Tuesday, January 09, 2007

In Memorium to Wazoo Records

This last summer (August 30, 2006 to be exact) Wazoo Records closed in East Lansing.

It could have been worse. Out of two used record stores in East Lansing, Wazoo was the lamer one (sorry, had to put it that way). The selection leaned more towards the popular and the "adult" (meaning calmer, quieter and Middle-of-the-road) whereas the other store (Flat, Black and Circular) had the more alternative and college-oriented stuff. Admittedly I'd go into the Wazoo on occasion, and on rarer occasion purchase stuff there that couldn't be found anywhere else.

It also has been worse. I remember WhereHouse Records from back when I first went to Michigan State University in 1983-4, and Tower Records was a favorite stop for me in the nineties. Both are gone, having fully dropped off the face of the planet (WhereHouse a long time ago, Tower Records in December of '05). There were other records stores that came and went (or stopped selling records) but WhereHouse and Tower were the stores to go to if you wanted something new (or unplayed, in its wrapper still).

Of course, Wazoo served its market nitch well. While it didn't go out of its way to be hip, you could always find something here. Not only that, but the owner (and his main employee) had taste intriguing enough that those who knew what they wanted could find it.

So, in a way, I found it sad that Wazoo finally had to close its doors.

Of course, it's not the only record store that's worth mourning the loss of. The aforementioned WhereHouse and Tower are also losses to mourn, as these are national losses (along with the unmourned Record Town, Muzakland and other mall abominations). There was also the loss of Vinyl Solution and I Believe In Music in Grand Rapids and Rock-a-Rolla Records in Flint. Vinyl Solution is especially mourned by me, as I found a lot of stuff there that I neither knew existed or was unable to find elsewhere (this was before Amazon, friends).

There has also been a major loss of Record stores in Chicago and Northwest Indiana. Hegwisch Records closed down in 2002 (It was once a major player in the Northwest Indiana area, although by the time I made it to one of the (by then two) remaining stores I was very negatively impressed, as it seemed to be a record store not long in the world), a music store that opened in Lansing, Illinois in 2000 closed back down in 2003 (although he made a good run at it), a Munster record store closed down the year I moved in, and a couple other record stores whose names I forgot closed down during my eight years in the area. Add to that all the record stores in Chicago proper that closed down (a couple I actually miss dearly), and you're talking about the death of a culture.

Okay, I hear the peanut gallery laughing at that. After all,
"with Amazon.com to find your oddities and Limewire to download the songs everyone knows about there's no reason to go to some dank building in the snow or rain or steaming heat and hunt around a messy, germ-infested building looking for a case of plastic with a plastic coaster inside which may or may not have enough stuff for you to like and overpay for the priviledge?"
Well, there's something about being able to enter into a record store, look through row after row after row of albums/cases, seeing if anything new has made it into the store, and decide to buy something -- or not. I'm sure that for every time I entered a record store and bought something there were five to ten times I entered that same store and came out empty handed.

There's also something about being able to find something new, buy it, take it home, play it and like the new discovery. Sometimes you actually get the ability to judge a new album BY THE COVER (it can be done, and while I can't state how it works I can say you can almost tell what's going on with a group or singer just by looking at the cover if you look at enough covers and buy enough good or bad ones).

Then there's something about getting an album by a group you've known a long time, looking a bit longer, finding some artist you've never heard of before in your life, judging between the two, picking the unknown artist (you can always get the known quantity later), and finding the newly discovered group as worth getting. Moving on, there's also finding the old release you wanted later, knowing it would be around later while the newer one may not.

Then there's the people in the store. People who know what they like and are willing to share with you their likes. An LP gets suggested by some stranger, and even if you're not the one being suggested to, you've got another LP in your mind for future purchase.

While Amazon.com may give you the world's largest selection of CDs, it's not going to place a couple of CDs close to each other in such a way that you'll look past one you've already got and find something that looks interesting on the cover -- something you'll pick up and buy and listen to and like despite the tastes in music determined over years of selection. Amazon.com does its best (as do the other music sites), but they can only figure out what you already like, not what you may run into by accident.

This means that Amazon.com will list a Metal CD and have three lists to go along with it. One of the lists will be of releases by the band and two others with a selection of Metal CDs. One may have a "more varied selection" of metal CDs, but you won't be able to find Norah Jones or Tangerine Dream or Patrick Fitzgerald in any of these lists. The item would just disqualify the list from being viewed, as it would be too wide a variation from the main CD.

I won't spend more time than necessary discussing the whys and hows. Anyone who's followed the woes of the Music Industry over the past ten years knows the refrain:
  • Anti-Trust ruling against the Music Industry and the Record Stores they tried to protect against the big boxes and their use of CDs as loss leaders
  • Napster siphoning off the College market that used to nurture the future of music
  • Amazon.com allowing for gratification of all but the most obscure of desires
  • Crappy Selection in the music stores from the shrinking of demand and need to get "what sells"
  • The development of a vicious circle between the various happenings above (outside of the "anti-trust" ruling).

So what does this closing of various stand-alone Record stores mean? Quite a bit:
  • A narrowing of selection: While Wal-Mart, Circuit City and Borders may send music where it may not have gone before, these places have a need to bring in people willing to spend money on other things. This means they can't really gamble on some music that may or may not be bought, they have to depend on stuff they know has been bought.
  • A shrinking of offerings, period: A friend says that Napster has made people not care about music period. Maybe we'll see it in the shrinkage of illegal downloads as people get bored and stop downloading; now we can see it as groups no longer can get traction to go national (or world-wide), stopping at regional (if not local)
  • Narrower fan bases: With fewer people getting into music (at the time the ability to branch out has increased exponentially), the era of the Supergroup or Superartist (the group or artist that everyone knows about, whether they like, hate or couldn't care less about said group or artist) fades even deeper into the past. While this has been a fait accompli since the mid-eighties with the development of the Hispanic market, the creation of the Underground and the separation of Country into its own world, it can only continue in a shrinking market
  • Collapse of Music Economy: If there's not enough demand to keep things going at a certain level, things don't just drop down to a lower level, they collapse. Think of it: if all our cars and busses were to stop working tomorrow, how would we get around? There ain't nearly as many horses as would be needed, and the railroad infrastructure has shrunken down (in the US and Canada) to such a degree that they couldn't even begin to haul people around. Translated to Music, we get this: once we go below a certain level of purchases, we don't stabilize at the levels of 1980, or 1963 (when Sugar Shack ruled the land). We'll probably stabilize to 1945 or 1948, when music purchases were special purchases, made with the idea of buying something you'd play once or twice a year, every year.

And Wazoo Records?

The same thing that allowed the existence of MuzakLand in the Mall and SchoolKidzRecords (still in existence, though subletting a downstairs space now) allowed for the existence of Wazoo alongside Flat Black and Circular. Now that the mall stores have disappeared (along with most College-area Stores), the space for Wazoo has disappeared.

Flat Black and Circular will now have to work that much harder to attract buyers. While the selection is good, the larger market that Wazoo allowed and thrived in (remember: buying at one Record store never meant you kept yourself away from others; indeed I would look through the Mall stores just in case there was an odd disk that somehow slipped through their marketing limitations and into my arms) has shrunken even further with the death of Wazoo records. People who mainly used their store to satisfy their cravings for music aren't as likely to make FB&C their main store; if they live far enough away they'll stop showing up altogether, huddling up to Amazon.com.

And another voice in the once varied galaxy of Music Fans has been stilled.

1 comment:

chairman ralph said...

Just what I needed to read before my birthday: another brick in the wall toward a cheesy Soviet-style culture -- with all the trappings of "Rebel Rock", but none of the spark or spirit that makes for either quality.

Of course, as anybody who knows me is aware, I was more of a Flat, Black & Circular person...but any time an indie biz goes out, it leaves the rest of us feeling a little more hollow.

To me, what I always dug most -- more so, than the records, though the hunt for that ever-elusive red vinyl pressing from the Twerptones played a part -- was the interaction with folks, whether you agreed with their buying choices, or not.

Offhand, my favorite FB&C memory is pulling out an album by Samhain...then turning it over, looking at the cover, thinking, "Hmmm...do I dare to take a chance on this?"

And then, I hear a voice behind me, cutting into my train of thought...it goes something like this:

"You're not going to buy that piece of shit, are you?"

I turn my head: OK, it's only Norman...Bates, the singer from Disinfect.

I laugh nervously.

"Oh, no, Norm, I was just checking out the cover." The record goes back into the bin. "You know me, it's Black Flag all the way!"

Those are the moments that I tend to remember most.

It'll be interesting to see how those new stores in Lansing fare against the onslaught of zeros and ones...as an eBay dealer, I can say there's more collectors out there who could care less about that stuff, and actually want to pay for it.

But even that situation, no matter how well it works for me, will never make up for the loss of interaction, the personal triumphs you celebrate with other pursuers of the vinyl Lost Ark. Ah, well, better stop before I get bummed out again.