Where’s the music?

In college towns across USA, record stores bite the dust

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – You need a college, of course, but that’s not the only ingredient in a good college town. You need quirky bookstores. Coffee shops – preferably not all chains. A diner. An artsy cinema. A dive bar.There’s one other thing you need, and it’s getting harder to find: a local record store. The kind of place with poster-covered walls, tattoo-covered customers, and an indie-rock aficionado at the cash register, somebody in a retro T-shirt who helps you navigate the store’s eclectic inventory.

A few years ago on just one block of Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, the main drag in what’s been called America’s ideal college town, four or five such places catered both to locals and University of North Carolina students.

But with the demise of Schoolkids Records, the last one is gone. Schoolkids had planned to gut it out through March, but couldn’t even make through its final week and shut down Saturday. It’s just the latest victim in an industry hit by rising college-town rents, big-box retailers, high CD prices, and – most importantly – a new generation of college students for whom music has become an entirely online, intangible hobby they often don’t have to pay for.

Chapel Hill is hardly alone. In recent years, perhaps hundreds of independent and small-chain record stores in college towns have shut down or consolidated as music downloading all but eliminated the demand for them.

In State College, Pa., Arboria and Vibes have closed. Iowa City, Iowa, used to have BJ’s, Sal’s Music Emporium and Real Records.

Boulder, Colo., has lost at least a half dozen – Cheapo Discs, All the Rage, Rocky Mountain Records and Tapes, and others. Albums on the Hill, a holdout across from the University of Colorado’s campus, is down from 18 full-time employees to three part-timers.

“I’m just trying to decide when I’m going to go online and close my brick and mortar,” said Greg Gabbard, owner of City Lights Records in State College, near Penn State’s campus. “I’m trying to stay here as long as I can because I love the people. We’re all teachers.”

Big record chains aren’t doing much better. But somehow, customers never seem to miss them as much when they close down.

“You walk down the hall of the dorm and hear everything possible, and you will be influenced by all these people,” said Ric Culross, who managed Schoolkids and has been in the business 35 years. “They’ve come to a store such as ours to feed off of that, just like they go into a bookstore.”

But these days, most just go online. Culross said he’d hoped this year’s freshmen might arrive with a revived passion for CDs and even vinyl albums, which have experienced a minor resurgence. It turns out many have never even bought a single non-digital one.

College students are the perfect market for music downloads. They have low incomes, small living quarters and endless bandwidth.

The change may be an economic inevitability, but still a loss. Colleges talk a lot about diversity, but you often find more of it browsing record stores near campus than in the cafeteria. Customers are black and white, well off and poor. You’ll find cool high school kids next to older collectors, professors and students ranging from straight-laced pre-professionals to punk rockers.

“This is one of the few places I can consistently find things I’m interested in,” David Crotts said as he flipped through CDs at Schoolkids’ going-out-of-business sale recently. An MBA student at UNC, he first shopped at Schoolkids when he was a teenager in nearby Burlington. He has about 500 CDs, but most people he knows just download music.

“It’s not surprising, but it’s disappointing,” he said. “You can’t come into a place like this that has atmosphere anymore.”

Nearby, as his wife thumbed a CD by a group called Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Timothy Shelly, who works for a catering company, complained about his recent shopping experience in one of the big chain stores.

“Even in their specialty heavy metal section, they didn’t even have Black Sabbath,” he said disgustedly.

In a town like Chapel Hill, with a good music scene, record stores also have been venues. Over the years, several bands played on a tiny stage behind Schoolkids’ front window, including Tom Tom Club, a Talking Heads offshoot, and John Mayer, before he moved up the ladder to clubs and now arenas.

Like most such places, Schoolkids’ walls were lined with posters – Nirvana, James Dean, Led Zeppelin, the Breeders. The rock shelves ran from Aberdeen City to Neil Young. Biggest sellers over the years ranged from groups such as Pink Floyd and Pixies to jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Latin albums including “Buena Vista Social Club,” Culross said.

At their peak, around 2000, the five or so stores on the block did around $250,000 worth of business each month, he said. By the end, it was under $50,000. U.S. album sales have plummeted, declining 15 percent in 2007, while digital album sales rose more than 50 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Some independent record stores are surviving, though mostly ones that don’t depend so much on college students.

There is still one independent record store in Chapel Hill, called CD Alley, though it’s much smaller than Schoolkids and farther from the center of town. Owner Ryan Richardson, a 1998 UNC grad, says he has an older clientele and cheaper rent. But he’s trying to drum up new business, selling turntables and hoping to get more students into vinyl records. The local college radio stations are a big help.

“We can carry all this obscure stuff because there’s a good chance people will hear it on the radio,” he said. “I’m hoping there’s enough of a difference in what we do to keep us going a little while longer.”

Schoolkids’ owner, Mike Phillips, once owned eight stores, and will now be down to two – in Athens, Ga. (home of the University of Georgia) and nearby Raleigh, near North Carolina State. He said he’s been getting lots of e-mails about the store closing, some of them from angry customers.

“If everybody was so damned concerned,” he responds, “they should have come in and bought a CD every once in a while.”

About Amy L. Darnell

Teacher, scholar, student, wonderer, wanderer, fan, foe, friend, acquaintance, all of these and more, but ultimately just an Ohio daughter.
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