Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A&B Sound (Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love HMV)

I'm sure that by now most people in Vancouver have heard about the closure of the last 2 A&B Sounds in the city, including the downtown location (Seymour St.) and the Marine Drive location. For most of us, this is not a big problem, for A&B Sound had long ago lost it's appeal to Lower Mainland music consumers. I worked at the "flagship" location on Seymour Street for 5 years (2001-2006) and just barely caught the tailend of the glory years of that store and the chain itself. For over 40 years the downtown A&B Sound was the shop you (well, at least myself and damn near everyone I knew) headed to for the newest release in any genre. Not only because they were pretty much guaranteed to have it on the release date, but also because it was they were the cheapest. If you also include the depth of the catalogue in the store, the friendly, unpretentious staff, you have the makings for the best record store in Vancouver, which it was nominated for, and won through most of its history. Sometime in the early 00's, at the dawn of mass downloading and dwindling music sales, A&B Sound started to slip. In fact, it posted losses for the first time during 2003-04, and by 2005 they filed for bankruptcy protection. The chain was then bought out by Seanix, a computer company. For the first year of their tenure, they were pretty hands off, letting the music departments run their sections as normal. By the beginning of 2006, Seanix, with no warning, fired all of the management staff at almost of the locations, with no plan on replacing them or with a plan in place. Stores were shut down (Surrey, Metrotown, Hastings) and the Seymour location suffered severe shuffling, which included moving all of the music to the second floor, then moving it back downstairs, moving it back upstairs, and on and on. The store was being run by computer nerds and business men that had no clue how to run a record store, much less fix one in an industry going through great turmoil. During this time (spring '06), I was terminated from my position (buyer for first floor music and floor supervisor). My position was, basically, never filled. In fact, during most of 2007, A&B Sound stopped ordering new music all together. Even catalogue slowed to a trickle. Then, by 2008, they stopped ordering any music at all, later having a 50% off EVERYTHING sale. Basically doing everything but putting a closing out sale sign on the front door. For anyone who has stepped foot into an A&B in the last two years, it should come as no big surprise that A&B in Vancouver is done.

Despite the once great A&B Sound crumbling under my feet, I quickly landed a job at Zulu Records and found myself a much happier person. Something still irked me though. With A&B closing many stores, Sam The Record Man shutting down, Virgin calling it quits, it was/is quite clear that something was wrong with the industry. And not just in Vancouver, but across the globe. Tower Records, a giant in the industry in the US, closed all of it's locations and independent shops closed across North America and the UK. It was becoming clear that the people had spoken, and they wanted convenience. Where does that leave us now? There is good news and bad news. The bad news is that record stores are, clearly, still closing. The good news is that, while CD sales continue to plummet, vinyl sales are up, independent labels are doing better than ever and Record Store Day was a hit.

So where does this leave us now? My prediction is that the independent record store will act as it always has, which is a location for consumption of music for the open minded individual. And the internet (myspace, etc) and downloading will continue to act as a conduit for music exploration. Long gone are the days where an artist will be able to sell millions and millions of albums off a single radio/MTV hit, all of which kept the major label music industry afloat and made up for the losses of "failed" albums. No longer will the consumer have to spend 2 hours wage to buy an album with 1 or 2 hit singles, then only to find the rest as filler. Hopefully the industry is picking up on the demand for quality and will rectify the situation. It is now sink or swim for the majors and the big box stores, who, not coincidentally, have actually decreased the amount of music they carry. Has anyone actually stepped foot into a Best Buy in Vancouver? The music selection is atrocious, which makes it a real bummer knowing that Best Buy targeted A&B Sounds' music and DVD selection only to ease off on stocking it when they knew the chain was toast. My next prediction is that most big box stores will stop carrying music altogether, or at least only stock the new Lil Wayne or whatever album is blowing up on MTV or the radio. This should leave a bit more space for the little guy to breathe.

Speaking of the little guy, they still do need help. Drop by your local neighborhood record store and buy a damn record or 2. Trade in some old CDs and pick up some vinyl or some new CDs. Invest in a decent record player and hear the amazing difference between your ipod and a 180gr slab of wax. If people don't keep supporting their record stores, they will close, and you'll have no one to blame but yourself.

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Bjorn said...

I'm surprised it lasted this long. That place was mis-managed into the ground.

boom said...

I totally agree with Bjorn on the store lasting as long as it did. But hey - this was the place where we all met! hurray for friendship!

Mark E. Rich said...

A&B was my first job in the big, mean city, and I made a lot of friends that I still talk to on a regular basis. I have no idea where I would be right now if it were not for that place. It just saddens me that what was once a library of music is no longer. HMV just doesn't have the same appeal and personality that our A&B did.

As for being mis-managed into the ground, that almost seems to have been the intent. Is Seanix using A&B as some sort of tax write-off? That is a theory that some are tossing around when considering how they intentionally ran that company into the dirt. I don't know enough about corporate taxes to say for sure, but it does seem strange that they would out and out fire anyone and everyone who knew how to run the place. Something doesn't fit. Anyone else with any other theories?