Volume 79, Number 5 | July 8 - 14, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Villager photo by Amanda Peterka

Manager Karen Soskin recently setting up staff recommendations in Other Music. Her newest picks were obscure bands with names like Screaming Females, Magik Markers, Dera Doorian, Ponytail, Dirty Projectors and City Center.

The day the music (store) died; Local shops hanging on

By Amanda Peterka

About once or twice every two months, Talia Wray could be found at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square, browsing new CD’s. The 16-year-old from Brooklyn liked the big selection of music and the sheer size of the 57,000-square-foot store.

Now, she can be found at Kim’s Video and Music, on First Ave. between Seventh and Eighth Sts., scanning racks of old vinyl records. Like the rest of the customers of the defunct Virgin Megastore, Wray has had to make do without any large music chain being left in New York City.

“You don’t find as big a selection as they had. People don’t have a lot of stuff in stock,” Wray said. Virgin was “so big and on the corner,” she added, “and you always think about it being there, but it’s not there anymore.”

Local stores have been closing almost as rapidly as global CD sales have been falling. But for the stores that remain, managers say they’ve noticed an influx of a younger crowd — the last vestiges of Virgin, come to find their Hannah Montanas, Dave Matthews Bands and, in Wray’s case, new rock and jazz.

“I have noticed a change. People come in here asking for Virgin items, for more mainstream music and top-30 music,” said Karen Soskin, a manager at Other Music at 15 E. Fourth St.

Other Music has been in business 13 years and seen the fall of both Virgin and Tower Records, which hit its last note in 2006. Though the stretch of Fourth St. between Broadway and Lafayette St. is relatively dead, Soskin said hopeful customers still wander its length, looking for the Tower on Broadway that is still listed in New York City guidebooks.
“Once Tower closed, the block isn’t super-hopping anymore,” said Soskin, who has been a manager for two years. “But tourists still come in here and say, ‘Where is the Tower Records?’”

The close of Virgin is adding to those unlikely customers.

“A lot of people are coming in, people who have been Virgin shoppers for years, looking for new music,” Soskin said.

It’s hard, though, to gauge the amount of ex-Virgin customers who now shop at independent stores; most evidence is merely anecdotal.

But it’s something that is being repeated at independent stores, especially those found nearest to Union Square.

Kenny Mativey, manager at Kim’s, said some former Virgin customers wander in because “this is basically the only major music and video store now.”

While stores like Kim’s and Other Music still rely on a loyal base of regulars, they have become more open to catering to a younger generation to buoy sales. Other Music stocks copies of Green Day’s latest album, “21st Century Breakdown.” In the past few months, Academy Records at 12 W. 18th St. has started selling “pop vinyls,” or old-fashioned records of new, trendy music. Kim’s, known for selling hard-to-find items, added a new-release section last month.

Even Generation Records, a staple on Thompson St. known for metal and punk hardcore vinyls, is selling a few copies of the softer stuff that a mainstream crowd tends to go for, like new Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Yet, local record stores are basically still sticking to the niches that made them a spot on New York City’s map in the first place. Academy continues to sell classical and jazz records, and places like Bleecker Bob’s and Bleecker Street Records haven’t budged from Led Zeppelin and John Coltrane.

An assistant manager at Bleecker Bob’s who goes by the name “Ski” said that the store has hardly changed in the 40 years it’s been in operation.

“If more people were to ask, we’d probably bring more in,” Ski said, regarding mainstream music. “If I had someone coming in every day for the new Britney Spears album, we’d probably carry it. But people don’t come in here looking for a pop section.”

For local places, their used, hard-to-find records and the small, often dingy but charming interiors are why they are still in business and larger retailers are not.

“The only reason they could continue and do continue to exist is the social experience of going out there,” said Steve Gordon, author of “The Future of the Music Business.”

Europeans and tourists make up a big part of the customers at Bleecker Bob’s, another staffer there said recently.

But some managers say finances are often handled off the books in smaller music shops, as CD’s and records are bought and sold from off the street.

Most Virgin customers will instead probably find their music online now, which, short of shopping at Best Buy and J&R, is the only alternative left with Virgin gone.

“It’s much cheaper online. If you just want to get the good stuff, why would you pay $19 when you can get it for free?” Gordon said of illegal downloading.

High rents are officially what killed Virgin, but the Internet obviously played a role. Virgin’s owners, The Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust, realized they could charge more rent to a store that makes a greater profit than a music store competing with online downloading and sales.  

The Union Square store was the last of two Virgin Megastores in North America; the other, in Hollywood, closed its doors the same day, June 15. Calls to Virgin about the closing met a discontinued customer-service line and a message that looped over and over again even after a recorded option was chosen.

High rent has been the blight of small stores, too. Local record havens Etherea, Rocks in Your Head and Vinylmania Records all foundered trying to keep up with rent in some of the city’s most prized and expensive real estate. Kim’s had to downscale in January from a large store on St. Mark’s Place for the new, smaller First Ave. location.

“The Village shows that the mom-and-pops are drying up, and so are the chains,” said Gordon, who fondly remembers Vinylmania on Carmine St.

Small stores, though, have the advantage of dealing with a more manageable amount of products. Dino, a manager from Bleecker Street Records who did not give a last name, said the reason Virgin went under was because it tried to please too many people with its huge selection. He said Bleecker Street Records will stick with a smaller, more rarefied selection.

“You don’t try to cater to new fads, because they are only out for a couple of years. No one remembers them 10 to 20 years from now. But everybody remembers Miles Davis,” Dino said.

Smaller stores that primarily sell records might have the upper hand in the changing music market. While CD sales continue to decrease, sales of vinyl records are at the highest level since 1990, bringing in $57 million in 2008, according to a year-end report from the Recording Industry Association of America.

“It’s kind of nice to walk by Virgin and see it empty. We’re incredibly thankful we’re still here,” Soskin said.

But the drying up of the industry is all too evident.

“It’ll come to where the customer comes up to us and asks where else they can go for a CD, and we have to say there isn’t actually anything more,” Soskin said.

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