Recently I ended up in two different music retailers with spo0ky because she wanted to support one of her favourite artists by actually buying their CD. She tried to buy it at an independent shop but they explained that it was a commercial release so it was only available at one of the larger chains.
I realised that I hadn’t been into a large music shop for a long time. And for good reason. The whole experience was totally alienating. It reminded me of images of pre-dissolution Soviet Russia, with empty shelves and long queues, a pervasive air of quiet depression tangible. The whole concept of music shops in their current dated format feels like an anachronism.
Although the shelves of this particular shop were relatively full, the ‘stock’, as that is what music is to these retailers, seemed unwanted and unloved. We looked around for someone to help us find the CD we were looking for (Heligoland by Massive Attack). The generic shelf categorisation makes browsing for anything a futile exercise. What is Massive Attack? Dance? Rap? RnB? Alternative? The few staff working were busy in the video games department, so after 10 minutes of scanning through shelves we decided to go somewhere else. I was glad to leave, as it was not a pleasant experience. Everything about the place screamed, ‘we don’t care about music, it’s just a product’.
The rise of digital downloads has put pressure on the music retail industry worldwide. Due to our limited access to affordable, high-speed internet in South Africa, we still have a relatively viable market for physical music retail. But just like the rest of the world, it’s not going to last – at least not in its current format. These music shops already feel like impersonal mausoleums, shrines to a bygone era.
Retailers have decided that product diversification is the answer to the ‘onslaught’ of file sharing and legitimate digital downloads. The selection of music in most of the big retailers seems to have diminished, with DVDs, video games, consoles and gaming paraphernalia filling the rack space.
Many people believe that music shops should be put to rest, that shopping has moved online so there’s no point having bricks and mortar retailers. After all, it is obvious that the current retailers are going to continue flogging the corpses of these dead horses until they eventually go out of business.
However, with a fresh, dynamic new business model, I believe that physical music retailers could have a future. They need to recapture the passion that should be synonymous with music. They must become more focused on music, offer a more diverse selection of music and employ knowledgeable staff that are genuinely passionate about music. They must also provide music in a variety of formats, including digital and vinyl, at an acceptable price. R170 is a ridiculous price to pay for a CD! Music retailers must also put themselves at the heart of the local music scene instead of distancing themselves from it like they currently do.
Growing up in London, independent music stores such as Blackmarket and Fatcat, were vibrant, exciting places where I spent many happy hours discovering new music and meeting knowledgeable people who shared my passion. When you spent enough time in a shop, the owner got to know you and started saving you pre-release or rare releases. Record shops would also be where you’d find out about parties and events.
Before you accuse me of being old-fashioned, I have fully embraced digital culture. I spend a large part of my life online so I am fully aware that the world has changed. However, no online experience can replace the buzz created by an exciting, specialised physical music retail experience.
Music retail should be about more than just discovering and buying music – something the internet is very good at – a music shop should be the hub of a city’s music culture – a vibrant creative space that fosters collaboration between musicians and other artists, and lets fans get closer to musicians.
Whilst I was in London a couple of years ago with Konfab, we visited Deal Real Records just off Carnaby Street in the West End. Deal Real is a specialist hip hop store that had become famous for its in-store promotions. As we were en route to the store we bumped into Wordsworth who was on tour with EMC. We first met Wordsworth when he came to Cape Town as part of the Tri-Continental Hip Hop Festival so naturally we said hello. He was also on his way to Deal Real so we joined him. The small shop was packing and buzzing with excitement, as EMC was about to perform in the shop. EMC performed a few tracks then let the crowd of local emcees in attendance join in a freestyle cipher. After their performance, they signed CDs and sold their branded merchandise. It was an amazing, vibrant environment.
The problem with ultra-niche independent stores is they struggle to survive because their market is limited. However, I can see no reason why a store couldn’t specialise in a wide variety of different music. So many forms of music are cross-pollinating these days to create new sub-genres, being so specialist just doesn’t make sense.
Independent music stores also struggle because they haven’t fully embraced the way people want to interact with music these days. Physical retailers need to offer experiences that the digital space just can’t compete with; workshops, DJ performances, exhibitions, in-store promotions by local and international musicians, maybe even a small recording facility so musicians can collaborate. Band merchandise should also be available. Think Red Bull Academy meets Gallery on 4th, meets The African Music Store, meets iTunes.
Obviously the internet cannot be ignored. Music stores should also have a website where you could download music and see their events diary, but the main aim of the website should be to drive physical traffic (people) to the store where the real action happens.
Imagine a music store where you could go to see your favourite artist perform songs from their latest EP, then download the EP immediately to your flash drive or cell phone for a reasonable price. Or a store where you could see an exhibition of a collaboration between a musician and a designer, then buy the limited edition vinyl that was the result of the collaboration.
It’s not just down to the music stores, musicians and creatives need to come up with exciting new ways to engage the current generation of music fans, but they need a base where people can come together. Music should be about bringing people together to share experiences. People still want these experiences but retailers are not delivering them. It seems like a missed opportunity for the whole industry.