I heard the other day that Tower Records has filed for bankruptcy protection for the second time in two years. Always a friend of a good record store and a believer in the social aspects of the shopping experience, I mourn this development. As a computer scientist and gadget geek, I see it as inevitable.
I suppose that some people blame Shawn Fanning and Napster for this development. After all, he's the one who got everyone hooked on the idea of downloadable music, right? I don't think so. Napster was an interesting bit of engineering, but it was hardly a supreme technical innovation. It was composed of a group of technologies that were all extant, sitting out there, and waiting to be combined. I can recall being a graduate student in the "systems" side of computer science and engineering talking with colleagues about Napster when it came out and remarking that "there wasn't much to it." I therefore regard the development of Napster or something like it as inevitable.
No, I tend to place the blame for sagging record sales on the fat, bloated entertainment cartels themselves. If the development of Napster was pretty much inevitable, why didn't one of the entertainment cartels or an affiliated company come out with something like it? Would commercially supported Internet audio service really be such a bad thing? To a small group of companies dedicated to either controlling, influencing, or reaping large profit margins out of the entire distribution chain, a disruptive technology like the Internet can be fatal... if only because it seems too radical for anyone to embrace it. Record labels feared the idea of digital distribution rather than embracing it, and let lawyers attempt to litigate a solution. But it's too late for that... Pandora's Box is open and can't be closed again.
I personally like Tower Records and its brethren like Wherehouse and Sam Goody. I like owning the media... when I buy a CD, I know that I'll never have to worry about an arcane Digital Rights Management scheme that will prevent me from playing what I have the rights to play if I upgrade my computer. I also like the fact that CDs still possess higher fidelity than the bulk of the digital music available online... even through sites like iTunes. I even like the record store buying experience... there is something about wandering rows and rows of CD and DVD racks that makes the shopping experience more interesting and memorable. Perhaps I am behind the times.
I think that record chains must innovate if they are going to survive. The one thing that stores like Tower have going for them is human contact. Record shopping at its best has always been a social experience. Large chains need to take steps to revive this... because there is very little to distinguish a big box record retailer from something like Amazon. Unless chains like Tower can figure out how to keep customers walking through the door, they will go the way of the dinosaurs.
on 2006-08-25 at 2:47 p.m.
The Wayback Machine - To Infinity And Beyond