Fish Fine Music Director Paul Nemeth discusses the historical evolution of music retailing.
It was a bright summer day in 1971 when my first record store opened its doors in Randwick. The store itself was small and our opening stock covered some 500 titles on vinyl and 200 on cassette. From these humble beginnings grew a lifetime of service in the music industry retail sector.
The first lesson I learned in retail was the realisation that ‘music lovers’ and ‘music collectors’ were very different beasts. Customers who would purchase five to eight albums a year – and who declared their love of music across the counter – provided the cream on the cake, however weren’t alone sufficient in sustaining a successful business. The collectors were a different story however – customers who purchased 20 to 50 albums a year. They were our lifeblood and a source of ever-evolving knowledge. Often they provided small facts, information and gossip that added to the value of their purchase and to our pleasure at serving them.
From the 1960s to 1980s, the realisation of a ‘perfect sound’ was just around the corner. Artists from the Beatles to Philip Glass and major world orchestras all experimented with techniques to enhance their recordings. Labels such as Telarc recorded the 1812 Overture with real canons to capture the excitement of the performance. Nimbus recorded in basilicas and churches to get as close as possible to ‘the real thing’. The search for sound quality continued even after the arrival of Compact Discs, with artists such as Karajan and the Berliner Philharmonic recording Beethoven's complete symphonies no less than three times –simply because the technology for each recording was supposed to have reached a new level of improvement. It all added to the flavour of a purchase, and often influenced the decision of a collector as to whether or not to add a new title to their collection. It seemed that life in the music industry was moving down a clear path of comfortable and steady growth, with ever-improving recording quality, and more investment in artists and repertoire.
For collectors, the relatively high expense of purchasing recordings at the time meant selectiveness, necessitating a strong knowledge base and an appreciation of high quality. Then the digital download age took hold in the late 1990s and the excitement of free music, along with the convenience and portability it provided, gave the music industry (and music itself) a new persona. No longer was sound quality paramount. The pride of owning a sophisticated sound system, the tactility of holding a CD or an LP in your hands, and thoroughness in the knowledge and understanding of artists and their recordings – all of it quickly vanished. Music lost its value and owning music became a convenience instead of a cultural pastime.
The major labels, retailers and musicians all attempted to keep to the old way, with blinkers firmly fastened over their collective visions. For those who embraced the new, it was much simpler: it was now easy to store, hold, carry and listen to music; you didn’t have to be a specialist; the iPod offered its own tactility; and who wanted all the paraphernalia and effort (not to mention storage space) that went into the old ways?
As a music retailer it was hard to believe that traditional music retailing would suddenly collapse as quickly as it did; those passionate music collectors that had filled music retail stores on a weekly basis had shrunk to a handful by the mid-2000s. Sydney, which once housed four classical music specialist stores, now contains just one. Cities like Canberra and Brisbane have no classical specialist stores at all. This unfortunate phenomenon is repeated around the world.
Has modern downloading and all that it encompasses changed our attitude to music? It is a big subject with many doors yet to be opened. While it may be the end of one era, all we can do is wait and see how music, as a cultural past time and commercial enterprise, will evolve into the future.