Record stores are disappearing faster than Kevin Federline’s “Playing with Fire” vanished from the Billboard 200. According to a recent report by NBC Nightly News, there were 4,685 chain record stores in 1992, compared with just 1,695 today.
It’s not just Tower; record stores in general are disappearing faster than Kevin Federline’s “Playing with Fire” vanished from the Billboard 200. According to a recent report by NBC Nightly News, there were 4,685 chain record stores in 1992, compared with just 1,695 today.
“I can’t remember the last CD that I bought,” says Seth Vatt, 25, an ASU music grad student who lives in Mesa.
Surprised? It’s been a somewhat gradual demise. Tower Records first filed for bankruptcy in 2004, and had had a low profile in the East Valley for years. Its downtown Tempe location closed in January 2001, and their Mesa store soon followed suit.
The chain experienced a short-lived local renaissance when a south Tempe store opened early last year, but now all that’s left there is the remaining stock and a gaggle of signs reading “Store Closing” and “Nothing Held Back.”
Indeed, the fixtures and all are for sale — quite literally, everything in the store is 30 percent to 50 percent off. Even with this discount, though, some CDs — like, say, the latest Futureheads disc, “News & Tributes,” $10.50 after 30 percent off $14.99 — are more expensive than, say, buying the album as a digital download at the iTunes music store.
“CDs are great, but I’m not a big fan of paying too much for them,” Vatt says. “If it’s something that costs under a dollar to make, why should I pay $20 for them?”
Other products, such as season two of the TV series “Lost” on DVD, are a slightly better deal ($42 after discount), but still more than online retailers like Amazon or downloading the season at iTunes, and only marginally less than the normal price at stores like Target or Best Buy.
The message is clear — for many, buying music online is just easier. On iTunes, you can pick through a vast collection (yet one that’s still missing key back catalog artists like the Beatles), make the purchase without leaving your house or putting on underwear, and receive the music almost immediately. Let’s be honest, when downloading MP3s was first popularized in the late ’90s with the rise of the (illegal) Napster, it sounded like some sort of “Jetsons”-esque future fantasy world.
“It is more convenient,” says Vatt. “I like previewing stuff on iTunes, I like all the podcasts.”
Skeptics remain. After all, buying music on iTunes or other online sources (like the recently introduced Zune Marketplace, purported by Microsoft to be a direct competitor) assumes that you have a computer new enough to run the software and a speedy enough connection to reasonably download music.
“I think there’s still a place for the physical store. Actually having the CD itself, there’s still a lot of appeal for that,” says Randy Wilde, 28, of Phoenix, found hunting for deals at Tower Records in Tempe. He says that having the packaging and liner notes of an album — something nearly impossible to replicate online — is still an important part of the experience. He’s also worried about the intangibility of buying online.
“You never know with the electronic ones,” Wilde adds. “If you lose the digital files, they probably won’t let you download it again. It’s good to have a physical backup.”
Wilde is also concerned about the restrictions enforced by “digital rights management,” which limits how you can use, distribute and share music purchased on iTunes. He does admit, though, “I do a lot of downloading. It is more convenient.”
Of course, there are die-hards with massive collections who aren’t ready to part with their beloved discs. Zia Records customer Adam Eget, 28, of Chandler estimates that he has around 3,500 CDs. Despite encouragement from his friends, he refuses to sell them.
“I am kind of stupid like that,” he says. “I’ll just keep them. I sit there and it’s kind of depressing. It’s like … I could have a car for this. But you know what? Everyone has their own thing. Some people collect video games, stamps. I collect music.”
Eget describes himself as the last person he knows without an iPod, but he does plan to buy one soon.
“It makes the most sense to have the iPod, because you can walk around and basically have your whole music library in your pocket,” he says.
Locally, even independent stores are becoming harder to find. Kimber Lanning closed her long-running Tempe Stinkweeds location earlier this year for personal reasons, and Eastside Records recently started operating with only half the store size they used to have.
RECORD STORES REMAIN
Local chain Zia Records isn’t sweating the influence of digital downloading, and contends that Zia stores are still relevant. With seven Arizona locations and its first non-Arizona store having opened in Las Vegas last year, it’s hard to argue.
“We offer an experience of going to a music store and learning and connecting about music in a way that you just can’t get — not online, and not anywhere else,” says Brian Faber, director of retail operations for Zia.
Faber isn’t unrealistic, and acknowledges that venues such as iTunes are growing rapidly in use — up 199 percent in sales for the past year.
“Online is great, and we embrace that, too. The more people listening to music in the world is better for us in my eyes,” Faber says. “We don’t run and hide from it, but I don’t think you can downplay the human interaction and that record store experience.”
Although compact disc sales have been falling, Faber says that he doesn’t see them going away completely anytime soon.
“I don’t think CDs are on the expressway out; for us, our used merchandise keeps it as a better price point than online,” he says.
Zia stores still have a robust vinyl selection, so maybe he’s right — not that CDs ever had the same cool cachet that records still have. Still, if this is the death of the CD, after a more than 20-year run, it at least will have a better legacy than the 8-track or MiniDisc.