Terry Currier: A Coalition for Music Freedom

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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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).

AAJ: When the CD replaced the LP, the industry had to know that the consumer would eventually replace their album collections, and CD sales would then fall off.

TC: Well, the record industry hasn't always been very bright. In today's climate, they are only interested in how to make money right now. And this wasn't as true early on, but each one of the major distribution companies was also trying to come up with a new format that would interest the public enough to buy and replace their music all over again. Each one of them wanted to develop that new piece and get a patent on it. But that's also when it all started to get away from the passion of the music, and the 60s' and 70s were built on that passion.

Then MTV came along and discovered that a three to five minute video of a song and image on a television screen could make people into stars overnight. The motivation became strictly monetary and the industry moved away from the passion of the music. The bean counters took over.

Originally, cassette tapes were only capturing 25% of all music sales but when the Sony Walkman came along, cassette sales increased to 50%. And that happened over the course of just one year. Then the CD came along. They were sexy and attractive to the consumer and it became the first new thing since the walkman. People replaced their albums with CDs and quite a few people just dumped their entire vinyl collections. And in a very short time, the CD had overtaken sales of vinyl to where LP's were no longer being published with new releases.

AAJ: I believe that you are still turning vinyl.

TC: We never did get out of the vinyl business though some stores did. The national chain stores dropped vinyl around 1988 because they just didn't want to add a third format into their stores. They didn't have the floor space nor did they want to pay more for it. So the major record companies told the chains that vinyl was going away and that the CD was going to replace it. And that's when we really saw the major change happen. The large chains got rid of their vinyl selections and brought in the CD. So in a way, it was really forced on the consumer.

AAJ: So what are the independents doing today?

TC: The reality is that record stores are trying to succeed in a declining sales mode. The large chains are closing and despite the fact that downloading is increasing, the economy hasn't helped either. But there are always going to be a lot of record stores. They are going to keep fighting because they are passionate about the music.

Three years ago, some record stores developed a national Record Store Day. It was developed from the concept utilized for national Comic Book Day that was developed amongst comic book dealers. They would have specific and special comic books developed for one particular day of the year. And through it all, it brought some awareness that there are still comic book stores out there. Out of this, the independent record stores developed Record Store Day.

On the first Record Store Day, many labels developed unique releases that only came out on that one day and it brought a lot of customers into the store. There was a lot of media attention and the reason there was a Record Store Day was because we were really getting tired of all of the death stories that record stores were going away. And even though they were declining and some were going out of business, there was still a good healthy market place of independent record stores. And we wanted to get the story across to the public.

AAJ: Do you see a new format on the horizon that could possibly replace the CD?

TC: There is the Blue Ray audio disc but there really hasn't been anything new that anyone has come up with. And unfortunately, many of these new formats just confuse the consumer. It took awhile to educate the consumer on the CD and then right away new formats were being developed to replace it such as with Super Audio CD and Dual Disc. It was just too soon and the consumer turned their nose up at all of that.

But something that was really important throughout the 70s was in trying to capture better sound. And with vinyl, you could accomplish this through hardware. When CD's came out, the consumer was told that CD's had a better sound and that was one of their selling points. But in actuality, a lot of those CD's had inferior sound. And the reason that CD's had better sound to some people is because their records were not taken care of very well and they had a lot of scratches. But there also wasn't anything being done to enhance the sound when it was being transferred to CD. It wasn't until people started recording digitally that it transferred well over to CD, or until there was good re-mastering being done by the right person. But there has always been a quest to get better sound.

But if there was the right format today, would people come back from file sharing to a physical piece of product? It's a possibility. But for a lot of the people that are into digital delivery, it's also the only format they have ever known so it would be very difficult to get them to change. But there may be a way to have those that grew up with the CD and vinyl to come back to a more physical product.



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