Local independent record stores struggle to survive, and some are losing the battle.
March 17, 2004
It’s Thursday afternoon, March 11, and two teenage boys are combing through the nearly empty compact disc racks at Toys Music Center in Lafayette. One wears his cap backwards and the other has long dark hair and sports a leather jacket. The Walkmen’s latest release Bows & Arrows is blaring over the sound system. Posters on the wall of The Misfits and The Beatles hang next to T-shirts of The Ramones and Frigg-A-Go-Go.
Tony Blanco is having a hard time accepting that in a matter of days there won’t be any more Toys. “I don’t believe it,” says the 24-year-old. “The thing I’m really going to miss is the shows, and I also hang out here. It sucks. There’s going to be a void, and I think there needs to be an outlet for kids, especially a positive one.” Toys sells music in one half of the store, and in the other half there is a small stage and sound system where local bands perform on the weekends for all-ages shows.
The sign in the window of the St. Mary Boulevard shop says the store has lost its lease and will close for good by Monday. But on the Web site www.toldbyanidiot.com, there is a discussion forum with the title “Toys is taking a vacation.” Posted on Friday, March 5, the first entry published by “Dave,” begins, “Well, we got the eviction notice at Toys today. Court date is this coming Thursday. We’ll get out by Monday the 15th.”
Lafayette City Court records indicate that Toys was evicted by Schneider Ogden Building for nonpayment of rent since September 2003.
Kathy Hamm is working the register at the back of the store. She sits on a stool behind a glass case filled with bumper stickers and DVDs. The kid in the leather jacket brings her a couple of CDs (marked down 50 percent) and she rings him up. Twenty-year-old Hamm has worked at the store for the last year and a half. She’s not surprised that it’s going out of business. “Kids would come in and say right in front of us, ‘I’m not going to buy this. I’m just going to burn a copy.’ Or ‘I can get this cheaper at Best Buy,’” she says. “It’s amazing how much money kids will spend on clothes, but they won’t spend 15 bucks on a CD.”
Dave Hubbell, the owner of the shop, walks through the front door. Apparently the court date didn’t go well. “Today’s our last day,” he tells Hamm. “We’re closed for good at six o’clock.”
No more weekend performances by local bands. No more time to try to sell the rest of his stock at half price. Within a matter of hours, Toys will be no more. But Hubbell remains optimistic. “It’s primarily a temporary move,” he says.
For 10 years, Toys has supplied local music lovers with alternative rock and used vinyl records. When Raccoon Records went out of business in January 2003, Toys picked up the slack and began carrying Cajun and zydeco titles. Hubbell says nearly 70 percent of his sales during the Christmas season were for Cajun and zydeco, but the most recent holiday season’s sales were “miniscule” compared to last year’s.
Hubbell hopes to find another space soon to rent for non-alcoholic, all-ages performances, but he has no intention of re-launching a full-blown record shop. “I don’t want to compete with Best Buy and Amazon,” he says. “I can’t compete with their prices and selection without going into debt that I can’t justify.”
While some mom-and-pop record shops are quick to point the finger at the Internet as the culprit, Hubbell says in some ways it’s helped him. He has been selling some of his compact disc titles on the auction Web site eBay for the last 18 months. “eBay has kept me alive for years,” he says. “It’s kept Toys open for years now.”
BIG GUYS HAVE UPPER HAND
Toys’ woes aren’t unique. The music industry is in the toilet, both locally and nationally. Recently the chain mega-record store Tower Records filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and 10 of its stores have closed within the last year. (Tower’s location in New Orleans’ French Quarter is still operating with no intention of closing, according to a store employee.)
Ed Christman, Billboard magazine’s senior writer covering retail sales, says compact disc sales in 2003 were down for the third year in a row, the longest running low in the last 20 years of the music business. And for smaller independent music merchants across the nation, it’s been an especially rough couple of years. In 2002, indies’ sales were down by 21 percent from the previous years, and in 2003 sales decreased an additional 15 percent.
Christman says there are three factors that have spelled trouble for the smaller independent retailers — larger discount department stores, the cost of product for retailers, and a general downturn in the music industry.
Through the years, large discount stores, like Wal-Mart and Target, have become more aggressive in selling music and use it primarily to drive traffic through their doors, not to make substantial profits. Christman says major record labels began to cater to larger chain stores because of the amount of product they could move. “It put the independents at a disadvantage,” he says.
The larger stores could buy more of the major labels’ product, and they could also sell it for much less than the smaller stores could. Christman says in some cases, particularly when it comes to the Top 10 hits of radio, the larger stores can sell copies of an album cheaper than a local independent retailer can even purchase them. The dynamic makes it impossible for the indies to make a profit.
Christman says the musical marketplace is changing, and no one seems to know what the landscape will look like once the dust finally settles. The major record labels contend that the illegal duplication of copyrighted material — either with CD burners or by sharing files over the Internet — is the gravest threat to music.
Although the causes of the deteriorating music industry are still being argued, the effects are indisputable. Christman estimates that last year across the country some 800 chain stores and some 1,000 independent stores went out of business.
In Acadiana, an area blessed with homegrown musical talent, the closures not only affect consumers but also local record producers and musicians. Producer Rick Lagneaux, who’s currently wrapping up True Man Posse’s first disc, says the advantage of dealing with a local record shop is that “you can deal with the retailers face to face. If you’re dealing with a chain, you don’t really get to meet the man at the top.” Lagneaux says that with both Raccoon Records and Toys he always dealt with the owners of the shops — George Berry and Hubbell respectively. “I knew who and what I was dealing with.”
Local shops are also usually willing to sell local musicians’ wares on a consignment basis. Both Raccoon and Toys did. Chain stores Best Buy and Circuit City do not sell local music on consignment; however, Barnes & Noble and Sam Goody do.
MUSIC & LAGNIAPPE
Local record shops seem to have always had a knack for supplementing the sale of recorded music. Floyd’s Record Shop in Ville Platte also carries T-shirts, books, cameras, accordions, electronics — and even develops your film. At Music Machine in Eunice, you can pick up a snow cone and a beeper along with your new compact disc. And at Modern Music Center in Crowley, you can buy a musical instrument or disc jockey equipment while digging for vintage vinyl.
Mitchell Reed of Louisiana Heritage and Gifts in Lafayette also sells compact discs along with accordions, fiddles, books, videos, and acoustic music accessories. He also gives weekly fiddle lessons. When it comes to selling CDs, Reed’s shop, which he co-owns with his wife Lisa, appears to be a local anomaly. Reed says about 65 percent of his sales are from compact discs. “It’s what’s keeping me open,” he says. “That’s the only way I’m staying alive.” Reed says most of his customers were former customers of the defunct Raccoon Records. And with Raccoon gone, Reed is the largest player in town when it comes to Cajun and zydeco music.
Mark Miller of Modern Music Center in Crowley wishes he were doing as well. “It gets worse every year,” he says. His CD sales are “about half what we used to do. The Internet is probably the main problem now. Bootlegging has always been somewhat of a problem, but the Internet is the main thing.” He says it’s gotten to the point where his CD sales “are next to nothing.”
All he can do is stock local music and hope for the best. “People who are going to buy Britney Spears are going to Wal-Mart,” he says. “Let’s face it, that’s our competition here in Crowley — Wal-Mart. So we don’t even carry those. They’re selling the new releases for next to nothing.”
Todd Ortego, owner of Music Machine in Eunice, says he used to have four full-time employees and now he’s down to one. “I’m running bare bones right now,” he says. “Some months, there’s not even money for me. Last year it got really pretty bad, so bad that I was looking in the classified ads to see what else I could do for a living.” The last quarter of 2003, Ortego did not draw a salary from his store.
In the 26 years he’s been in business, Ortego has found ways to adapt to the vagrancy of the music business. For 16 years, he sold and rented movies. Every spring and summer he sells snow cones from the window of his store. When beepers became popular, Ortego was the man to see in Eunice. He’s still keeping his eye out for that one thing that will allow him to continue selling CDs. “Nothing has really struck me,” he says.
He does offer one possible solution to the current crisis. “Ten bucks,” he says. “CDs have to be 10 bucks.” He thinks that at that price, consumers won’t think twice about purchasing a CD. But until that new low pricing scheme catches on, there’re still bills to be paid. Ortego thinks the snow cones will let him keep his doors open through the summer, but he says the fall could be his “make-or-break point.”
Northeast of Eunice in Ville Platte, at Floyd’s Record Shop, Floyd Soileau says, “The thing that’s kept me in the music business all this time is the local music.” In nearly the same breath he adds that the sale of electric guitars, Cajun accordions, and even Hitachi rice cookers helps. “It’s taken all of that to hang in there,” he says. “And we’re hanging in there by a thread.” Soileau says his recorded music sales were down by 15 percent last year. Retail sales manager Cecil Fontenot attributes half of the store’s revenue to the sale of compact discs.
“It’s been a steady decline,” Soileau notes, “but we do have some good days.” Soileau manages to supplement the not so good days by licensing recordings for motion pictures, television commercials, and compilation compact discs. Under the umbrella of Flat Town Music, Soileau also records and produces local music on five different record labels.
Soileau is uncertain what the future holds for Floyd’s Records and Flat Town. “I really don’t know,” he says. “There are so many other things helping nail the coffin. I don’t know where it’s going, but we’ve decided that we’re going to be the last ones to turn off the light. I hope we don’t have to turn off the light too soon.”
ADAPTING TO CHANGE
Soileau’s son Chris thinks Flat Town will be able to keep the light on, and that it’s only a matter of adapting to a changing base of consumers. “Every vendor is noticing the effect of the Internet,” he says. He points to the Web site for Floyd’s Records as an example. He says that 70 percent of the shop’s new customers are coming through the online store, not the physical store. Ironically, the biggest threat to indie record stores could become their salvation.
While sales from the Web site are nowhere near the sales of the physical store, Chris acknowledges the site’s potential to sell music. So much so that he has sunk more money into the site to upgrade it within the next couple of months. Details of the new site haven’t been determined. “The Internet has created havoc in our lives by speeding every thing up, not by slowing them down,” he says. “It hasn’t leveled the playing field like everyone was preaching in the beginning. I think we have to be realistic. It’s been a growing trend, steadily, since 1999.”
But like his father, Chris isn’t quite sure where it’s all headed. “This is just the path of the big boat that we’re all in,” he says. “There’s no way we can put it back in the bottle and it’ll go away. It’s just a different life, a different lifestyle. I see growth, there’s no doubt about it.”
Billboard’s Christman sees growth, as well. He says album sales rose by 18.2 percent in the first week of 2004. “The last six months things have been pretty good,” he says, “but since we’ve been through this tough time, we’re all cautious to say we’re coming back.”
And when it comes to mom-and-pop record stores, Christman doesn’t think they will all get eviction notices. “There are plenty of good independent retailers,” he says.
He points to the independently owned and operated Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas, as an example. “These guys are on top of their game,” Christman says. “They know their market and they know their consumer. They don’t try to go toe to toe with the big boys.” Warterloo specializes in Austin’s local music and other indigenous Texas music.
“The strong independents will continue to survive,” Christman adds, “those who specialize in a niche and have a market to go with it.