compact discs in the mix as well. While tapes and vinyl were seen as "mature" formats, the market for CDs was still in its infancy, with many people only just then starting to come aboard as selection began to improve by leaps and bounds (spearheaded by the release of the Beatles' catalog throughout 1986 and 1987) and the prices of CD players (and even some of the discs themselves) drifted steadily downward.

Only a year before had CDs regularly started hitting the shelves day-and-date with their vinyl and tape counterparts: until then, most CDs were issued up to six months after their initial LP/Tape release since most of the production facilities were still overseas and only audiophiles were buying them in any kind of volume anyway. By the middle of 1988, CDs of older titles were finally starting to appear at "mid line" pricing ($11.99 MSRP instead of the standard $16.99), as the labels began digging into the vaults at last after years of having their hands full simply meeting demand on current hot product (never mind worrying about what Blue Oyster Cult and Beach Boys records were available). Perhaps most amusing to reflect upon now, used CDs were rare and valuable enough to us that we offered a flat-rate of 2-used-for-1-new title for any trade we were offered (a deal that was absolutely unthinkable only a few years later).

A record store full of CDs. Punk ones, too.With so many factors working in their favor, compact discs began to overrun the business. Over the next year and a half, in what was kind of like watching a month-by-month time lapse process, CDs gradually ate up more and more floor space at Record Den, encroaching upon the domain of vinyl albums and forcing them from three aisles of display space down to two, then to one, and finally to a specialty/cut-out section off to the side. For many businesses, it was an easy transition to make, really: CDs were still being sold in cardboard "long boxes" that stood neatly side by side in the old album bins, so no expensive refitting was necessary (and albums themselves were vanishing so quickly that they didn't need the space anyway).

Yes, album sales were dropping as people stampeded for the clarity and durability of the compact disc, but the near-total extinction of vinyl in the first half of the 1990s from nearly all chain stores was also a case of self-fulfilling prophecy: vinyl albums didn't "die" so much as they were pushed off a cliff by an industry completely dazzled by mushrooming CD profits. One of the great dirty secrets about the CD boom is that nearly all artist contracts signed in the years before CDs became available in mid-1983 contained a "new technology" clause which basically said "you the artist/band are being paid royalties on sales of albums and cassette tapes that typically sell at 8-9 dollars a pop ... but if we, your record company, should happen to find a new way to sell your music that costs, say, twice as much at retail, you will still be paid as if they were being sold at the same prices as albums and tapes until it comes time to draw you up a new contract or until you get enough clout to negotiate a better deal. So there. Ha ha."

With profits soaring to the moon and beyond and sales of LPs slumping as chain stores devoted more and more space to CD, record companies quietly started to cease production on record albums, which didn't exactly slow their decline. At the end of each fiscal year, the labels would then point at the resulting decreasing amount of vinyl sales and say "hey look, LPs are dying even faster than we thought! Let's get out of this and move on!" And move on, they did: by the end of 1991, I don't think there were any record albums being sold at the Den or anywhere else in the area, for that matter. Even 45 RPM records and 12" singles had by then been largely supplanted by cassette and CD singles and were mostly being sold to DJs and hardcore collectors only.

Cassettes were very stackable, weren't they?Cassette tapes, on the other hand, persisted for another decade. The biggest ace in the hole that format boasted was portability, and with portable CD players still on the expensive side (not to mention very prone to skipping) and car CD players still a luxury option, cassette tape had a captive audience all its own for most of the 1990s, though sales steadily decreased as the years passed. At the Den, tapes had moved from behind the counter to a series of towering display cases arranged down the Newberry's wall in the middle of 1989, all of them housed in clear plastic cases to dissuade folks from trying to load their coat pockets with them.

The cassette format survived to the very end of the 20th century before we quietly made the decision to simply stop buying them, as sales and availability were finally reaching a point where it was becoming impractical to set aside the funds for them. With nary a whimper of protest from customers, we abandoned ship and opted to sell used cassettes only. Funnily enough, there will at some point come a time when we start to shrink down the huge selection of used cassette tapes we sporadically sell and use that space for a resurgent format with a far more important role in Record Den's future: vinyl albums.

Funny how the worm turns.

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