You Don’t Love Me No More? The Decade The Physical Outlet Ended

In Last Orders at the Spinning Disc: What’s Happened to Record Shops?, a documentary aired on BBC Radio 2 in May this year and presented by record producer Pete Waterman, Sir Richard Branson declared that in his opinion there would be no music stores left by 2020. In his words: “There may be one or two specialist stores that will survive for a few more years. But if you turn the clock forward ten years from now, I’d be surprised if there are any more music stores left.”

Is physical death the only future for (independent) music stores? The latest blow in the retail boat has been Fat Beats closure. Hip Hop’s very own crown in vinyl did not escape the predictions on music outlets. Its label and online store endure, but its physical arms, which have held and nurtured for 16 years generations of music lovers and passionate musicians, are folding one final time this month. Fat Beats’ NYC and LA branches both closed this month, with goodbye gigs and in-stores organised as a last wave from the coolest regent of Hip Hop distributors.

So what happened? Who is killing the stores? In this exchange, the music lover and the industry cross eyes and look at each other accusingly. Whodunnit?

Mug shot number one: The music industry.
Snap. This monster is a hungry one, with well known tendencies for wining, dining and snorting on musicians starved of their royalties, fried in devious payola, skinned by inequitable contracts and manipulations of copyrights. But the day the sonic game went digital, it took one mother of a knock out. Control had shifted.

The beast called foul on moral grounds (bless). The industry’s fear had materialised: Death holding an MP3 player … and the bells of doom rang announcing closures, that of music stores. Since then the death toll has rolled on continuously.

The Chicago Tribune’s music critic Greg Kot published in 2009 his research and observations on the events that lead to the revolution of the music world we now know; Ripped: How the Wired Generation revolutionized Music. Kot lays it all open: from the big conglomerates’ disregard for consumers’ wants, home taping, Napster, the iPod, to musicians with a far reaching e-foresight such as Wilco, Radiohead, Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire or Nine Inch Nails. The result of his study is clear: the industry forgot its purpose. The strike back was inevitable.

Mug shot number two: the consumer.
Don’t be fooled by its tender traits and puppy face. It hides behind its blushes a formidable appetite. Music going digital, with instant share and streaming was always going to change how we would re-negotiate our love for music and our consumption of it.

The core question is, we all know: do we pay for music or don’t we? And I mean ‘do’ not ‘should’ – the writing of rights and wrongs I leave to a neutral and prophetic entity. Is it our consumption which is killing physical outlets?

Emotional or childhood reminiscence aside, what is the value of record stores? Are they better places to interact with music, browse known genres and discover new ones, meet musos and support musicians, or is cyber space a better, wider platform?

Fat Beats NYC manager DJ Eclipse and others talk to DNA Info about the store’s history and closure:

With record shops such as Spillers in Cardiff – one of the oldest record shops – or Rough Trade East off Brick Lane in London still going strong, the final end is yet to come. Why should the digital exclude the physical? A sound and sound environment should be an all-inclusive one. Surely there’s enough love to go around. But is it up to us?

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry represents the recording industry worldwide. It states on its website that 1,400 record companies in 66 countries, together with affiliated industry associations in 45 countries, are on their members list. One of its tasks is to monitor downloads and sales – although quite how what is being downloaded ‘illegally’ is calculated is far from clear. Nonetheless, IFPI published it has estimated that 95 percent of music downloads were ‘illegally pirated’ in 2008. [Err, can you pirate legally?]

While I will blissfully ignore the assessment of what cannot be counted, I do feel I should mention IFPI’s calculations for what has been downloaded ‘legally’. For 2008, IFPI recorded that 1.4 billion single tracks were downloaded and the top-selling digital singles were:

1. Lil Wayne Lollipop (9.1 million)
2. Thelma Aoyama Sobaniirune (8.2 million)
3. Flo Rida feat. T-Pain Low (8 million)
4. Leona Lewis Bleeding Love (7.7 million)
5. Timbaland Apologize (6.2 million)
6. Greeeen Kiseki (6.2 million)
7. Katy Perry I Kissed A Girl (5.7 million)
8. Alicia Keys No One (5.6 million)
9. Usher feat. Young Jeezy Love In This Club (5.6 million)
10. Chris Brown With You (5.5 million)

So far in the first quarter of 2010, the top selling albums for R&B and Hip Hop as given by Nielsen Soundscan, were:

1. Soldier of Love, Sade (1.21 million)
2. Recovery, Eminem (1.05 million)
3. Raymond V. Raymond, Usher (898,000)
4. The E.N.D., Black Eyed Peas (853,000)
5. Thank Me Later, Drake (709,000)
6. Rebirth, Lil Wayne (617,000)
7. The Element of Freedom, Alicia Keys (575,000)
8. Battle of the Sexes, Ludacris (479,000)
9. Still Standing, Monica (454,000)
10. Rated R, Rihanna (433,000)

Now reader, let me stop typing and give me a second to weep …. these lists are representative of what we would rather pay for and support with our hard kneaded dough!?! To me it reads like iHell, yes, Satan’s very own soundtrack blasted loud while he auto-tunes his ‘hahaha’s. These results alone should prompt us to buy music. Ugh. iCry. Which single or album did I last buy…? Hmmm, wait, which single or album did you last buy?

In these series of not-so-mysterious deaths, there’s no guessing as to who might turn stone cold next. The victim, it goes without pointing, is the very source of our enjoyment, the musician. How are artists supposed to continue making music if the fee earned is mostly made of the air born out of our enthusiastic “congratulations”?

Certainly, access to music for free is a blessing, particularly when the dividing and brutal rule of the sterling alienates and cuts off individuals every day from social exchange and participation.

Publishing platforms like Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Mixcloud and the one-legged MySpace are, like many others, enabling a direct communication and support between listeners and makers – but there is only so far a band can go without due material support. And that, as we say on my island, is the bottom line.

–Nadia Ghanem

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