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A Love Song for Aron's 

Darwinian days for indie L.A. record stores — but maybe that’s okay

Wednesday, Jan 25 2006
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The news of Aron’s Records’ closing was bad enough. (No date has been set, but as announced last month, the 40-year-old landmark will close as soon as its inventory has been liquidated — estimated for March.) Aron’s was where I landed my first job at age 17, and where I worked for three incredible years in the late ’90s. Aron’s was where I became a record-store romantic — and I hadn’t even read High Fidelity. I believe that if music is the expression of the soul, then the record store — not a window on your desktop — is the holy temple.

It was again heartbreaking when, on January 5, Rhino Records announced the closure of its Westwood store, itself a local landmark, after 35 years in business. (See Dave Shulman’s account of Rhino’s parking-lot sale held last Saturday.) With Moby Disc and Penny Lane already gone from the strip, it’s hard to believe there are no indie record stores near one of the biggest universities in the country.

To add poignancy to these events, on January 6, the day after the Rhino announcement, Aron’s owner Jesse Klempner — my business-minded, workaholic boss — suffered a heart attack. The stress of the store’s closure was certainly a factor in his deteriorating health. Nevertheless, very much in character, Klempner returned to work just days later to oversee his store’s last days.

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It would be an understatement to say that independent record stores are struggling. The numbers are staggering. Nationwide, 1,500 record stores — many independent — have shut down in the past three years, with more to follow suit in the first quarter of 2006, according to Almighty Institute of Music Retail (AIMR), an L.A.-based market-research group. To put it in more brutal terms: Ten years ago, there were 5,000 record stores; today there are about 2,800. Meanwhile, the iPod revolution is a fait accompli: Nielsen SoundScan reports 332.7 million digital downloads last year — and that’s only counting legal downloads. That’s an increase of 148 percent from a year ago. In 2004, there were 50 music-download sites. Today there are around 230, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

The irony at the heart of these figures is that, as buying music becomes ever more convenient, the fullness of the experience is diminished. It’s not as much fun to monitor the download-progress bar on your screen as it is to make a day of it by driving down to the neighborhood record store, flipping through endless crates of buried treasure, taking in the sweet petrol scent of vinyl, wiping dust from an album jacket that evolved from the imagination of an artist.

Downloading is a lonely experience, unsatisfying to the soul.

A good record store, by contrast, is a place to congregate, to analyze and discuss, to argue and experience an epiphany, to flaunt and to desire. It’s where you might run into Morrissey or one of the Beastie Boys in the New Releases section — as I often did while working at Aron’s — browsing like any other music geek. It’s where that guy who spends half his life sitting on the floor with a portable record player and a stack of dance-hall 45s in his lap can tell you more about the next wave of Jamaican music than the most complex algorithm Amazon.com uses to give you “personal recommendations.”

A physical record store can and mustsurvive — and we need many more than just one cool record store at the center of Hollywood.

But this is not a doom-and-gloom story, as suggested in recent articles on the subject. There’s hope. Don Van Cleave, president of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS), an organization that represents 70 stores in 24 states, says he sees a clear trend: “The weaker stores that were already in trouble really got into trouble this year. The stronger stores that have capital and are innovative are thriving.”

Among CIMS stores, Van Cleave cites Fingerprints in Long Beach, Rhino Records in Claremont and Mad Platter on Riverside as having “fantastic years.” Despite the fact that Penny Lane Records had two of its stores close in the past three months (Westwood and Old Town Pasadena), Penny Lane co-owner Steve Bicksler says downscaling has been “working well,” and the branches the chain has kept open are doing fine. “As more and more indie stores close, it makes the ones that are around that much more special,” Bicksler says. “The ones that survive are strengthened.”

Yet another reason to hope: With music sales dropping 7 percent industrywide last year, big-box stores — your Wal-Marts/Targets/Best Buys — are likely to stock fewer new releases this year. The hope is that these sales will move to indie stores. And since 95 percent of music consumers still do purchase CDs, this could be a significant shift.

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