Monastic Musings Part One: The Great Record Store Contraction, or “It’s 2018… Do You Know Where Your CDs Are?

Until recently, the left half of this room in Harvest Records sold CDs

A few weekends ago, I had taken my wife somewhere and would need to recon with her almost two hours later. She said “why don’t you go to Harvest.” I said that I would prefer to check out the stores in downtown Asheville since I tend to stop in there maybe twice a year to the 4-6 times I stop in at Harvest. But that day was graduation day downtown, and I thought the better of trying to fight for a parking spot for the better part of those two hours, so I decided that I would visit Harvest. Besides, the Downtown stores didn’t have air conditioning.

I walked in Harvest [which also didn’t have air conditioning] and immediately noticed the changes in layout. For a mighty start, 1/3 of the previous [13 years] store space for new CDs was now under encroachment by the dreaded new vinyl problem. The CD stock had been condensed to just one row of rock/pop [instead of two] and all of the other genres of new stock were taking up the other side of the lone new CD island. There was now maybe 30 feet total of new CD stock. The unwanted [by me, anyway] new vinyl had muscled its way in and the CDs were on the retreat. This seems to be my fate in the Hellish 21st century. Not only am I governed by a Nazi-coddling, pig ignorant, “reality TV Star,” who seems to be trying his damndest to hasten the eschaton, but something even as small as my puny desires and interests are now deemed surplus to society’s aims.

It’s not just Harvest Records that’s getting me down. A few weeks ago my friend chasinvictoria was visiting and we were downtown getting lunch and stopped by Voltage Records to do a little browsing. In the past I have bought CD’s there. I could not help but notice that on this day the CD stock for the entire store, which used to be almost 20% of the store stock as recently as three years ago, was now down to a lone, small flip rack that held maybe 16-20 discs. And that was it for CDs!!

“The future you anticipated has been cancelled. Please stand by to await further instructions…”

As if this were not a potent enough message there’s also the fate of Best Buy. The corporate megastore whose business plan in the 90s was to roll into a town like a line of tanks on the Normandy shore and decimate the pre-existing local music stores with seriously deep selections and loss leader pricing until they were pulverized into nothingness. I saw it happen in Orlando. Best Buy came into town in the early 90s and I went there and looked at the stock. I saw seriously deep collections of imports that few stores in town [as great as they were] simply didn’t stock and all of this was at pricing that, like Crazy Eddie’s, was “insaaaaaane!

Even so, I didn’t take the bait. I never bought anything there and basically ignored the store unless a friend or family member gave me a Best Buy gift card as a present. My two to three times shopping there with a gift card told the full sorry tale. After they began depressing the local market with their predatory pricing, I noticed the CD stock getting smaller and less deep. The rare imports were the first thing to go. Then, the deep collections began to contract. Having slayed their competitors, they not only rested on their laurels, they ceased making even the pretense of trying to retail music with anything but a perfunctory attempt. By the time I received my last Best Buy gift card in the late 90s, it was a huge challenge just finding one CD to buy where the temptations, early on, were far more numerous. Most artists who once had fat bins of product were now represented by a few compilations and one or two discrete catalog albums. Maybe their latest one. As of this coming Sunday, Best Buy will stop selling any CDs at all. Even Voltage has a better CD selection now, and Best Buy were once America’s number one CD retailer!

Next: …Is There A Vinyl Solution?

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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17 Responses to Monastic Musings Part One: The Great Record Store Contraction, or “It’s 2018… Do You Know Where Your CDs Are?

  1. Eugene says:

    I would say CDs are ultimately moving to the online sellers market. I think I read somewhere that CD sales on discogs are huge. Not a surprise after reading your experience at Harvest and Voltage. I know it’s not the same to browse online than a shop. Hopefully shops like McKays won’t ditch their CD sales.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Eugene – McKays cater to a more rural market where CDs probably have a few more years. This is largely down to the web bandwidth issues that plague the vast rural majority of the country due to ISP monopolies. If you are in the sticks, discs still have a lot of allure. I’ll bet you can’t find CDs in NYC.

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  2. Bpdp3 says:

    Your tale is similar to what I see as well. Part of me says “ok, cds are going by the wayside… but at least with the new emphasis on vinyl they’re admitting that people still want physical product rather than streaming etc!” However, in my heart I know this ‘vinyl craze’ is fleeting at best. $26.99 or whatever for any new album is not how music listeners will build their collections.

    I’m wondering how much longer CD players will be found in cars as a standard feature… are they still?

    So what do we (we being those of us who like to browse a music store now and then) do? All I know to do is the lame ‘think globally, act locally’ mantra…. I try to buy whenever I can at those stores who generally carry what I like. However, if you love cd’s, and there’s only twenty titles to choose from, they’re not making it easy for you or themselves.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Bpdp3 – I think that bird has flown! In-dash CD players were so far behind the adoption curve as standard equipment, that my 1996 car still had a worthless cassette deck 11 years after I stopped caring about cassettes! My [next] 2007 car was my first one with a CD player…and it’s likely to be my last! And that gets me mean mad! My next car might have Bluetooth if I’m lucky! And then I’ll have to rely on music from my iPod touch, which I HATE. I do 90% of my critical listening in my car on my long commute to my daily job. Your guess is as good as mine as to how I’m going to rip 3-4K CDs of the Record Cell for listening since my new 2018 iMac has no CD-R for ripping either! [not that I would ever consider the several weeks of work to do that in any case] I feel like a cow being led to the slaughter with electric prods! Of course, Steve Jobs famously got off the disc based entertainment bus years ago… pretty convenient when you also sell music and video downloads, [no conflict of interest there, right?] but not every Apple customer lives in Marin County with direct fiber to the backbone, Steve! It chaps my *ss that Apple led the industry in deciding that “we don’t do discs any more – it’s all in the cloud,” when most Americans have p*ss poor “broadband” speeds that are a laughing stock in the world market where America’s “hands off” approach to regulating broadband [now even worse under the auspices of Ajit Pai – the most Hated Man on the Internet, and a total industry tool as Herr Tr*mp’s FCC chairman] has seen our quality of service decline to the point where we are in the middle of the pack for the quality of service/price ratio among so called “Developed nations!!!” Wait, were we talking about CDs???!!

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      • Tim says:

        I live in Wisconsin and read somewhere that we have the worst broadband in the US. True? I dunno, it sure feels like it. I have AT&T unlimited and some weekends we can’t muster enough bandwidth to imitate BAD dialup and we live reasonably close to the grad student population for a Big 10 campus. Last Superbowl weekend on Sunday we could do nothing all day and about fifteen minutes before the game started we got the mother lode of bandwidth (something I had predicted that morning).

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Tim – Send a thank you note to Ajit Pai; the most punchable man in America.

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          • Tim says:

            How would he tell it apart from the huge amounts of robo-spam he seems to receive?

            There has been some interesting reporting on WPR about the recovery from 2008 in this state and they broke some things down. 1st our state appears to have recovered but that’s if you look at simple aggregate numbers for the whole state and say, well, this is a 5 and everyone else is a 3.5 so yay rah! However there’s parts of the state that are ranked highly and other parts that are ranked quite low and that number basically reflects parts of the state, like where I live, lifting up the scores of other parts even though they don’t have what we do.

            Then they went into some of the nuts and bolts of what is going on and there were a few things that drive recovery and up near the top of the list were roads and broadband. Guess what is either nonexistent or being neglected in the parts of this state that haven’t recovered?

            Then there’s tech, there’s a part of the state (which includes my hometown, a li’l ole hotbed of voting against their own interest) that is trying to brand itself as a tech corridor. The folks who reported on this looked at actual thriving tech corridors (where geographically connected communities complement each other and create a synergy) and they looked at this nascent effort here and found that it lacks almost all of the characteristics of what makes an actual tech corridor work.

            Interestingly they reported on the effects of the arts in cities and they found that having arts emphasized is a huge boon to any community big or small, the study also found that when you have a robust arts community in a city that even the business community thrives in a different manner, turns out that your business people approach what they do more creatively and the folks who did this study believe that it is a dynamic of having arts and artsy people in immediate, thriving proximity. They were able to gauge economic investment in the arts and something that they found was investing what we would consider small amounts of money in local arts pays off big for a community (including the business/corporate part of the community) and suggested that instead of states making of these big headline making grants of millions of dollars that it wiser to make a lot more smaller grants targeted all across the state focusing on quality of living.

            Here in Wisconsin we have two big things going on, a large and continuing deficit in our workforce (we are even advertising and trying to lure millenials from Illinois while the rest of the time painting same state as a cesspool of violence, corruption and Democratic incompetence) and a Koch funded and ALEC inspired governor who is adverse to any sort of thing that is going to drive anything that I described above. His blueprint is Oklahoma and we’re joining the race to the bottom and his peak achievement is giving three billion (tax) dollars to Foxconn to make LCD monitors (part of this process includes a ton of get out of jail free cards on environmental issues).

            Back to the broadband, I live in Madison, which has a huge college population. The internet providers have ripped this city up seven ways to Sunday setting up infrastructure and everyone I talk to has the same issue. We experimented with a huge area having totally free internet, sadly I live about 2 blocks east of the one of the borders of that so never benefited. We’ve had periods of time with little or no internet, we look at our community on the computer and there’s three basic providers here and you can see everyone in the condo community has little or no bandwidth regardless of who their vendor is. They promise unlimited bandwidth but it’s only your share of the pie that is available to everyone in the area, a problem that pre-dates the existing regime.

            These companies are raking in the profits but actually putting out more infrastructure? Pfffft.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Bpdp3 – Car CD is basically dead. If there is no room on your dash for a stereo as we understand them, adding one from aftermarket good may prove difficult. It used to be possible to swap out (at cost of purchase and installation) whatever music system came with your car with something to your liking. If a car’s sound system is now just software in its computer to interface with your smartphone, where would a CD player go? We might need a portable player that’s Bluetooth enabled going forward. Yep. They’re out there. My next car will need one. Messy, but better than nothing.

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  3. Tim says:

    From what I’ve read people are just interested these days in the hit track and not the whole album.

    Like the one of the guys in High Fidelity quipped, “we’re dinosaurs.”

    I admit it is nice to see the racks and racks of vinyl in stores closer to how it was when I was younger but geez, petroleum the last couple years has traded at about the lowest prices we’ve seen in a long time and I’m at Barnes and Noble and look at the price on John Denver’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 and it’s something just bats*** crazy like $35.00. Sorry, this is a product for hipsters with too much money. A side effect of this is that the used stores I used to look at had tons of used lps under $5 and now a lot of that stock is parked at twice that. It’s enough to make you head to Amazon and download the digital album for $5.

    Public radio in my state has had a lot of pieces about the demise of cd, the demise of the album and the niche market of vinyl growing beyond a niche market and there’s one thing that they shy away from talking about and that is a lot of the popular music nowadays is autotuned contentless lyrcially barren crap.
    Beat beat beat beat beat beat and sorry those aren’t lyrics and everything I hear when I am out somewhere and a radio is playing, that everything sounds the same and…..it would be nicer if they just turned it off.
    That’s why people aren’t buying albums, I don’t think it’s just me. Look back to the 80’s, the touchstone of this blog, between me and my friends we were listening to everything from folk to punk to new wave to disco to oldies to ”classic rock” to prog, even easy listening, and one friend of mine introduced me to a 12” called “The Message” which was pretty ear opening for a white kid growing up in a conservative midwestern small town. The style and the sounds and the labels were all over the place and now it’s just autotuned soma, The other night I was watching that “Made in Sheffield” documentary and all I could think was how that music sounded radical and new then and you could release a lot of it now and it would be radical and new.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – I think a huge difference between the 70-80s and now has been the inexorable consolidation of the music industry. In the 70s putting a lawyer like Clive Davis in charge of a label was a radical notion. He was decried as a non- creative money man. Now it’s the norm!! The subsequent consolidation of the record labels from the big 7-8 down to 2-3 in the face of 40 years of deregulationist, Neoliberal establishment has meant that the diversity that was once baked into the music industry has been burned off, leaving only fat behemoths, hungry for profit above all other concerns. This led to an aversion to risk taking that was also fed by the 90s revival of manufactured pop [always present, just marginalized in America due to our trailblazing rock ethos, which the labels HATED, by the way]. The labels were used to manufacturing pop music like in a factory until the rise of the Rock Star by the mid 60s that drove profits way up even as they spun out of the control of labels. The labels couldn’t tell a self-indulgent idiot from a genius so a lot of money was showered on some dubious Shamen of Rock®. Stars used to shut up and sing what they handed them but the rise of The Beatles and Dylan put that notion in the dumper for a few generations. Couple this with the throat slitting of the music industry by file sharing in the new Millennium, and it’s no great shock why every song is auto-tuned to within an inch of it’s life, sporting hooks purchased from a reliable writer here and another from over there. Have you noticed that writing credits for hit songs now feature about 4-7 writers per song? That’s because nothing ever gets left to chance! Chance is gambling, and the music industry is over gambling! Where at least the old days had established writing teams to crank out the hits like an assembly line, now it’s more of a Chinese Menu paradigm. Beats from column A. A few hooks from columns B + C. Lyrics from Column D. Boom! A hit.

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  4. James Pagan says:

    Sorry to hear that Best Buy won’t be selling CDs after June 30, but this dinosaur’s not surprised. Their selection–on those rare occasions when I visit the store–is tiny. I didn’t buy too much music from the chain over the years, but Best Buy was where I finally tracked down Mick Karn’s “Titles” on CD, as well as JBK’s “Beginning to Melt,” Martha and the Muffins’ “Far Away in Time,” and the Records’ “Smashes, Crashes and Near Misses”–each of these releases at dirt-cheap prices in long-ago 1996. The chain also had a great selection of European and Asian Cult Cinema classics from labels like Blue Underground and Tokyo Shock, but those days are long gone.

    Thank goodness for used shops like McKay’s. Their prices tend to be all over the place, but I’ve recently picked up David Sylvian’s “Victim of Stars” compilation–in mint condition–for $1.95, and yesterday I bought the Who’s 1995 remaster of “Live at Leeds” for a bleeding quarter! The store’s used vinyl section is growing like the proverbial weed, but I’ve never checked the prices on those platters, as the missus and I don’t own a turntable.

    I agree with Eugene that “CDs are ultimately moving to the online sellers market,” and with Tim that today’s vinyl craze is aimed at “hipsters with too much money.” I miss the days of such great shops as the Record Exchange and Greensboro’s Spin’s, where I first picked up Enigma’s Bill Nelson catalog decades ago. Whenever I get a new (or, at least, non-used) disc, it’s usually something I’ve ordered –or my wife has bought for me–on Amazon. When CD players cease being a standard new car feature, I will indeed know despair.

    Oh, well–I’m drowning, yet again, in my nostalgia. But your great blog, Mr. Monk, is definitely the best place for me to do it!

    Cordially,

    James

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    • Tim says:

      $1.95 for that comp! There’s like $100 worth of entertainment in that one. FANTASTIC deal, color me jealous.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      James Pagan – That was crazy nice for the Sylvian comp! Your Mckay’s sells CDs for a quarter? In expen$ive Asheville the $2.00 bin at Mr. K’s is as cheap as it gets, though I have scored hybrid SACDs there with insane DSD mastering form that bin! Of course, such titles are by law, Classic Rock, but “sympathy For The Devil” never sounded to vivid, even on the CD layer! I love record shopping road trips outside of the Asheville Bubble® when CDs get a lot cheaper! I rarely pay more than $5 for anything I want elsewhere. Don’t despair too much. You may need a bluetooth CD player as well for your next car! The thing to despair is when even these are no longer made.

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  5. As I travel a lot and thus rent a lot of cars, I can tell you that CD players aren’t quite dead yet, but they are most assuredly coughin’ up blood. Of the last three cars I rented, two did not have CD players at all — radio/infotainment system/Carplay, a USB port for smartphones/iPods, and an AUX jack somewhere — if you can find it (it’s often not on the head unit, like some of the USB ports, but smooshed in somewhere on the lower dash, center column, or under/in the center armrest/storage area.

    As for CDs, the shortsighted industry is getting rid of them as fast as they can, so I’m not sure how much (if any) of a market for new ones there will be in five years. Streaming music services and satellite/online radio are the preferred options for Mr and Mrs Joe Public, and actual retention of hard copies of music is for collectors/weirdos! Everyone (and not just in the music industry) is falling for this “smaller but steady income is greater than larger short-term income that arrives in fits every few years” mentality, and on some levels it is hard to argue with that — but it presumes that the present economic situation will not get any worse at any point for Ma and Pa Worker, and history has a lot to say that contradicts that …

    I suspect the tipping point of whether CDs are economically viable to manufacture in large quantities is coming soon if not already here, but possibly the Rhino Handmade model (premature but influential) may prove to be a harbinger of a future that still includes hardcopies … only on demand, much like the way most of the T-shirt industry is run anymore.

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  6. SimonH says:

    This is a vast subject so not sure where to begin…however I think the saddest part of it all is that music is simply not as important to people in the western world as it once was. Yes, it’s become ubiquitous but at a serious cost. Too often it’s now just background noise or a hip accessory (the vinyl fad is at least partly a result of that) or just a ‘cool’ playlist put together by an algorithm.
    I appreciate I’m making sweeping generalisations here but this is how I see it overall. Of course there are exceptions, but there has been a huge shift in the way music is consumed which is just a small part of a much larger change in society brought about by the net, social media etc. It may take years for the ramifications to be fully understood.
    I even see it in the way people act when witnessing live music with shortened attention spans etc.
    My gut feeling is that the downside of all this change is hugely significant when measured against the benefits.
    There’s no going back though.

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  7. diskojoe says:

    I took a friend of mine to the local Newbury Comics yesterday. I purchased a CD copy of the new Ray Davies album for $9.99. The vinyl edition went for $24.99. Speaking of the Kinks, the vinyl edition of Phobia, their last studio album was going for $42.99. The vinyl reissue of Michel Jackson’s Thriller was a comparable “bargain” @ $16.99. A copy of Blondie’s Autoamerican was going for $19.99. These are albums that exist used in plenty of copies. Another thing I noticed is that stuff that was once bonus tracks on deluxe CD reissues are being released as standalone vinyl. For example the Ramones’ 1976 Roxy live set that was on the first reissue of Leave Home was going for $29.99 & Goodfriend the promo album that was on the CD DLXR of Girlfriend was going for the same price. This is pretty amazing considering that any costs in recording have probably paid off a long time ago. I also find it pretty ironic considering the derision CDs were subject to as being the same thing that vinyl is now.

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