Today, Thursday, may be April Fools' Day, but the state of music retail in Austin is no laughing matter. Consider that a decade ago, the Drag was home to six record stores: Sound Exchange, CD Warehouse, Tower Records, Inner Sanctum, Technophilia, and Disc Go Round in Dobie Mall. When Tower goes dark in June, initially reported in this year's first SXSW Chronicle daily that number will be zero. The obvious reason is that today's tech-savvy college students, Tower's chief clientele since the store's 1990 opening in the old Varsity Theater, are as likely to get their music with a mouse click as a credit card swipe.
With the store struggling to show a profit since 2000, roughly the same time frame as the Napster-led MP3 revolution, operations manager Dave Mulholland admits as much, but says there were several other factors in the California-based chain's recent decision to close its Austin store. Even something as mundane as a lack of parking, which Tower finally remedied six months ago by working out a deal with a nearby university-controlled parking garage, took its toll. Something else that might not be immediately obvious, Mulholland notes, is that students are frequently out of town, including during the crucial holiday sales period. "The rest of the year we'd actually do pretty well," he says.
Tower also felt the pinch from big-box retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City, who often sell CDs at or below cost to lure in shoppers they hope will walk out with a new laptop, washer-dryer, or home-theatre system. The store tried lowering its prices at one point to try to keep up, Mullholland admits, but in doing so "basically killed our profit margin" which, he adds, wasn't all that large to begin with. More intangibly, Mulholland says many people saw Tower as corporate interlopers in the local music scene, when in fact the store went to great lengths to incorporate as much Austin into its retail strategy as possible.
"There's 20 people here who are huge supporters of the Austin music scene," he says. "They're working here because it's what they love." The closing is especially bitter, Mulholland says, because Tower is coming off its most successful SXSW ever, with Dubliners the Thrills even recording their in-store set for a possible live album. As bleak as things may be, though, it's unlikely record stores will ever completely vanish.
That's what Jason Costanzo, who opened Sound on Sound at 151 E. North Loop last week, is banking on. Spurred by Sound Exchange's 2003 demise, Costanzo saw an opening for a store catering to underground music and vinyl aficionados. "There's definitely a huge hole for used vinyl," he says. "I don't think any other stores have taken it upon themselves to get good vinyl, and that's what I wanna do." Costanzo acquired his stock by scouring the Internet for bulk deals, buying out collectors, and loading a moving van with the remnants of a small Ohio store's inventory.
Though Sound on Sound offers everything from country to show tunes in its stacks, it's definitely geared toward the punk, hardcore (Costanzo is a member of locals Storm the Tower), and metal side of the aisle. "I'm limited in space, so I can't really go crazy in every genre, but I'll definitely be pretty loyal to the underground music scene," he says. In turn, Costanzo figures people's loyalty to hard-to-find music (and grassroots retail) will be enough to keep him afloat. "I'm the only one working here, so my expenses are pretty low," he chuckles.
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