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The harder I try ...

01:00 Mon 22nd Apr 2002 |

Q.� Where have all the independent record retailers gone < xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

A.� The way of corner shops�- they've been forced out of business by the supermarkets and record company-owned mega stores, the days of the one-man or small chain independent stores are probably numbered.

Q.� Is this story the same all over the world

A.� The major markets�- the USA and the UK were always at the forefront of the record sales boom, so logically the same follows for the decline, although American dealers are suffering far more.

Q.� Why is that

A.� Because of the college student system. As a far larger country, with a correspondingly larger student population, and a vast number of universities and colleges, America enjoys a significant sub-culture made up of a previously buoyant market of music buyers. Most university towns would support at least one, if not more, specialist music dealers, but the entire culture of music purchasing has altered significantly over the past few years, and the indie dealers are bearing the brunt of those changes.

Q.� What are the changes

A.� Well, say fifteen years ago, a student arriving at their new temporary hometown would seek out and probably befriend the local specialist shop staff. The dealer would be a like-minded music fanatic, who would ensure his regular customers' tastes were supplied. Regular customers would find their local music seller willing and able to assess their tastes, and introduce them to new albums by their favourite artists, as well as appropriate new material. The shop would be a casual meeting place for friends, and staff would be delighted to air new material, with no obligation to buy. A healthy number of serious music collectors would ensure that the then-reasonably priced albums and tapes would provide a steady income. It all seemed too good to be true. It was.

Q.� What happened

A.� A number of factors have combined to create a fundamental change in the way music is provided, and purchased. The gradual amalgamation of small and medium-sized record labels into corporate umbrellas of just a few major league players. The monopoly of these corporate monsters dictated the price of albums, and the advent of the compact disc revolution�- both of which combined to squeeze the profit margins of small businesses. When the Internet entered the fray, the writing was already on the wall,�with file-sharing technology from Napster ensuring that vital revenues from copyright royalties were potentially unavailable to finance the future musicians and producers, leaving only the guaranteed sellers to maintain the company balance sheets. Increasingly, indie retailers working on the fringes of the music industry were forced to the wall.�The next blow was the decision of major supermarket chains to start stocking chart CD's, instantly removing the bedrock of the indie shop profits which allowed them to cater for more individual and specialist tastes.

Q.� Has it been the same here

A.� More or less, although on a smaller scale. The UK is without the major student population infrastructure of the USA, but the advent of Napster and the supermarket chain stocking of chart albums has caused similar havoc among the individual retailers.�Most towns and cities�have a chain store, HMV or Virgin, and smaller stores were never going to be able to buy in sufficient quantity to secure the discounts that allowed the big stores to undercut their smaller competitors.

Q.� What happens now

A.� Well, as though things weren't bad enough for retailers, the spectre of CD 'burning' is set to cut a swathe through record company profits.

Q.� What's the deal there then

A.� The rapid expansion of computer technology has meant that reproduction equipment is within reach of a very large number of music lovers. A student customer, or indeed anyone else, can purchase a chart album, and within twenty-four hours, thirty-plus of their friends can enjoy a virtually indistinguishable copy using reproduction software that costs a fraction of the cost of the original album. Burning represents a serious threat to music business profits, and again the US with its network of student music lovers is set to lose heavily as copying spreads far and wide across the universities and colleges over the next few months and years.

Q.� Should we feel sorry for record companies

A.� That's a tough one. Music lovers have always gnashed their teeth at what is an open secret�- the cost of music in the shops compared with the fractional cost of its production at source, leading the a reputation for record companies that puts them only a notch or two below corporate criminal levels. Record companies refute these claims, confirming that the location, nurturing and development of new talent costs millions of pounds, with no guarantee of payback at the end of it, so you take your side, and defend it accordingly.

Q.� But what about the increasing development of squeaky-clean manufactured pop stars

A.� Well indeed�- and that is a direct result of the gradual shift of emphasis within record company thinking. Years ago, a record would climb to the top of the charts, based on sales. Now, they appear instantly at Number One and then they don't so much drop out of the chart, as plummet, never to be heard again as the next in line takes its place. The safe sanitised option encapsulated in the Pop Idol scenario is the final result of companies who are looking for a guaranteed return on their investment, which does tend to shoot holes in the 'nurturing' section of the corporate argument. It looks as though record company executives could as easily be dealing in stocks and shares, oil, cereal crops, or what ever yields a return. The notion of music and love of it for its own sake is becoming an increasingly distant memory.

Q.� So that's full circle for the small record shops

A.� It certainly is. There is little place for someone who wants to pay rent and rates on a high street shop to try and compete with a chain store major, or the local supermarket giant, which in most major towns are both conspiring to remove any chance he may have of making a living.

Q.� What about the music fan�-�shop owner who can get to know his customers and cater for them

A.� It's an increasingly risky business, again thanks in part to the Internet, where specialist dealers can lay out their wares to a world-wide customer base, and in some cases operate with even owning premises, saving on the considerable expense of staff, rent, heating, and so on.

As cultures adapt, it become apparent that the up-coming generation of music lovers really don't care where their music comes from�- even assuming�that music is their primary source of entertainment, which is increasingly uncertain given the huge competition of leisure revenue from computers, cinemas, sports, holidays, etc., all of which have grown in size and variety over the last few years.

Q.� So small music shops are doomed

A.� Sadly so.�Nostalgia and enthusiasm are no substitute for keen pricing and a moribund music scene. As we mourn the passing of a valuable facet of music culture both here and in the USA, it's time to ponder whether or not the homogenisation of music into another supermarket commodity, in hand with the similarly standardised output contained within the albums arrayed for our listening pleasure, is a symptom of a terminal malaise for rock and pop music as we know it.

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Andy Hughes

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