Terry Currier: A Coalition for Music Freedom
There is something almost sensual about the independent record store experience. Perhaps it's the element of discovery with each new find, or the common bond and passion shared with each other. Maybe it's the inspiration of hearing music that seems to arouse all the senses. Or perhaps it's the understanding that there is something more warm and soulful about music played from a treasured record than from a disposable downloaded file. Whatever it is, there is something magical that happens inside these music shrines.
It wasn't long ago that horror stories were being written and the corporates were running scared. Napster was on the horizon and Amazon was ready to kill. File sharing would shred the remains while nostalgia buried the dead. But they are still here and their fires burn deep. They are the independent record store owners, the gatekeepers of the music, the foundation of a community and culture. And they still believe that music can save the world.
Terry Currier is the independent record store owner of Portland's Music Millennium but he also initiated The Coalition of Independent Record Stores in 1995. I had the opportunity to talk with Terry about the coalition and discuss the history of the music industry along with the struggles and challenges facing the industry as we step further into the 21st century.
All About Jazz: If I remember correctly, you started the Coalition of Independent Music Stores.
Terry Currier: Yes, it was started in May of 1995 but it really all came together in 1992.
AAJ: What was the premise behind the coalition?
TC: Well, four or five music distribution companies came up with a list of policies and said that if a record store sold used CD's; they would not support the store with any advertising money. They felt that used CD's were the ruin of the industry. So even though only 5% of our business was in used CD's, the distribution companies were trying to tell us how to run our stores. And I felt it was unconstitutional. As a result, I wrote a letter explaining the unfairness of this policy to a hundred or so presidents and vice presidents of labels and distribution companies. I also wrote to the industry media and trade publications.
The arguing continued back and forth for about six months. I then found out that Garth Brooks said that he didn't want his new album being sold in any stores that sold used CD's. This is from the same guy that bragged that he had more money than any of his children or his grand children could ever spend. So after Garth made that statement, we pulled all our Garth Brooks CDs off of our shelves and wrote it up for return. On the following week, we staged a protest barbecue in our parking lot. We invited the public to come down and barbecue all of their Garth Brooks CDs, DVD's and posters on the grill and I called it the "Barbecue for Retail Freedom."
It turned it to be so successful that representatives from the media actually started showing up a week before the barbecue. And on the day of the barbecue, there were reps from radio stations, television stations and print publications. The parking lot looked like a presidential election and I was also asked to do a talk show in Seattle. As a result, I decided to take it on the road. We visited record stores from Bellingham, Washington to San Diego, California and staged barbecues in all of those towns. I spoke with many radio stations while country DJ's discussed the topic with rock DJ's and debated whether this was fair or not.
But through all of this, I met many retailers who shared many of the same common problems. Subsequently, I thought it would be a good idea to bring independent stores around the country together that were in non-competitive markets. I also found it could act as a catalyst for breaking in new records together while also being a support group for each other.
Additionally, at that same time, the big retailers were having price wars on the selling of new releases and most independent record stores were getting priced out of the market. They couldn't compete and sadly some went away. So I thought that this would be another reason to have this coalition. And even though at this time I wasn't having this problem in my market place, I just figured that unless the independents had a solid structure in place, the labels wouldn't include us in their future marketing plans. So in May of 1995, about twenty owners of independent music stores came together and formed the coalition.
AAJ: Did you ever hear back from any of the record company executives?
TC: Most of the record labels and distribution companies were afraid of commenting due to legalities. There were some comments within the media but it was also perceived as Terry Currier against the industry. But over the next six months, many other independents came out to support and some even started their own crusades. In addition, there was a group that initiated a class action lawsuit against the industry. And though I had planned on meeting with all of the distribution heads, the lawsuit prevented them from speaking with me without a lawyer being in the room.
However, I had already purchased an airline ticket to attend the Album Networks anniversary party and there were many industry folks there. And the main proponent of the used CD issue was a guy named Russ Bach who was the president of EMI Music Distribution. Well, he just happened to be at this event. We were introduced and all of a sudden it was just Russ Bach and I, face to face. Everyone stepped back and there was a circle of people surrounding us. We had a very civil conversation while explaining each of our reasonings.
Within a couple of weeks after our discussion, all of the policies regarding used CD's were rescinded and it was because of the barbecue. People magazine did a full page article. A country music station and MTV followed us and we had major coverage in the major newspapers. I also received a call from Good Morning America but this was about a week after the policies were rescinded.
Looking back, I remember calling up the owner of our company at that time, Don McCloud and I told him what I was going to do and he said, "Well, you know, you have my blessing but you can't beat city hall." (Both laugh).