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VOL. 121 | NO. 250 | Friday, December 29, 2006

Broken Records

Where giant music retailers die, independents thrive

By Zachary Zoeller

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BANDING TOGETHER: Nichole Newman, clerk at Last Chance Records at 2072 Walker Ave., says she enjoys working at an independent record store because it supports local bands. -- Photo By Zachary Zoeller

Shoppers shuffled through the decimated music selection at Tower Records' Memphis location near the end of the chain's 46-year run last month.

Shelves that used to be brimming with Elvis, The Beatles, Cat Power and Sonic Youth were reduced to a grab-bag of no-name bands and overstocked "best-of" compilations.

Posters, magazine racks and lighting fixtures bore signs that read "SOLD" as the Peabody Place Entertainment and Retail Center anchor took a last gasp and died.

Liquidation company Great American Group of Los Angeles paid $134.3 million for the ailing stores in October. Tower's parent company, MTS Inc., filed for bankruptcy in February 2004.

The once-prolific chain's demise resonated throughout the music industry, signaling the decline of music-only stores and the growing popularity of retailers such as Wal-Mart and Apple iTunes.

While companies like Tower rely on massive CD and DVD sales, small, locally owned record stores often sing a different tune.

Sad, sad song

With the loss of Tower, the number of Memphis stores that rely mostly on music sales is dwindling.

Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Borders Books Music Movies & Café and others sell a variety of products, while music accounts for a piece of their incomes.

However, independent record stores thrive on the areas that the larger stores might lack - emphasis on local music, specialized genres and employee expertise. Local stores, such as Midtown's Goner Records, Last Chance Records and Shangri La Records, pick up where the chains leave off.

Zac Ives, co-owner of local independent record label and music store Goner Records says many of the woes of the music industry don't affect the fledgling three-year-old imprint.

"We specialize in weird, garage punk kind of stuff," Ives said. "We're kind of insulated a little bit from all this other stuff that's going around."

Remaining to the left of mainstream has been the calling card of the label since it morphed from an online bulletin board into a record label in the 1990s.

"(Co-owner Eric Friedl) created a bulletin board and kind of created this community of people who wanted to talk about whatever - whether it was Memphis, whether it was music or being an idiot," Ives said. "We kind of had that set online presence already, and we were able to tap into that with an online store."

'A leg up'

In January 2006, Best Buy announced a promotion that was criticized by many within the world of independent music.

The big box retailer offered CDs of artists from independent record labels, such as Cat Power and Broken Social Scene, for $7.99, lower than the price that many stores could buy them from distributors.

Goner Records largely was immune to the effects of the promotion, since it sells music from its artists without buying from a distributor.

Its label boasts artists such as local bands the Oblivians, Jay Reatard and Harlan T. Bobo, as well as others like Chicago's Cocoma and England's the Hipshakes.

"As both a record label that is putting out our own stuff and being able to sell it through our own storefront and online, we've kind of got a leg up with other small labels," Ives said.

The store's online presence and used-music sales have been two of Goner's saving graces.

Currently, it sells half of its merchandise in the store and half on its Web site, www.goner-records.com.

Last Chance Records at 2072 Walker Ave. finds its niche in hip-hop LPs and showcasing local bands, such as punk upstarts Evil Army.

"When you're here, you know where your money's going," said Nichole Newman, who has worked at Last Chance for three years.

V for Victrola

In an age when Apple iTunes has sold more than a billion digital MP3 files, Goner's shelves might require a double-take for the casual music buyer.

Stocked with vinyl records, most of the store's business comes from those who still love the crackle of a needle across an LP.

"We knew that there was this oncoming thing of CDs becoming obsolete," Ives said. "We do two-thirds (of sales) on vinyl and one-third on CDs."

Pressing 500 to 1,000 of each of its releases, the label realizes the limitations of its audience.

"There's that kind of goodwill of going into your neighborhood record store," he said. "People are recognizing that vinyl has some staying power now that companies are putting stuff on vinyl."

PROPERTY SALES 103 137 4,008
MORTGAGES 84 131 4,521
BUILDING PERMITS 178 368 9,636
BANKRUPTCIES 50 110 2,995