Monday, January 02, 2012

The Day the Music Died, Dept.

D.C. is diminished now, in a way that speaks to unwelcome but, perhaps, inevitable change.

The last good record store in this minor-league town is closing.  Melody Record Shop, just north of Dupont Circle, is shutting its doors after 34 years as a family-run business.  And as they say on their Web site and on a sign at the store, which I passed today, "While we wish that we could continue indefinitely, technology, the internet and the economy has taken its toll, and we have concluded, unfortunately, that it is not possible to survive in this environment."

A few years back, I started shopping at Melody after a long hiatus shopping, first, at Tower Records, during its years here, then online and in second-hand stores and shows.  I was working in the neighborhood and had a bit of extra change for an occasional CD buy.  I was instantly reminded of the serendipity of the well-curated record store.  How you might find this that you'd been looking for, but then see that that you'd read about in a music magazine or online, oh, and I didn't know this compilation existed...

It's just not the same online, and I don't know if some upcoming online retailer will be able to provide as satisfying an experience as a good record or book store visit.  I can't imagine that, outside a holodeck, one ever could.  Sure, you can have predictive algorithms that guess, based on your buying/viewing patterns and those of others with the same taste/income/location as you, similar but yet slightly different selections that you might find enjoyable and why don't you just click through and prove us right, okay?  But it's not at all like walking into, say, a good book store and feeling the cool weight of all those fresh pages behind crisp covers in a slight mantling of seasonally appropriate indoor temperature and maybe some inobtrusive-but-really-cool music playing in the background.  Scent of well-brewed coffee optional.  The preceding hits the customer on so many different cognitive and sensory levels, that she or he wants to embrace the book store experience and is lubed to look for something to take home.  Compared to the customer sitting on her living room couch staring at a screen, maybe the same screen she stared at for nine hours at work.  Not even vaguely comparable, even if Jesus crafts your online customer environment.

But I can see why Melody Records will close, probably by the beginning of February.  I use MOG and Spotify to listen to almost anything I want.  I have to really need the physical package or its superior sound before I'll buy the CD.  And I'm a minor collector, at least for certain artists and styles.  So, there aren't that many classical music shoppers in D.C., I guess, or of show and film music or of international music, to name three of Melody's strengths, to support a store.  And the store has always had good buyers.  If I saw something in MOJO, there's a decent chance that Melody might've had it.  Or, of course, they'd've ordered it.

I'm not one to say that it's the customers' "fault" that a store like Melody fails.  Not enough people saw the benefit of what it offered, despite the store's efforts.  It was hit hard after the world markets crisis, or so it seemed to me, as it appeared to resist carrying any kind of inventory despite its shelves looking a bit bare.  But it built back up in the intervening three years, if inventory is any measure.  It expanded its vinyl selection considerably, to where, any given week, they had a fine and sizeable selection of new and catalog discs.  I guess there just isn't that much disposable income out there.

Or maybe its time has simply come and gone.  Vinyl and box sets will be available in a smaller marketplace, direct order or boutique retail, but the broad-gauged music store may really be on the downward slope to extinction.  To join "software stores" and "virtual reality arcades" as business environments of a bygone era.  The publishing industry might've gone this way, except there was never a big enough market or an easy enough system of content extraction to have a Napster of novels, besides even short stories aren't singles.

In 1982, I saw my first CD, a Fleetwood Mac disc, in a longbox, on a small display with some other titles, visible as I walked into Melody, then half a block south.  I'd heard, maybe read, about CDs, but this was the first time I'd seen one.  I picked up the longbox, turned it around, saw its price (expensive) and put it back down.  Interesting but by no means compelling enough as a concept to carry me to inquire regarding this new format and its players.  But like most of the unfortunate crewmen aboard the Nostromo, Melody Records already carried within it the thing that would eventually destroy it.

And, so, adieu to this minor D.C. institution.  I'll miss that blind date with serendipity that was every visit to the store.  A Miles set I'd never heard about or that Nigerian compilation I saw advertised in The Wire or a Busby Berkeley DVD set.  The tangible has its charm.  To lose the tactile pleasure of possession is an unfortunate and incidental cost of our progress.

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