On music stores

Back when I lived in Winnipeg, I used to enjoy browsing the racks at the HMV in Kildonan Place.  This was before I had completely developed my musical taste but it was the time when my family finally had a CD player, and I no longer had to make do with the limited selection of music available on cassette.  I used to be in awe at the different albums that were available and remember seeing countless copies of Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" and Tom Waits' "Closing Time" in the racks, the shrink wrap covered with the red WEA "super saver" logo.  I also remember prominent displays of jazz CDs in the aisles: Miles' "Sketches of Spain" and "Kind of Blue" (both recently remastered), Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz"...this made an impression on me.

I moved to New Brunswick in 1999; the first HMVs in the province opened in 2005.  I was aware the store had made a few changes in the interim thanks to a few trips to the Halifax stores, and the new mall stores not only were cramped and had annoying music piped in through the PA system, but their jazz, indie and catalog selection left a lot to be desired.  Even so,  I was still impressed that I could find $7.99 copies of "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane and the Gram Parsons twofer.  They also had a decent selection of music that was under the 2/30, 2/25 and 3/30 promotion; the 2-CD "The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads" only set me back $15.  Sure, I'd often leave the store with a vaguely dissatisfied feeling, and their "blacklists" of certain artists was just petty, but New Brunswick doesn't have great music retail anyway, so another store was welcome.

Unfortunately, the entire music retail sector is on a downswing.  CD Plus, the store in the mall that inexplicably filed all their music by the artists' first name, closed shortly after.  Music World went out of business.  Big box stores with music sections are reducing shelf space to the bare minimum, and there are towns and small cities that used to have decent music stores but now don't even have anywhere to buy CDs aside from Wal-Mart or Zellers. 

What's even worse is that in the past three and a half years, HMV has reduced shelf space to make room for more DVDs, video games and books.  I still go there just to see if they have something I want on for cheap (and I admit sometimes more often than not they do), but I know I'm not going to find any Miles Davis albums aside from the cardboard pack version of "Kind of Blue" and "The Essential Miles Davis".  Most of Dylan's back catalog is absent save for compilations  "Blonde on Blonde" and "Highway 61 Revisited", and while I can still find indie/alternative stuff, it's usually the newest release and the more well-known artists. 

There are a handful of good stores in Moncton: Frank's Music in particular.  It used to be the Sam The Record Man location in the mall until the chain went bankrupt, then soldiered on under a new name before moving out by the power center.  The prices are quite often higher than what you'd pay everywhere else but it's the only place in town that still has the classical and jazz in it's own room, there's a rack of new local and independent stuff, and the staff is actually quite knowledgeable and helpful.  On more than one occasion, I've seen the face of the guy behind the counter light up when he saw what I was ringing out with.  As well, there's a pretty good used place downtown where I've scored countless finds.

I accept that the rule is that stores have to be able to make money to survive, and these measures are just to keep the expenses down and sales high.  But every time I see good stuff no longer available so they can clear two whole columns of space for the new Nickelback CD, I die a little.  More and more independent stores are closing down for good, and the only way to find a lot of this stuff is to download it or buy it online with a credit card.  It's like if you don't like what the "unwashed masses" like, you don't exist.

I wonder how different my tastes would have been if the stores I had browsed in my younger days didn't have all that different music displayed prominently; while the Internet has made it easier for people to find good music that hasn't caught on with the public (for the record, this is how I got into a lot of indie music), fact of the matter is that having the music visible and convenient for people to discover does make a bit of difference.  Jyn Radakovits talks about this in her rant about music retail: with the internet, you have to dig deeper; the good stores put this stuff in the light.

The landscape is changing, whether I like it or not.  To me it feels a lot less like a natural change than something like the forests in New Brunswick being cut down and then replenished with homogenous acres of pines with the Irving logo up front.