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Manifest Destiny

Demise of Carolinas' biggest indie record stores says it all about today's music business

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When Scott Wishart went back to work at Manifest Discs & Tapes on the first Monday after Christmas, it was as the general manager of Charlotte's best music store, one of an endangered species of profitable music retail outlets. By the end of the day, after a "crash course in human resources," Wishart was the harbinger of bad tidings, a grief counselor, a stoic, a zombie, and another soon-to-be-unemployed victim of the music retail industry implosion.

"I don't like firing someone even when they're not a good employee," said Wishart, 28, who spoke to Manifest owner Carl Singmaster on the phone for an hour after learning the chain's founder had decided to get out of the music retail business. "Just telling them we were closing, and seeing the looks on their faces, you could tell some of them were really devastated. It was horrible."

Sadly, it was a scenario repeated in one form or another over 1,000 times across America in 2003. Clark Benson, an industry analyst for the Los Angeles-based Almighty Institute of Music Retail, which tracks industry trends, called it "carnage" and "really grim." Nearly 10 percent of all American music retail outlets went out of business. The vast majority were victims of a host of market pressures and negative industry trends including: a sluggish economy, the virus-like proliferation of below-cost behemoths, corporate greed, industry self-immolation, and a revolution in media -- the one-two punch of the internet and iPods -- that threatens to do to CDs what CDs did to vinyl LPs 25 years ago: turn them into a cultural artifact or specialty item.

A fourth-quarter spike in sales across the retail industry at the end of last year may have temporarily staunched "the hemorrhaging," Benson said, but the pre-recorded CD is "certainly not going to be a growth part of things" in the future. Consolidation, adaptation and diversification will be the business model for the survivors. But Charlotte's Manifest won't be among them.

"I think there'll always be deep catalogue music stores," said Wishart, who moved to Charlotte a year ago to resuscitate morale and sales at the store and succeeded on both fronts, but to no avail. "But unless you're in a major, major metropolitan area, I don't think you're going to see stores like this anymore."

In other words, Game Over for the thousands of Charlotte music fans who made Manifest a regular stop on their retail itineraries (approximately 15,000 just in December), and for whom music is something more vital than aural wallpaper, a trend indicator, or data bits inside a computer chip.

Of more immediate concern is the unemployment facing the 17 employees (among 85, chainwide) whose New Year's resolutions now include: Find new job. The Charlotte store will remain open through mid-to-late February (though it's stopped buying new and used product), Singmaster said, but the chances of an entrepreneur with $600,000 to spare (for the inventory alone) riding to everyone's rescue are slim -- even though Manifest bucked trends and was profitable throughout its four-year tenure in Charlotte.

"Charlotte is a viable market, the one with the best future scenario," Singmaster, 45, said. He added that if he had been able to afford to move Manifest's base of operations here from Columbia, SC, and consolidate his remaining stores, he might have continued. "I can't in good conscience say that I'm aware of any other top-notch independent record stores in Charlotte." Chances are we won't see one anytime soon, either. There are other indie retailers in town -- Central Records, Repo Records, Vibe Tribe, Record Exchange, Groove Merchant, Ernie's, CD Warehouse -- all of which have their strengths and do a good job within their means, but buyers can't go to them to immediately find a deep catalog of discs like Manifest's.

The Manifest chain's history is in many ways a microcosm of the music industry's convulsions, its Big Bang-like growth and Black Hole-like end. The tale can also be seen as a parable for our times, an example of how growth and greed are sometimes indistinguishable, how money and art are two different languages, and how the one cost that isn't factored into most business models is the human one.

The behind-the-headlines story of Manifest's shuttering is sadly familiar. The industry -- and the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) in particular -- has historically mauled the hand that feeds it, and from both ends. While it's kept the majority of musicians in various states of indentured servitude, it has with the other hand sought to pluck as much cash as possible from its customers' pockets.

Until recently, retailers were a vital cog in shoveling money into the beast's maw, but with the advent of the internet, most of the survivors find themselves at the edge of oblivion. Just as the major labels denuded their rosters once they realized one or two generic mega-sellers would earn them more than a hundred "well-respected" acts put together, they've applied the same business model to retail outlets: say hello to Best Buy and Wal-Mart, the Britney Spears and Creed of the retail world.


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