It isn’t fair/It is fair: Capitalism, Books, Records and You

Melody Records in Washington, DC is closing. “While we wish that we could continue indefinitely, technology, the internet and the economy has taken its toll, and we have concluded, unfortunately, that it is not possible to survive in this environment.” Jack Menase said in an interview with WCP. This store is in Dupont Circle, which is one of the most popular and easily accessible areas in the District. I walked by it and I went in it. I would go, get a record, walk to the park, read a book and chill out. I took it for granted that it was there and now it’s gone.  I went today to buy some records, mainly because I wanted to take advantage of the closing sale.  I also wanted to pay my respects.  The District doesn’t have many records stores.The store was packed, with the phone ringing and everyone walking in, asking questions. Something that one of the owners said while I was there today stung, made me upset.  The phone rang again and she quickly walked by me, saying to one of the clarks behind the counter, “Why couldn’t it have been this way before we were closing?” she said.

This place opened when I was born.

Melody records is closing because you can either go online and buy an album digitally for cheap or you can go online and steal it.  You can burn an album you have on your computer and give it to a friend for free. That’s why it’s closing. Technology ended this business.  At it’s core, capitalism is/isn’t fair and it works/doesn’t work for the people.  Because of free markets, we have many different ways to get things that we want. But the people who used to provide these products for us, small stores, are suffering.  The only reason why many of these small businesses are open is because people make an effort. But many people don’t.  It isn’t because these people are mean or lazy. It’s because it is cheaper to buy music online than it is going to a store. Capitalism works.  It also doesn’t.

iTunes versus a small record store.  

There are two people in front of you. Both have a piece of bread. The bread is exactly the same. One person wants to sell it to you for a dollar. The other person wants to sell it to you for fifty cents. You buy the cheaper one. Why would you buy the more expensive one?  You might spend the extra money if you know the person with the more expensive bread. They may live near you and you might see them every day. You want to support them. But how long can you do that? It makes no sense, economically, to pay more money for a product than you have to. iTunes is the guy selling the cheaper bread. The record store down the street can not compete.  It’s impossible.  Marc Hogan wrote about this last November in Slate:

Of course, the demise of the American record store is a sad song that has become all too familiar. O.G. stalwart Tower Records closed in 2006, follow by another big chain, Virgin Megastore, in 2009. Over the past eight years, at least 3,700 stores that sell recorded music have shut their doors, leaving about 12,400 across the country, according to market research firm Almighty Music Marketing — and that number includes big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target. In the first half of this year, even as overall album sales rose for the first time since 2004, physical album sales continued to decline, a recent Nielsen SoundScan report shows. The music industry’s collapse, the rise of illegal file-sharing along with legal digital downloads, and the ongoing economic slowdown have each played their part.

He does, however, have some interesting good news.

Still, all isn’t lost. Independent record store closures have been on the decline since 2008, according to Almighty. Amoeba Records, a three-location California independent record store chain that celebrated its 20th anniversary about a year ago, was founded as a “comprehensive, one-stop music destination for everybody,” co-owner Marc Weinstein has said. But that’s an exception. More often, today’s best record stores are carefully curated, niche-oriented establishments, selling new and used vinyl to a specialized market — which tends to be found in critical mass near large cities or universities.

It’s weird that vinyl is what could save a record store. But it only works in certain places, mainly cities where people who want it will buy it.  I’ve written before about why I enjoy vinyl. The reality is that most people would rather do push-ups than listen to music on a turntable. Vinyl isn’t easily portable. It’s expensive.  It’s only for a niche market. A few stores can function by providing vinyl to the masses, but the store selling CDs to people might as well pour gasoline everywhere and light a match. Those days have been over.

Is that bad?

If you love music, then you live in the right time.  You can get so much of it and you can get it quickly. You can put more music than you can listen to in a week on your phone.  And there is nothing stopping you from sharing it with your friends. This is because of capitalism and the free market’s ability to adapt to people’s needs and desires.  The people wanted to be able to listen to a million hours of music without having to put that shit on a shelve. The market provided it, at the cost of record stores. Is that fair? iTunes, Amazon, even Google now will give you music when you want it.  If you hear a song and like it, it is only three button pushes away.  How can a record store across the street compete with that? They can’t.  And, yes, record stores can order more vinyl records and survive, but barely. Especially if you can go on Amazon and buy an album cheaper than it costs in the store. There’s an app for that.  Yeah, Amazon’s Price check app allows you to scan a product, like a record, at a store to see it’s cheaper on Amazon. And it’s always cheaper on Amazon.  E. D. Kain of Forbes magazine writes:

The app allows consumers to scan bar codes in local stores and compare prices directly with Amazon. Many have argued that the app gives the online giant an unfair advantage over its smaller competitors. Unlike brick-and-mortar shops, online retailers don’t pay sales tax unless they have a physical presence in a state, and they don’t have to staff an actual store either. The lower overhead allows them to undercut the competition.

This isn’t mean spirited on Amazon’s part. This is capitalism. This is how our system works. If a huge corporation can figure out a way to get more money, and a little store can’t, the corporation deserves to be rewarded. Right?  I’m not a saint. Far from it. I shop at Amazon all the time. But I also shop at local record stores to try and find the vinyl I want. I also shop at local book store. But I’m the exception, not the rule. The rule is that you buy stuff where you get it the cheapest. Sadly, that isn’t at the independent store down the block.

Amazon versus the local Book store. 

It used to be that, if you want a book, you go to a book store. Now you can download it. There has never been a time like this in our history, where the barriers to reading material is basically invisible. Some people think this is great. Farhad Manjoo of Slate is one of them.

As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books. With his creepy laugh and Dr. Evil smile, Bezos is an easy guy to hate, and I’ve previously worried that he’d ruin the book industry. But if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.

It’s a good point.  If you want to read a book, and save some money, an e-reader device is the way to go. I do it. I buy books on my iPad all the time. It’s cheaper, and I get it in about twenty seconds, depending on the WiFi connection.  I also buy regular, old paper books, and I enjoy them too.  The book store is dying, however, and some people would be happy to dance on its grave.  It’s a slow death, however, and it might take a while. But does Amazon want to kill it? Or just stab it a few times? Richard Russo wrote about this for the New York Times.

As the owner of a new independent bookstore in Nashville, Ann may have more to lose than the rest of us, so I found her calm, resigned response particularly interesting. “There is no point in fighting them or explaining to them that we should be able to coexist civilly in the marketplace,” she wrote me. “I don’t think they care. I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.”

The idea that it’s up to the consumer to “vote with your wallets” is true, but difficult. If you have the money, then, yes, you should contribute to the atmosphere and energy that only a bookstore can provide. I’ve been to plenty of book stores, small ones that were independently owned, that were marvelous places and I loved that they existed. With that in mind, we need to be honest. Books are expensive. E-readers are an investment. But once you buy an e-reader, the books you buy are sometimes half the price of the paper books. Which do we want? People to read physical media because we have some nostalgic idea of what a book is? Or do we want more people to read books? Is Amazon wrong for making it super cheap to read? Or did Amazon do us a favor?

The Consumer

There are two people in front of you. Both have a piece of bread. The bread is exactly the same. One person wants to sell it to you for a dollar. The other person wants to sell it to you for fifty cents. You buy the one you want.  If you want to support the small business, then you should.  If you want to support the corporation, then you should. There isn’t a write or wrong answer. Capitalism, by its very nature, dictates that there are winners and loses.  That’s not wrong. What is wrong is that, because of more resources, some win far more than they should. There is nothing wrong with making money. There is something very wrong with making more money than you need. You can’t tell me that independent stores can adapt and out smart a competition as big as iTunes or Amazon when iTunes and Amazon have far more ability and people to compete with.  The game isn’t rigged. Capitalism isn’t fair. As consumers, however, we have a choice on what we spend our money on. When stores like Melody records close, we can blame iTunes or illegal downloading or whatever we want. But we are to blame. Melody records is closing because of us. iTunes or Amazon didn’t put that small record store out of business. We did. It is our fault. It’s the truth and we all know it.  It’s cheaper online. It’s a choice of self-preservation, not moral obligation.  I’ll put it another way:  If you buy a book online, when you know you could have bought that book at the local store down the street, and you feel guilty, don’t worry too much about it. Feeling guilty means you’re not a complete monster.

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One thought on “It isn’t fair/It is fair: Capitalism, Books, Records and You

  1. This is so true and sad. I am glad to read about this because I was facing a similar situation two days ago . This new author wrote an excellent book on mannerism ,lifestyle and such . I was really excited . I went to my phone and read a sample of it , it was around 7 dollars cheaper to buy it on itunes than if I had gone to a bookstore. However , I didn’t want to buy it on iTunes , I just couldn’t. I believe that depending on the person, reading a book can more than just reading it . There is something special about possessing the book itself for me . The cover , the smell it has after years , how fragile the pages gets tells you a story of how many times you have read it . There is something about reading a book at night which differs from reading it from my phone that frizzes as it wants.Even going to bookstores is an experience and it sad that it is all going away . Unless we all lose our files one day and realize that we live in a sort of virtual , superficial world there would be no way to fix this . I do buy music from iTunes , really just because it is cheaper . I Do miss seen a great collection of books , CDs and even pictures . This has a deeper message , more than capitalism and such . We live in a selfish world where the distance between the people is growing faster than weed. We promote it and enjoy it . Great article.

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