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Death of a Salesman

CounterPunch: 2014


Barely on the cusp of puberty, I didn’t know exactly what rock and soul music were trying to tell me but it felt good and I was all ears. I was the first kid in my grade school class to buy records. Since actual record stores did not yet exist in my city, I had to go to the music instrument store down on the town square which had a couple of small bins of 45s off in a corner. It was an adult environment and I felt out of place, but I had to have the music.


One of the salesmen there was Mr. Smith, who lived a few houses up the street from my family. He treated me with respect as a customer, not with the condescension that almost all other grown-ups had for my newly found passion.


About a year later, Mr. Smith opened his own store, selling musical instruments, appliances, and not only 45s but actual albums. He couldn’t make it work. One day I came home from school and found my mother very upset. She told me that Mr. Smith, distraught over the failure of his business, had hung himself in his bedroom closet. His daughter, who was about my age, found the body.


If Mr. Smith had been a better businessman, he might have made a go of it for a while. But the history of record retailing reveals the ruthless internal logic he was up against.


In the 1960s a new animal, the record store chain, emerged and it snatched away the music market from general merchandise stores. Riding an overheated war-driven economy, the chains took on massive amounts of debt and expanded rapidly (in the case of Tower Records, around the world). Meanwhile, in an ominous portent, factories and mills were closing and real wages had begun to fall.


The convergence of rising debt loads and falling disposable income took its toll, exacerbated by the rise of the Internet. One record store chain after another went under: Discount Records, National Record Mart, Record Bar, Sam Goody, Tower, Virgin Megastore, Wherehouse. Simultaneously, America saw the return of Mr. Smith’s retail model, where selling records was only a sideline. This time it was on a much higher level as Walmart became the country’s biggest music retailer and big box stores like Circuit City, Borders, and Best Buy sold a lot of CDs.


Now Circuit City and Borders have gone belly up and Walmart has drastically reduced its music offerings. In January, the UK’s last remaining chain music retailer, HMV, went bankrupt, closing 250 stores and firing over 4,000 workers. In the wake of HMV’s demise, the British press was filled with talk about the search for a viable “business model,” usually with quotes from executives at HMV or other failing companies about how Amazon had unfairly stolen their customers.


None of these moral men in suits mentioned the way Amazon brutally exploits its workers. That should come as no surprise--HMV employees at two Irish stores had to stage sit-ins to get their final paychecks. The crocodile tears these execs shed over Amazon’s ascendance fall on barren ground since the shift in music distribution from brick and mortar to online is a fait accompli. But that doesn’t mean the Internet will remain a viable “business model” either. Three billion people in the world now live on less than two dollars a day and they don’t buy CDs. That Third World phenomenon is now rapidly spreading across the austere landscape of Europe and even the United States, with no sign of slowing down.


The ups and downs of various retail strategies over the years have also decimated the ranks of local independent record stores. We mourn their loss not so much because of the music they once sold that the chains wouldn’t carry (we can easily find that online now) but because many of these stores also served as community centers, cultural hubs for entire cities.


That was great while it lasted.  But why should we see community as such an exceptional, elusive thing? For most of human history, everything was shared. It was only with the historically recent emergence of various forms of businessmen that anyone thought to arrange society any other way. That doesn’t mean we can go back to being hunter-gatherers, although we should thank them for their collective evolution which resulted in human brains which are hard-wired to enjoy music. Thanks to those ancestors, we are able to embrace the likes of John Lennon’s “Imagine” or Nelly’s “Nellyville,” songs which point us toward a future of widespread community and sharing.


Of course, millions of people are already sharing music for free via the Internet, while those music industry corporations which haven’t yet gone bankrupt continue to try to stop what they describe as “piracy.” Such corporations, the unholy spawn of Congress, courts, and lawyers, are obsolete, the horse and buggy of the 21st century. They create traffic jams on our cultural roadways while they litter them with their own special brand of equine excrement: lawsuits against fans for sharing music. Within another generation, they will all be gone. Unlike Mr. Smith, they will not be missed. 


Lee Ballinger:

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