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Goodnight, Rhino Westwood

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As George Harrison said, all things must pass. Particularly, record stores as we have known them are a dying business model. Exact facts and figures are tricky, but one outfit from LA called the Almighty Institute of Music Retail says that their database of “independent record stores” went from about 5000 in 1995 to around 2800 currently. Grim times to try to be anywhere near that business.

As a shopkeeper’s son, I admit to a bit of nostalgia for those little mom and pop stores. As a high school senior, I sold records out of Barger’s Lakeview Market, selling Kenny Rogers and Lynyrd Skynyrd discs to fund my interests in Captain Beefheart and the Residents, among others. Good times.

Now comes the news that even Rhino Westwood is closing. Richard Foos founded the store in 1973 in LA, and started the now almighty Rhino Records label in the back of the store in 1978. Thus, it may be the most famous independent record store ever.

From the LA Times:

Rhino Westwood, a Westside landmark for more than three decades, announced its closing on Thursday, news that follows the November shuttering of Aron’s Records, the storied shop that sold music for 40 years (and practically invented the used-LP sales practice), first on Melrose Avenue and then Highland Avenue.

Rhino founder Richard Foos, speaking in dejected tones, said Thursday that it “had become very apparent that it was too difficult to go on.” The store’s lease expired and Foos opted to lock the doors. The store plans a Jan. 21 parking-lot sale that will be part wake, part fire sale.

“But we are hoping now for a white knight to show up and buy the inventory and the name and hopefully carry on the tradition,” he said. “It was a very emotional decision but this is where it’s at. Now in Westwood you have no free-standing record stores. You have one of the largest colleges in the country and no inde-pendent record store. That says a lot.”

Folks, if Richard Foos can’t keep even this landmark store running, then take it as a hint that the whole business model is doomed. The writing is on the wall.

I blame myself. Depending on accounting, in life I’ve probably seriously spent a third or more of my disposable income on music. Yet, I’ve bought hardly anything from a record store in years, maybe a total of half a dozen used CDs in as many years. There’s no likely successful business model there.

Geez, I used to hang out in record stores, poring happily for hours through the new releases and crazy used bargains. But no more, though. I’m listening to more – and more different – music than ever before. I’m just not hanging around record stores.

What’s worse, I don’t much miss it. I might feel a slight passing twinge of nostalgia for Freddie’s or ol’ John Rans and his Repeat Performance used store in Muncie – but them days is gone. I didn’t have to quit them, nor did I particularly make any specific decision to give it up. It’s not a function of giving up the things of youth, or any of that. It’s just a different time, and I don’t need a record store to get ANY of the things I sought there.

So what’s different? In short, of course, it’s largely the internet – in at least several different ways.

It’s not downloading, specifically. The industry complains that we’re supposedly downloading everything for free and not paying, but sales figures don’t bear that out. CD sales generally are at least fairly steady, or off marginally. But the independent retailers are being smacked down particularly.

As I experience it, there seem to be at least four ways in which the internet has pulled the rug out from under independent record retailers. The first and most important one is selection. Growing up in rural Indiana in the 1970s, I was frustrated by the selection of maybe a couple dozen albums in the local Danner’s 3D department store. It was a big find that they actually conjured up an 8-Track copy of Sgt Pepper. A rare trip to a Karma store in Indianapolis was a big deal. Just look at those thousands of selections! Today, though, even the local Wal-Mart has ten times the selection the old Danners had.

But then there is, for starters, Amazon. They have nearly everything that’s in print and a lot of stuff that isn’t. If they don’t have it, it probably can’t be found. Being a national and even international seller, they can keep more stuff available than any brick and mortar store could possibly stock. They can certainly provide more selection than any store in rural Indiana. Plus, I can browse sitting in my comfy chair with my choice of music at any hour of the day.

Selection was always my main point in record stores. Even if they were a little more expensive, they had stuff that you just couldn’t get other places. Those days are gone though, and they’re not coming back.

Also, the internet has just as thoroughly supplanted record stores as a source of knowledge. Besides the selection, cool fan dudes like Richard Foos provided a valuable source of knowledge. Not only did they have more records, they could steer you towards the extra groovy stuff that you might not know you needed to hear. That’s the customer service edge K-Mart could never match.

Of course, the internet just blows that all away. There are thousands of experts and connoisseurs of music such as me all over the net any old time. It’s a thousand times more and better quality than a handful of magazines like Rolling Stone or Creem. You can research more cool stuff on the net in a few minutes than you’d find out in a year of reading Rolling Stone, or depending on the knowledge of the one guy who runs the record shop.

It’s not quite such a complete rout, but the net also largely supplants my use of record stores as a social point. You can hang out in a record store around other people with similar interests and shoot the breeze, trading obscure anecdotes and camaraderie amongst fellow music fans.

To that end, the internet can’t quite take the place of living bodies in a room for social contact, but it more than compensates with huge selection. My internet music buddies might not be in the flesh, but there are a lot more playmates to pick from than whatever couple of folks of whatever limited interest might happen to be hanging out at Freddie’s today.

Finally, the internet will just flat blow out a mom and pop store on price. There’s no way that the locals can keep the lights and heat on for clientele on the east side of Indianapolis like Amazon can servicing the whole country.

Besides the internet, of course, the price structure gets totally skewed even in local retail by the box stores and such who don’t even particularly intend to make money on selling CDs. Best Buy is always and rightly cited. Besides the volume they move which would undercut an independent, they basically regard their cheap CDs as loss leaders to get people in amongst the stereo systems, iPods, and such that they make their money on. I probably should be buying White Stripes albums at a local shop from the cool guy, but it was several dollars cheaper at Best Buy. Sorry.

Yup, loved them record stores, but those days are gone. Record stores are going the way of buggy whip manufacturers, or more recently, typewriter repair shops. They can’t ever compete with the internet for price or selection. Plus, there’s all kinds of sideways competition from Starbucks or Barnes and Noble and such.

Heck, record stores are such a dead item that you can’t find anything on them at Amazon. Looking for links for this story, I note that an Amazon search for “record stores” brings up digital storage, DVD-Rs and blanks- but jack squat about music retail.

Grandpa, what was a “record store”?

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  • http://perfidy.org Johno

    *cue stentorian voice*

    NOOOOOOOOOOOO!

    AAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

    Al, you’re right of course. Although I can cavil and quibble about the severity and timing of the coming of the Great Record Store Disappearance From Every Shore, I agree with you that people who want physical music media are going to become like model train collectors or home brewers, people with a quirky and obsessive habit that most people just don’t understand or care about.

    What this means, however, is that although there will be fewer and fewer record shops around, there will always be a FEW. Hell, there’s a Lionel shop down the street from my house, the only one for fitty miles around. (Then again, I’m also driving an hour north tomorrow, all the way into New Hampshire, to go to the only really good homebrewing shop I can get to, so maybe the record store situation might be as dire as that.)

    I did, however, think that Rhino was going to be one of the survivors.

    Goodbye, Rhino!
    Goodbye, Electric Fetus!
    Goodbye, Music Millennium!
    Goodbye, Newbury Comics!
    Goodbye, Hear Music!
    Goodbye, Bull Moose!
    Goodbye, Criminal Records!
    Goodbye, Wax Stax!
    Goodbye, Outside Music!

    See you all on the b-side.

  • SFC SKI

    All sad but too true, Al, especially this “Geez, I used to hang out in record stores, poring happily for hours through the new releases and crazy used bargains. But no more, though. I’m listening to more – and more different – music than ever before. I’m just not hanging around record stores.”

    I am always amazed and surprised to find music stores where the clerks actually know about good music, but I see them all slowly falling away, and it is sad, but it does not stop me from primarily downloading tunes , legally whenever possible. I can only hope that as CD’s become less used, music publishers large and small will offer up their entire back catalogs online, no more “Lost Bands” that live on only in my very old cassettes and mix tapes. I can only hope.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    homebrewing shop I can get to

    jasper’s in nashua?

  • Sister Ray

    Indy CD and Vinyl in the Broad Ripple section of Indianapolis has a good selection – I’ve bought several CDs there – but I could have found all my purchases on Amazon.com. I just happened to decide to stop at the CD store while I was out.

    You mentioned music magazines…Creem was holy writ for me in my late teens through college. Before that, it was Hit Parader, which is where I first heard of the Velvet Underground. Now you can find fan sites for everyone you’d ever heard of on the Internet.

  • http://perfidy.org Johno

    Mark – Stout Billy’s in Portsmouth. The owner advised or helped start Redhook, Smuttynose, Ipswich, and a slew of others, and Sam Adams is rumored to be using a recipe or two of his.

    Sorry for the threadjacking.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    ah yea, stout billy’s!

    let’s unjack then: right around the corner from stout billy’s is one of the best record stores in new england: Bull Moose Music.

  • http://perfidy.org Johno

    Mark,
    sadly not true anymore… SBs moved to a strip mall down Route 1 to save on rent.

    I’ll continue this offline.