Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Death of the FLRS

My first year of college, 1989, my first year on my own, I would take a walk down the street to the nearest "record" store, Specs, to grab a new album. I had heard rumors that a favorite group of mine, Marillion, had reformed with a new lead singer after the exit of its former front-man Fish. No, I'm not going to get into Fish-era Marillion vs. Hogarth Marillion here (maybe a future post?), this is about record stores in general.

At the time, it was interesting that half the store was racks of CD's, and the other half was rows of cassettes. I ended up buying one of each (the system at my apartment was CD, but my car only handled cassettes).

What's interesting now, to me, is that this store was one of several in easy reach, and they all had a wonderful and extensive variety of albums and groups available for sale. A phenomenon that, like the FLGS, seems to be, now, lost in time.

About two years later, while pursuing my Bachelors in Archaeology, the cost of tuition necessitated me finding full-time employment that would accommodate my ever-changing school schedule, and I ended up working a a record store, one of a chain of stores, in fact. I'll reserve the name of the store, but it was apparently named after a certain Arthurian capitol, nudge-nudge, wink-wink. At the time, it was a cool job for a struggling college student, replete with seemingly endless backstage passes, informal band meet-and-greets, and piles and piles of "promo" albums months before actual release dates. In retrospect though, it was a front row seat to the death of an industry.

I could elaborate on the fascinating details of being the closest record store to Gibsonton FL, the Summer retirement community for the populace of Circus "freak shows", but again, that's worthy of its own post.

About half-way through my tenure with the company we instituted a new policy at home office's directive. Called "pull sheets", this consisted of lists of what we referred to as "deep catalog" (basically all the albums by bands that hadn't released anything in the last couple of years). We would get lists of albums by artists like Pink Floyd and Todd Rundgren, and the Who, and pull them off the shelves, shipping them back to home office to make way for overflowing boxes of stuff like GnR's Use Your Illusion and Coolio's Gangsta Paradise.

Yes, we would pull, say, 500 different albums off the shelves and ship them off to make way for 500 copies of the same crappy top 40 album (which would sell about 20 copies, really). What were we supposed to do with the other hundred people that came in looking for "Tales from Topographic Oceans" or "Octopus"? We were supposed to say "I can special order that for you, Sir or ma'am!" To which, invariably, the customers would invariably reply, "no thanks", and wander off to buy the album somewhere else.

See, what corporate offices never understood was that the other 80% of our customers, who weren't interested in Dr. Dre or Ace of Base, were also not interested in waiting 2-3 weeks for an album they could find elsewhere. And so, rapidly, the music store, nay the whole chain, and all the other chains, eventually and speedily died.

Unlike the FLGS, this was a sort of suicide the record store companies underwent, a decade before iPods and file sharing. Today, thanks to events like the Napster scandal, even up to recent events like the unceremonious deposition of Kim Dotcom, it has become popular fiction to blame the death of the corporate music industry on the internet. In fact, it was the opposite, as I can attest as someone who was there to witness the death throes. It was the record companies own fault, fueled by greed, a complete misunderstanding of the industry, greed, a complete disrespect for the customer base, and more greed. If you refuse to legally sell what 80% of your customers want, you actually force them to pirate or shop from secondary markets (at least those who aren't dumb enough to wait weeks for shipping at premium prices). Sound familiar?

Way back when, in 1989, there were 7 record stores in my little college town. Today, as of last March at least (when I had occasion to make a short visit), there was only Best Buy, and that with a dramatically atrophied cd section. I buy my own music mostly from iTunes these days, but do like to support a valiantly struggling independent record store in the arts district of my current home town when I can.

I wish I had more stores to choose from, though.

I wish I had more FLGS's too.

8 comments:

  1. One of the unmentioned factors in the death of the FLGS is deep discounts and 3 day shipping from Amazon. I made a recent $300 purchase from my FLGS and another person bought it from an Amazon for $240 with free shipping.

    Soon we'll all be $8/hour warehouse employees working for Amazon.

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  2. great post, Al. I remember there being two record stores in my college town (pop. 7000 or so). One was all new stuff. The other had new material, but was largely reserved for 'cut-outs', apparently the new records that had been sent out of places like your store. The cut-outs all had a notch cut in the album sleeve, but were otherwise pristine. The best thing about them was the price - $2-$8 (in the mid 1980s). I could walk in with $25 and come away with 8-10 albums. It encouraged me to take all kinds of risks ... and it was wonderful! You can still do that, I guess, with itunes and the preview function, but it really is not the same.

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  3. as Aaron mentioned, Amazon makes it extremely difficult to rationalize making puchases from the local bookstore. I've got a comic shop at the end of my street here. Its a good shop with a great selection. However, I can get stuff shipped to my door from amazon for 30% less than the price of the same item at the local shop...and that includes shipping which is usually free. I'd like to support the local shop, but I just can't ignore that sort of price difference...

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  4. In the Age of Amazon, there's really only two reasons to buy it locally:
    1. You want your purchase immediately.
    2. You want to have a local retailer.

    Personally, #2 is important enough to me that a 20% upcharge is acceptable: My FLGS provides services that Amazon doesn't (for example, hosting games), and I want it to continue to exist. I also recognize that I'm in the dwindling minority on that score; unfortunately, the eventual demise of the store will mean that #1 becomes more of a problem (forgotten dice, last-minute gaming paper, etc.).

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  5. I worked part time at a mall record store chain from 1988 through 1994 or so, and I can concur with everything you said. From what I saw, record store executives and managers were some of the stupidest human beings on the planet. The policies they enacted that made little or no sense and actually caused us to lose sales were staggering. One of my favorites was when on a whim one year they instituted a "no long hair or facial hair" policy (cause, you know, shoppers don't want to see long hair on a dude in a MUSIC STORE), strictly enforced, which caused half our employees (mostly the best ones, including our assistant manager), to quit and move to other record stores in the same mall. After we had lost most of our best employees (right in time for Christmas), a year later they belatedly changed the policy back to allowing any sort of facial hair or long hair. Pure stupidity. And also the policy of not letting our own store managers or employees to pick out what we could carry in our store, eliminating any chance of regional artist sales that would have sold 100's of copies over, say, some metal or hip hop album we might sell 1-2 copies of in a year(but probably killed on the west or east coast). The music industry deserves every brickbat ever hurled at them and as you said they happily committed suicide in the 90s for no reason except they had mentally unsound people working in their corporate offices.

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  6. "on a whim one year they instituted a "no long hair or facial hair" policy" - They did this at my chain too! And made us put on ties, too.

    "the policy of not letting our own store managers or employees to pick out what we could carry in our store" This was also a huge sales killer for us. It basically alienated our nice base of "regulars" who would shop only at our store, in favor of mall-walking impulse buyers.

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  7. Extremely sad, but well said. The Suits did it to themselves (and to us). :-(

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