Friday, March 31, 2006

A few music-related thoughts...

As Cactus Music & Video, Houston's largest independent record shop, closes today, this runs in the Houston Chronicle:

Today's closing of Cactus Music & Video on Shepherd has proved what we've all suspected: Independent music stores are dying. Fast.

The few independents left are neighborhood spots specializing in specific genres of music. Most are struggling because, although their niche customer base provides a steady clientele, they don't get the volume needed to stay in the black.
"A few months ago we were thinking about closing," said Clark Miles II, who runs Turntable II Records & Tapes on Fondren in far southwest Houston. "Man, it was ugly out here. It's hard to stay in business if you're a small shop."
Hard because of the nature of the music business, Miles said. Major chains can secure enough inventory from record labels to allow for low pricing that undercuts the smaller record shops. Making matters worse, major chains also are given free copies in exchange for prominent display, which further increases profits.

And, of course, it squeezes out the good folks on the smaller labels, too, as the big-box stores by and large see fit only to stock music from the more popular artists out there, thus depriving the regional artists on those smaller labels the chance to have their music out there on the shelf for those of us lucky enough to hear it and would like to own it. The vicious cycle is turbocharged as terrestrial radio sees fit to ignore the regional artists on the smaller independent labels, save for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday nights here in Southeast Texas, for example. And this is driven by exactly the same thing that's happened to the record industry -- rampant corporatization (if that's a word), that is, radio shifting from more regional companies to more nationwide, centralized companies that employ more of a one-size-fits-all approach. Just as the big-box stores (with few exceptions) see fit to stock only product from major artists, radio (with even fewer exceptions) sees fit to play only those major artists, which leaves a lot of good music falling through the cracks. I am as much of a capitalist as anyone, so I can't fault the people in charge for actually wanting to make money, but I don't understand, for example, why the folks who run country radio seem to think that the national audience for it would only like "country music" that comes from the Nashville-based labels. I know that's what the consulting firms' research says, but country radio's declining ratings nationwide over the last few years, in tandem with country music's decline in sales over roughly the same period, would seem to show that research is at least a little bit off the mark. I don't see it changing any time soon, and that's a real shame. I made a trip over to Cactus when I went to see George Strait at the rodeo, just to see what I could find, and I found about 40-plus copies (combined) of a few cds I'd gone looking for all over the Golden Triangle but had yet to find in Wal-Mart, FYE or Sam Goody. Before my plans to go to the rodeo, I'd considered making the trip just to buy those cds, but I am in a distinct minority as far as that goes, I am sure, with brick-and-mortar shops like Cactus being supplanted with direct Web marketing. That is a good thing for the artists on the small, independent labels like Houston-based D Records, but I don't know whether satellite or Internet radio will be enough to make up for the exposure the independents don't get on terrestrial radio. Only time will tell, but being a fan of the regional artists you can many times find only in the independent shops like Cactus or on the Web, I worry...