Not unexpectedly, A&B Sound has gone out of business. This one hits me pretty hard. Does music-on-disc have a future?

For a while there in the Nineties, Vancouver was more or less the world headquarters of decent cheap music retailing, and A&B was the big dog. I didn’t go in that often, but just about every time I did I’d drop a couple hundred dollars, which went a long way at an average price of around $12. The selection was fantastic, two big floors pretty well packed with bins.

Then there was the time in 1997 that our house was broken into, and the bad guy made off with 225 disks. The way it worked was, the insurance company issued me a credit at A&B for any 225 CDs of my choice. This was apparently a frequent-enough event that they had a special “insurance desk” upstairs, where they’d keep your file. This was necessary because it turns out that you just can’t buy that many CDs at once. I’d get a carry-along shopping basket and by the time it was filled, I’d be emotionally exhausted and that would be it for the day; so it took me a half-dozen trips. What was massively cool was that they’d even put really obscure stuff on order for you; by the time all that drifted in, it was nearly a year after the break-in.

I’m sad. I thought, and still think, that CDs are a pretty decent way to buy music. The data is uncompressed, and of very high bandwidth, and encumbrance-free; you give the retailer your money, they give you the disk, and your relationship is over. And record stores are nice places, good opportunities to discover new music just by listening to what they’re playing.

I still don’t buy music online (well, I do buy CDs) because I’m an audiophile dammit and want the music going into the electronics in a relatively un-fucked-with condition. But on the other hand I love my little iPod Shuffle, and compared to the slickness of digital-music gear these days, those silver circles feel kinda klunky and obsolete. And on the evidence, you can no longer make money retailing them.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: BWJones (Nov 14 2008, at 22:21)

We had a place here like that a few years ago called Raspberry Records. They *knew* music and could talk to you about everything from Bootsy Collins and Parliament Funkadelic to Miles Davis, Hüsker Dü and Brahms. I loved that store and the people that worked there and as much as I am a fan of the Long Tail Economic model, it is no substitute for Raspberry Records.

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From: Allan (Nov 14 2008, at 23:41)

How do you feel about the fact that CDs are basically toxic waste? The manufacturing processes of all those heavy metals are *nasty*.

While it is nice to get music in such high quality, I would argue that the benefits aren't worth it.

The option--for audiophiles such as yourself--to download high-quality digital files should be available, but for the rest of us, ~200kb/sec VBR files are good enough and don't require anywhere near the resources and toxic waste associated with the Compact Disc. Music belongs in the air, not on piece of garbage.

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From: Andy McKay (Nov 15 2008, at 01:22)

I feel the same way, before I moved to Vancouver whenever me or my family travelled there, a trip to A+B (and Sam next door downtown) became a tradition. A chance to pile up CD's with a huge collection and half the price of the UK.

Haven't been there in years mind you.

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From: Oscar Del Ben (Nov 15 2008, at 01:49)

Yes, it's true. Where I live in Italy the situation is critic, but now that I am in Seattle I see that almost everyone is using electronic music (aka downloaded from the web). That's sad because we've lost the physical thing that made the value of the music itself (not only cds obviously)

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From: Stephen Mackenzie (Nov 15 2008, at 02:55)

Toxic waste? A CD consists of polycarbonate, a light dusting of that well known light metal aluminium and a lacquer over the top to stop the aluminium rusting. Of course I haven't bothered to find out, but I suspect pressing CDs isn't as energy intensive as, say, running a huge server farm for uncompressed music downloads...

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From: ralph (Nov 15 2008, at 10:45)

The fact that the relationship is ended when you buy the CD is a big one for me. The other thing that keeps me buying CDs instead of online is that there's no geographic limitations with CDs. I can buy a CD from Canada (arrived yesterday) or Germany or Ukraine or Thailand or Brazil and no matter what, they'll play on my CD player and I can rip them to my computer for my iPod. But if one of my favorite German or Ukrainian or Thai bands isn't available in the iTunes Music Store or eMusic or Amazon's store, I'm screwed. For someone like me with wide-ranging tastes, that's big, but even if you're not interested in Thai indie rock, there's sometimes reasons you would want to buy music that's officially only available in another country. I know when I was a kid, Cheap Trick released an album in Japan that wound up having 150,000 copies imported into the U.S. before their record company realized that this could be there big breakthrough. The Clash's first album was unavailable in the U.S. for two years unless you bought it on import, and even when it did become available here, it was so different from the U.K. version that it was worth getting both.

Most of my favorite record stores are still going and appear to be going strong, fortunately. Fingers crossed.

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From: Corey Knafelz (Nov 15 2008, at 12:16)

Music on disc may have a future, but the discs are a little bigger. Vinyl sales have been surging over the last couple of years.

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From: alex waterhouse-hayward (Nov 15 2008, at 12:50)

Much has been written about the impossibility of being able to read all the good books around in one lifetime. Something similar could be written about the time needed to listen to all of Bach's cantatas or Haydn's symphonies. When long playing records were king, not all (very few) where competently manufactured. Music came with built-in pops. It was then that I learned to use my imagination and I could listen to the sound without the pops. When CDs came out the noises were gone. No matter how many people who told me that these CSs were diminished in warmth I didn't notice it much. I simply put in the warmth with my imagination. At age 66 I have discovered the ultimate sound system. It is the ultimate "green" sound system.

At age 66 I don't have all that much time to listen to world music or the latest revisionist punk bands. I am settled to liking the music I like. Every once in a while (I lie, much more frequently it is) I go to live baroque concerts where I listen to composers that never existed when A&B Sound was King of the mountain. These almost-long-lost baroque composers are wonderful. They lived under the shadow of Vivaldi and Bach for too long. It is only recently that I have heard (live) and enjoyed the first symphonies of many composers like Beethoven. There was an odd zero symphony by Bruckner, too!

What is that ultimate sound system? It is my memory. I can sit down with a decent cup of strong tea and play the whole Miles Davis album Kind of Blue in my head. It is free of pops and it is not compressed. The sound is all there. With my imagination I can re-live the first time I heard Jazz Samba with Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd or the winter largo from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. I can imagine myself driving a Maserati Biturbo whiled the lights of Seattle pass quickly by as I pass through teh partly covered city freeway while listening to London Calling.

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

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From: Anthony B. Coates (Nov 16 2008, at 04:54)

I've also not (yet) bought music as a download, it's all CDs (not that my collection is particularly extensive). On the other hand, I do have an interest in music production/mixing, and I'm interested that now some songs are available as individual tracks that you can re-mix to suit yourself.

Yes, that's a bit of a niche, but it is the kind of thing that favours downloads, something that could change the relationship people have with their music, a less passive relationship than just being a listener.

Cheers, Tony.

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From: jamieorc (Nov 16 2008, at 10:34)

I couldn't wait to go digital. CDs are a pain in the ass. They take up too much room. Their sound quality isn't that great anyway--at least not compared to the LPs I grew up with. With iTunes I can just search, browse quickly, create play-lists. Before iTunes came around, I took all my CDs out of their jackets and put them in CD folders to save room. That was still annoying. Another wonderful thing about digital music is the fact that there is no trash, no transportation carbon footprint. And, I can get it immediately from anywhere with decent internet access.

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From: Dorian Taylor (Nov 16 2008, at 16:59)

Tim,

You make two very good points. The first is that the CD is a tangible artifact – it has finite dimension and well-understood properties. The second is with respect to the finite nature of your relationship with the vendor, and by extension, the label and the artist.

By contrast, many contemporary data (or information, or knowledge) products exhibit a tether of some shape or another that binds them back to to any one or all three of these entities.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does change the nature of your relationship with these entities. For starters, there's your tacit agreement to supply them with whatever business intelligence at whatever granularity they see fit. These entities are certainly informed when you buy a track on iTunes, but the carrier is easily one patch away from supplying them with per-play granularity. The license certainly affords it.

This new relationship raises a few questions: are these entities entitled to this information? How would we negotiate the transaction if it was established that they had to pay for it? Is there a future for tether-free information-based products?

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From: pjm (Nov 16 2008, at 17:39)

It's not (just) the flight to digital music that's killing the CD stores; it's that they have to compete with big boxes (e.g. Wal-Mart) who use music as a loss leader, selling music cheap to bring in customers who will buy items with a profit margin. You can't compete with that if music is your whole business, and with as many people who won't look past price as there are, that means the independent music stores are lost.

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From: Katsumi INOUE (Nov 16 2008, at 18:37)

I miss it. I purchased my 1st CD at A&B back in 1994.

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From: Ian King (Nov 17 2008, at 05:24)

It's a bit of a moment for me, too. A&B wasn't just the source of super-cheap music ($12 CDs and eight-dollar tapes) but also a reliable place to get A/V stuff at decent prices. It's where I got my first CD player among other things. They were also one of those stores that would do the 12:01 a.m. sales for new releases; it really was an institution for me and my music-loving friends though the nineties. Them and (as Andy notes) Sam. The old Record Row on Seymour Street -- A&B, Sam, and Track -- is completely gone, A bummer, I guess, but it hasn't been part of my ritual for ages, which is a statement in itself.

For electronics, Best Buy has filled that niche A&B used to fill for me. The last time I was in an A&B was 2005, and even then it felt like the place was circling the drain. I wouldn't be surprised if they were killed off by the big retailers on that end, and by online sales in music, but I honestly don't know enough about the industry to make a declaration there.

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From: Eric Meyer (Nov 18 2008, at 06:25)

My big reason to prefer CDs was that the CD was a pre-made physical backup. I ripped from that high-fidelity backup at whatever level I chose, and then put the backup on a shelf for safety.

With digital downloads, I have to go to the effort of making the physical backup, which always takes longer than ripping bits from the backup.

My preference for this setup may lie in the fact that I don't buy tons of music. I already have more than I could reasonably listen to in six months of typical workdays anyway. (No, I don't have 960 hours of music, but once you factor in travel and conference calls and other times when silence is required...)

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From: Tim (but not THE Tim) (Nov 20 2008, at 19:05)

I don't necessarily miss the CDs - I put all of my music on my Zune (any MP3 player will do here), hooked it to an A/V dock, and it works pretty well... for me. But my wife pointed out one of the big advantages of CDs that I had overlooked: you find the disc, put it in the player, press 'play', that's it. In other words, the UI for CDs is much simpler and therefore optimal for many people.

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From: Mark Levison (Nov 21 2008, at 09:28)

I've never been to A&B music and living in Ottawa I can tell you that good CD stores are few and far between.

However not all is lost. Good online stores are starting to appear - example: http://www.passionato.com/ - UK only for now. They sell high bit rate (320 kbps) DRM free MP3/FLAC encoded classical music (some jazz and blues).

When they're willing to sell to Canada I will be buying from them.

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From: Adam Sloan (Dec 03 2008, at 11:40)

A&B Sound was my source of music for the first 5 years of my music buying life, first cassettes then CDs. But working at CITR-fm at UBC and finding Zulu records (second-hand bins) made my trips much less frequent. Still it was nice to know they were around and Canadian.

All the mainstream and Canadian-owned music-only stores I used to frequent in the good old days are gone, seems only the niche ones (like Zulu) and mega-stores are left. Some of the things that show up in the used bins are amazing, stuff you won't find online or at Amazon.

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