Requiem For a Record Store

On Friday, January 20, five different friends forwarded Chris Morris' The Hollywood Reporter column on the closing of LA's Westwood Boulevard Rhino Records store. Established in 1973, the record store closed its doors on January 19 (although it staged a parking lot sale on January 21 and 22). Rhino owner Richard Foos blamed the store's demise on a number of factors, including pricing competition from national chains, the lack of demand for "a physical product," and "too many other things to do and too many ways to get your music without paying $18 for a CD."

Foos also lamented the demise of the record store as a hip place to learn about music. "The days of going into a place like Rhino and saying, 'What's the cool new import?'—forget it."

In an interesting bit of meme synchronicity, four of the folks who sent me the Rhino obit also sent links to the news that Nikon is quitting the film-based business and Konica Minolta is bugging out of the photographic field entirely. I wasn't immediately convinced that these were related to the Rhino story, but after pondering it, I think I begin to see the similarities.

News that Nikon is walking away from the film format does feel like the end of an era, although I haven't actually peered through the prism of an F2 in over a decade. When I was first learning photography, a Nikon was about as exalted a camera as an amateur like me could aspire towards. But over the past 15 years or so, the traditional hobby of photography has undergone huge changes, first with the growing quality and sophistication of point-and-shoot cameras and, more recently, with digital cameras. Now that digital SLRs have become affordable, I, like masses of other part-time photographers, own one and am re-learning the art part of photography—the part I always enjoyed most.

Similarities between the hi-fi/record industry and the camera/film industry do exist, of course. The lagging sales of film and film processing supplies have forced a shake-out in the photographic magazine market, where several storied titles have ceased publication; the same is true in audio and music publications. The mom-and-pop camera store, like the mom-and-pop record store, has also become a relic.

Yet it wouldn't surprise me if 2006 isn't seen as a rebirth year for the photographic hobby when the histories are written in a decade or so. Not because the average hack is taking better pictures now, but because we now have the equipment that will let us do so if we are willing to make the effort.

Take Stereophile's coverage of CES2006 a few weeks ago. Jon Iverson, John Atkinson, Larry Greenhill, Bob Deutsch, Stephen Mejias, and I were able to post print-worthy images on the go as we wrote our show coverage. Ten years ago we had to take along a photographic staff—and we still weren't able to publish on the run. Were the pictures technically better when we had a pro taking them? Sometimes, yes—but I also remember many battles with photo editors concerning running the "better" pictures rather than pictures of the "better" products. I know which makes for better coverage.

With home studios and affordable high-quality digital recording devices, the same thing is now true for many amateur musicians. The hurdle, of course, is how do those musicians find a market if the only remaining outlets are the types of stores that are more hospitable to a Mariah Carey than a Sufjan Stevens? The answer, of course, is the Internet—although perhaps not the way you would instinctively think. Chatrooms, forums, and bulletin boards are where young music lovers now gather to talk about music—record stores, even great record stores like Rhino, just aren't where you find out about cool music any more. Walk into a record store and ask about "the cool new import"? Please—the last time I did that, somebody recommended Radiohead's OK Computer. That's a good record, but hardly a rare import. I've got a list of nearly 25 records I want to buy simply from reading Stephen Mejias' Elements of Our Enthusiasm. Why would I need to ask a stranger?

Is Rhino's Foos correct when he speaks of music in a physical format in the past tense? In terms of the mainstream market, perhaps, although there is still something about holding a physical object that satisfies the hunter/gatherer in us collector types, as Jon Iverson likes to say. The future of music in its most commoditized form—the Mariah Careys, 50 Cents, and Kanye Wests of the world—may be in disposable downloads. If that's true, look to a return of the popular music landscape that existed before the Beatles, when the top-10 single ruled the roost and last year's chart topper isn't even worth spinning this week.

But if you know where to find them, there are still going to be music lovers, not merely consumers out there. The trick for the music companies is being as clever at recognizing them as they are at recognizing one another. Then all the companies will have to do is be there—wherever there is—with something the music lovers want.

People didn't stop taking pictures, they stopped using film. People aren't going to stop listening to music, although they might stop using CDs.