Death of a Record Store: Robrt Pela Spins Through His Life as a Vinyl Geek at the Soon-Defunct Associated Distributors
All I'd ever wanted to do was work in a record store.
I'd begun collecting LPs in earnest during my freshman year in high school. I joined the Columbia Record Club (under the name ZaSu Pitts) and, by senior year, my collection was overtaking my tiny bedroom. My classmates had letter sweaters and college-friendly GPAs, but I had a factory-sealed copy of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac and a first pressing of the ultra-rare Runaways "Cherry Bomb" picture disc. Who needed a degree?
In 1980, while my pals were prepping for their SATs and applying to various colleges, I filled out only one application: at Hollywood Records, the music shop located just behind my childhood home. I explained to Beef-Bob, the assistant manager there, that I'd be graduating on June 3 and could start the following Monday. Hollywood wasn't hiring, but Beef-Bob told his boss, a short-tempered grouch known as Fuzz, that he needed to meet this kid who was obsessed with vinyl. Fuzz grilled me for an hour with record label minutiae, finally offering me a job when I answered his "What's the flip side of the new Sylvester single?" by asking him, "Which version, the Dutch seven-inch edit on Mercury or the domestic 12-inch on Fantasy?" Fuzz probably figured I already spent more time at Hollywood than I did at home, so he might as well let me ring up sales while I was there.
Hollywood Records was a big deal back then. A chain of 11 stores spread out across the Valley and throughout Tucson, Hollywood was owned by Associated Distributors Inc., a record-distribution company whose major accounts included Motown and Arista, then the largest independent labels in the country. Associated also owned Circles Records, a chain of three upscale record stores scattered across the state. Circles on Central was a real destination; I remember my brothers driving clear across town from the west side to buy the new Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan record there. Elsewhere, people bought music from Sam Goody or Tower Records, but those were chains based in New York or California. Circles and Hollywood Records were ours, a locally grown company that not only sold us the new Smokey Robinson album, but also sold it to all the other record shops in the Southwest, besides.
Associated was literally a ma-and-pa operation. Founded by Leonard and Angela Singer in the '60s, the distribution company that provided Jackson Five and Barry Manilow records to retailers across the Southwest started out as a car stereo joint called Murray Auto Stereo over on West Camelback Road. Clients who bought tape players for their cars wanted something to play on them, and Leonard, who always had his eye on the next big thing, began selling 8-track tapes. Eventually, the Singers became distributors of the tapes. By the time I went to work for them in 1980, Associated was a music biz hub, with sprawling offices, 15 stores, and a colossal warehouse full of records and tapes.
But as the industry has morphed from tunes on tape to downloads to an iPod Touch, the Singers — who are among the last record distributors still standing — have downsized. I tried to keep up with Associated and its stores long after I left them to forge a writing career in the mid-'80s, so I knew they'd slowly closed up the remaining Hollywoods; read that they'd shuttered the Circles stores in Flagstaff and Scottsdale. I'd heard how, as the major labels began gobbling up what was left of the indies, the Singers had moved Associated into the vast hangar attached to their flagship store on Central. In December, Angela, to whom I'd rarely spoken, surprised me with a phone call. "We're closing Circles on Central," she told me, sadly. "And Associated, too. There's nothing left to distribute anymore. The record industry is dead."
It had been a long, slow death, one that started in early 1982, right around the time the Singers promoted me to manager of one of their stores. The Hollywood Records on West Camelback was a ratty old tract home that had been converted into the former Murray Auto Stereo shop from which the Singers had grown their empire. The guy who'd had the store before me had painted its walls and ceiling flat black and covered its windows with posters depicting heavy metal bands; the first thing I did was whitewash the interior and replace every one of the dreary bins and countertops with new fixtures plucked from Associated's downtown warehouse. I hired a couple of young guys — a clean-cut architecture student named Allen Brock and an angry punk called Weldon D. McGill — and the three of us got busy trying to survive in the shadow of the Tower Records at ChrisTown Mall.
We had a lot of help. Back then, record labels employed representatives who did nothing but travel from store to store, talking to vinyl nerds like myself about records. Lou from Capitol would drop by to tell me about the weekend he'd spent with Anne Murray and her husband in Vegas, then he'd play me songs from Anne's new album, due out the following month. Maybe I didn't care about Murray, but by the time her record arrived in my store, I had the talking points that would help me sell it. We did a lot of talking about music back then. I could call Cindy, the singles buyer at Associated, to ask if the new Janie Fricke 45 was worth stocking, or Sandy, the manager of the Scottsdale Circles store, who'd share my misery about how MCA had raised its single-LP list price by a whole dollar. (The nerve!)
For a teenage record geek like me, this was heaven: major-label catalogs to pore over; access to others who cared about reissues and B-side variations; the opportunity to hear bands that were never going to have radio hits. I still own records by The Plastics, Herman Brood, and Get Wet, music I discovered only because someone from their labels handed me a promo copy sometime in the '80s.
The swag was part of the fun. Back then, record labels lavished retailers with collectible junk made especially for us: buttons and T-shirts and limited-edition, laser-etched 10-inch EP samplers that weren't available for sale anywhere on Earth. This stuff was designed to make us feel special; like we were part of breaking a new act or an old vocalist with a new single. It worked.
Today? I may not need a special T-shirt to feel connected to an artist, but without a clerk talking up a new release, I also don't know where to start to find fresh music; to create a connection between myself and a new performer. I recently downloaded an advance copy of an album by a singer named Sarah Jaffe, but there was no cover art, so I couldn't tell what Sarah looked like (hey, it matters); there were no liner notes, so I didn't know Sarah's story (was she a teen prodigy, or had she been singing in saloons for 30 years?). Sarah's career was new enough that there was no Wikipedia entry on her. My computer had neatly tucked Sarah's debut album into my hard drive, but I found myself wanting to have had it handed to me by someone vested in its success, maybe someone who'd just returned from hanging with Sarah and her husband in Vegas. I listened to Sarah's album twice and deleted it; it didn't really belong to me.
"That's because the record labels have taken all the fun out of it," Angela Singer said to me when I dropped in at Circles last month to say goodbye. "The whole process of discovering and selling music has become utterly impersonal."
She and Leonard and I were sitting in Leonard's office, in front of the same big, dark mahogany desk I remembered from the early '80s. We reminisced about the good old days, when Clive Davis would show up at Associated with an artist he'd just signed, taking her from office to office to say hello and talk about her new record. We recalled those rare, unexpected hits — albums that sold and sold and sold, dozens of copies a week for a whole year; albums like REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity, which in 1981 we couldn't kill with an ax; and the first Men at Work album, which refused to die (although its follow-up was a total stiff we got hung with for months). Likewise Foreigner 4 and Kenny Rogers' Greatest Hits. And, of course, Michael Jackson's Thriller.
(I didn't tell the Singers about how my staff and I — young and bored with writing down the same title over and over again each day — entertained ourselves by making up silly names for the super-popular LPs. Emmylou Harris' Roses in the Snow might become Phlegmy Poo Hair-Ass, Noses in the Blow; Juice Newton's "Angel of the Morning" became Jews Knew Tons o' Bagels and They're Mourning. Nor did I tell them about how I once had to refund the price of the Urban Cowboy soundtrack, an album we sold boxes of each day, because I'd scribbled the words "Urbane Cow Flop" on the buyer's receipt — a quip that I found hilarious but the buyer did not.)
After I got home from bidding adieu to the Singers, I telephoned my friend Lisa Sutton. At the same time I was manager of Hollywood Records, Lisa — another vinyl junkie — was working at a Tower Records in Los Angeles. She went on to become a designer of CD packages and the author of hundreds of album liner notes; she currently works as a television producer. She reminded me that selling records wasn't all fun and games.
"Yeah, sure, at first it was a blast," Lisa agreed. "But you're forgetting that we got there just as things were starting to go to hell. Remember the Tipper Sticker, and the payola scandal, and death of the 8-track? Talk about the beginning of the end!"
I'd forgotten all that. The Tipper Sticker was what we retailers called the parental advisory warnings a group of women led by Tipper Gore forced the record labels to stick on the covers of record albums containing "objectionable language." The payola scandal of the mid-'80s was essentially a rerun of a similar mess from the '50s, in which record promoters were busted for bribing radio station program directors. (Because this was the '80s, most of the bribes were in the form of cocaine.) And the return allowances offered by major labels for all those outdated 8-tracks really gouged our budgets for most of 1983, the year that used record stores started popping up all over town, further driving our customers away.
These downturns were nothing compared to what the industry has been braving the past couple of years. "In the '80s, we were battling home taping and the sale of promo albums," Leonard Singer reminded me during my recent visit. "We were clever enough to get around those things. But how do you get around digital downloading and pirated music and record labels that are conglomerates run by people who don't know music?"
You don't, apparently. Because if the Singers — people who've spent the past half-century helping us find our tunes — are throwing in the towel, then the story of music retail is clearly at its end.
"Leonard and I were given an award last month for our volunteer work at the Phoenix Art Museum," Angela recently told me. "And afterward, at the ceremony, people kept coming up to us and saying 'Oh, we're so sad that Circles is closing! We loved that store!' And I wanted to say to them, 'Really? Then why did you stop shopping there?'"
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