Technology

In Defense of the Survival of Major Record Store Chains

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Best Buy announced more bad news with its latest quarterly report. It's a stark reminder of how fun it once was to seek out and purchase music -- even at the 'big box' stores.

When I was in college, I needed money. In order to get money, I decided to try and get a part-time job. When I decided to get a part-time job, I thought it would be fun to try and work for Best Buy, so I filled out an online application for a position at one of the company's stores. A few days later, I received a call, and before I knew it, I had an interview lined up.

Fast-forward a couple weeks, and because I recently had a microwave burst through one of my car's windows (don't ask), I was even more desperate to ensure a few extra bucks coming my way. I showed up to the interview in a suit and tie and even brought a small portfolio of work I had done at other menial jobs in the past. A young man with frosted tips in his short, blonde hair approached me and asked -- in such a rude, patronizing tone that I'll never forget -- "why I was so dressed up," and if "I just come from a funeral or something." Taken aback, I scrambled to make up some lie aimed at downplaying my attire. "Actually, I just had a presentation to give for a class," I said as my nose grew longer. 

I never received a call back.

I love Best Buy. No, really -- I do. I also love(d) Circuit City. I used to spend hours on end scouring Barnes & Noble for no good reason without ever buying a thing (remember -- I had no money), and I even remember when something called Media Play still existed and I would always find a way to get to an outlet as soon as I could after barely saving enough money to buy a cassette single. Suncoast. Tower Records. Sam Goody. Virgin Megastores. All of them. To me, these were places that not only dominated my attention and time while growing up, but they also provided me with an enormous amount of anticipation and hope to obsess over whenever I didn't find myself around any of these stores, which was often because something as common as the nearest movie theater was at least 45 minutes away from the small town in which I grew up. 

And that's why it stuck with me last week when I wandered my way into a Best Buy to look for a few DVDs. What I had in mind had nothing to do with music, CDs, cassettes or vinyl -- I just wanted to check prices on a few things I wasn't even sure I'd want to buy. But even so, the sight I saw was one that should always be reserved for nothing but sore eyes.

Nearly all of the types of shelves that used to hold the hundreds of CDs I would spend my afternoons rummaging through as a teenager were empty. Releases as new as Maroon 5's Overexposed were knocked down to five or six bucks. Even newer releases than that, such as the latest from Nas, Life Is Good, weren't even offered. A mere one aisle of CDs that contained everything the store had was the only thing left, all "New Releases" or "What's Hot" promotions gone, the tags noting the separations of genres nonexistent. 

It broke my heart.

Such is the unfortunate reality of modern times. According to the Associated Press, Best Buy Co. reported last Tuesday a 90-percent drop in net income during its second quarter. That news came a day after the business named a former travel company CEO its leader, which, in turn, also came after months upon months of store closings, rumored new plans of attack aimed at righting the ship and criticisms that the big yellow tag couldn't seem to shake fast enough. ("Best Buy’s 2Q profit drops 90 percent, misses analyst estimates amid turmoil", by Associated Press, Washington Post, 21 August 2012)

"Missing your Wall Street estimates is bad", The Daily Beast's Alex Klein wrote last Tuesday. "Seeing your earnings decline is worse". How much worse? "Overall, Best Buy earned $12 million, or 4 cents per share, in the quarter ended Aug. 4," the Associated Press said in its report. "That compares with $128 million, or 34 cents per share. Revenue declined nearly 3 percent to $10.55 billion. Adjusted earnings were 20 cents per share, missing the 31 cents per share on revenue of $10.65 billion analysts had expected." ("Why Best Buy is Tanking", 21 August 2012)

Ouch.

Best Buy is the last of a dying breed. We all saw as Circuit City took a nosedive a few years ago, forcing its store to exist now on only the web. Tower Records basically did the same thing. Virgin Megastores shut their doors in both the US and UK, though word has it that some still exist in France and Australia. And Media Play ... wait, what was Media Play again? The franchise's last stores went under in 2006. 

Look, it goes without saying that we are all quite aware of the romanticism that goes into mom-&-pop shops. Everyone loves to go into his or her neighborhood's second-hand music store, filled with used records and unplayable VHS tapes, to waste a few hours wondering why Tom Jones always poses so provocatively on the cover of everything he releases. Those types of stores will always thrive because of how ingrained they are in an underground, hipster-obsessed culture aimed at buying things with no less than three pounds of dust on them. Plus, come on -- they are admittedly pretty fun to spend an afternoon in, anyway. You can't not have a good time looking at records that might play three and a half songs, yet cost a mere 35 cents.

But what about the massive big box stores that many of us who came from small towns in the middle of nowhere used to frequent whenever we had the chance to visit a highly populated area? What about the stores that always used to have the cheaper prices and oddly placed import singles from bands like Starsailor or Reef? What about the spectacle each building created whenever you caught it on a particularly busy day and every cash register had lines that extended for what seemed like miles? And, most importantly, what about the type of places you could literally get lost in with all the sections, shelves, displays and options one had to somehow consume entertainment? 

They are all becoming obsolete, and such is an indictment on how drastically the music business has changed over the last decade. Stores like Best Buy became successful not only because of the reasons listed above, but also because of their appeal to people who weren't die-hard music fans. Think of all the mothers, fathers, cousins, aunts, uncles or grandparents who might not care much for record collections, though just loved "that Macarena song" and eventually had to swing by the nearest Circuit City to pick up a copy of the Los Del Rio record simply because they couldn't get the track out of their heads. Those are the people who make record-buying fun and interesting -- not some apathetic 20-something who swears Passion Pit is still a band we should listen to. 

It's because of the absurdly easy access to those types of songs -- and to music as a whole -- that the Best Buys of the world are being weeded out of our consciousness. And the problem with such isn't necessarily that we have less places to purchase physical copies of music now. Instead, at issue here is the element of mystique that once accompanied going to find a copy of your favorite artist's latest work. Frequenting these types of stores was once an event that people like me used to save up our five-dollar bills for. Finding a copy of the Australian band Powderfinger's Odyssey No. 5 at an actual American retail outlet was infinitely more fulfilling than typing "Powderf" into an Amazon search engine and waiting to see what comes up (because yes, looking for music online has not only made us all thieves, but it's also made us enormously lazy). 

"One running joke has it that Best Buy's role now is to serve as Amazon's showroom," MSN Money's Michael Brush wrote in June. "The backstory: In a sense, big-box stores -- which sprung up in the 1980s -- were the precursors of Internet shopping, says Eric Johnson, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. They offered a vast array of products in one place at cheap prices. When the actual Internet came along, big-box stores looked outmoded... Consumers now favor smaller stores that force retailers to select the best merchandise rather than just putting everything on the shelves... In this environment, Best Buy looks like a paintball target. Of its 1,317 U.S. stores, 1,100 of them are big box." ("What's the problem at Best Buy?", 14 June 2011)

Is Best Buy a paintball target for a more compact and concise approach to selling CDs? Maybe. But that's only because Best Buy stores are the only stores still standing from the big box era. And until last week, I was under the impression they were the only ones actually still putting effort into selling actual, real, live compact discs containing actual music that actual people may want to actually collect. 

Even so, selling some CDs in-store is certainly better than selling no CDs in-store, however heartbreaking the sight of one emaciated shelf half-filled with plastic CD cases might be. Actually, simply being a living, breathing and operating store anymore is proving to be half the battle for Best Buy. And no matter how many times some guy with meta-centric hair treats me as though I am a fool for actually trying to land a job helping people find "Macarana" singles, I will always be rooting for Best Buy and its contemporaries to win that battle. 

Because really -- where the hell am I supposed to find a Reef CD these days, anyway?

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