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.
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.
The mother of all record stores, Amoeba Music in Hollywood, just completed its best-ever holiday season, and an overall year that was “as good as ever,” says co-owner Karen Pearson.
“We felt Amoeba’s impact from Day One and never recovered,” Aron’s owner Klempner said in an interview before his heart attack. Four years since that store’s arrival, he admits, Amoeba is the biggest reason his store is closing. Other reasons include the arrival of Target and Best Buy in the area, illegal downloading and the general consumer shift toward digital files instead of hard media.
Toward the end of its run, Aron’s tried to survive by stocking more used products — mainly vinyl — where the profit margin was higher, and by undercutting Amoeba in price (which they did). Clearly, that wasn’t enough.
“Amoeba played the Wal-Mart game — except they didn’t do it with Wal-Mart pricing,” Klempner says. “They have a nice formula. They do it efficiently and fast and you end up with a nice vanilla store. It’s the American way. It’s the American business way.”
Others say Aron’s was going downhill long before Amoeba appeared. “Aron’s was not as good as it was 20 years ago,” says Terry Currier, owner of Music Millennium in Portland, Oregon, and one of the founders of CIMS. “They were not on top of it as they [once] were. Selection of new music was poor, and used music seemed a bit less interesting.”
Jon Liu, who’s been working at record stores for 15 years (including Aron’s and currently Amoeba), has fond memories of his former workplace. But he too admits: “Aron’s was kind of operating off momentum, thinking their longevity would carry them through. They didn’t really adapt. There were strengths they could’ve built upon.” It didn’t help that, according to employees, Aron’s wasn’t sufficiently staffed in the post-Amoeba years; at times, inventory would lie abandoned in the upstairs stockroom, and the store held fewer community-building promotions such as in-store signings and performances. Perhaps the nail in the coffin was a monthlong price-slashing event last September — which, apparently due to a lack of advertising and publicity, went practically unnoticed. Since hiring an outside liquidator — which has an adequate promotions budget — Aron’s has seen swarms of new and old faces.
Amoeba, of course, saw an opportunity and, based on its success in the Bay Area, decided to venture into the L.A. marketplace. “Amoeba is tremendously lucky in terms of the timing and everything else,” admits Pearson. “We came in at the right time when there were a lot of big stores that were sterile.”
Apart from the obvious advantages Amoeba has over every other record store — a 38,000-square-foot space at the center of Hollywood, two parking lots, staff of 200, continuous press and promotion since launch — the store’s formula for success has been to make the space more than a repository of objects, and put tremendous effort in developing a real live, breathing and interacting community. Whatever Klempner might say of his old foe, through live music, outreach programs, a recent Hurricane Katrina charity auction and local promotions, Amoeba has given people a reason to come to the store. (A newly launched Amoeba record label and a planned online store represent further efforts to deepen Amoeba’s roots in the marketplace, and build brand identity and customer loyalty.)
“There is this sensory stimuli that blares throughout the store,” Liu says. Pearson adds: “When you walk in, you feel that you’re part of it. It keeps business alive.”
It may or may not be significant that Amoeba employees don’t have formal titles — Pearson even declined to give a title for herself. (She calls staffers “Amoebytes.”) “We’re only a bunch of people. We couldn’t live in the straight world. We all come together to make it the best we can make it,” she says.
Klempner admits he should’ve done certain things differently: He wishes he’d reacted sooner to the need for change, and concentrated on specialties. “I would’ve had a complete makeover and given up on some sections,” he says. “Instead of trying to cover 100 different sections, I would’ve done maybe 20.”
A successful full-catalog indie store like Amoeba is an anomaly in the business, and even Pearson admits that Amoeba is lucky with its infrastructure; she sees her store as “many small individual stores under one big umbrella” instead of one giant store. That’s another way of saying what others have noted in the wake of Rhino and Aron’s demise: Record stores today must attract niche audiences — and court them like crazy. (Poetically, on the day of Rhino’s sale — January 21 — a new independent hip-hop shop, 33third, opened on West Pico.)
Penny Lane is an example of this concept in motion. Throughout the company’s history, 20 Penny Lanes have opened, but only three remain today (including a video store). Yet Bicksler says downscaling and niche-marketing have been a good experience. “We just love it. Business is good. We’ve been able to make a reasonable living at it.”
Naturally, there have been adjustments. Unlike the boom days when Bicksler was working behind the scenes in his office, today, he’s out on the floor: “I’m talking to every customer that comes in. I’m doing orders. I’m working side by side with my staff.”
Klempner echoes that attitude: “You should know 80 to 90 percent of the customers when they walk into the store and anticipate what they’ll buy. When a customer buys one CD, you should be able to say, ‘This is really cool, but have you heard this other guy?’?”
To Amoeba’s Pearson, the loss of Aron’s isn’t exactly a victory. “We see us as a brotherhood. We’re united against the bigger stores that can undercut us. What worries me is when you throw in the towel. Or take one thing or a few things and say that’s it. I feel that’s what the industry has done.”
There aren’t too many things you can depend on in life — record and book stores close, restaurants and bars fold, countries split, people you love disappear. Since pulling up roots and moving to Brooklyn a few years ago, I’ve come to rely upon the idea that, whenever I visit family and friends at home, Aron’s will be there. One of the things I look forward to most — and depend on — is taking that familiar drive west on Beverly, hooking a right on Highland, and watching for the approach of that famous building just past Santa Monica. As I drive, all my instincts return to form: It’s as if I’m heading into work for another Saturday 4 p.m.-midnight shift, sharing the counter with Jaime, Chris, Brooke and Jeremy. Next time I visit, I know that building will have become something else — perhaps a Barnes & Noble or another doughnut shop.