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Manifest Destiny

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


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.

The RIAA showed its usual concern for the purveryors of their product by offering up the party line on internet "piracy" and refusing comment on any aspect of the retail collapse. "Piracy is affecting everyone in the industry, even the guy who drives the truck to deliver the CDs . . . We don't comment on the retail industry," RIAA spokesperson Amanda Collins told us by phone.

"Much like the artists it abused to create records for them, the industry is now finished with the retailers," said George Ziemann, a member of, an online group committed to supporting artists by opposing the RIAA.

Manifest's employees and Singmaster had a memorable run, though. His 19-year-old chain began life in a 750-square-foot box in Columbia, SC, funded by $15,000 in savings and a well-worn credit card. It reached its zenith in the late 90s with seven stores and 125 employees across the Carolinas. During 16 straight years of growth, Manifest became one of the nation's strongest independent music chains based on the depth of its in-store catalog, and a top 50 account for most national music distributors. Since its arrival in Charlotte, no other music store has come close in CL's reader polls for "Best CD Store."

Because of the Charlotte store's profitability, there have been inquiries into its acquistion, though at press time no official offers had materialized.

A few days after the public announcement that the chain was closing, a distraught customer thrust out the two Jam CDs he'd clutched to his chest on the way to the register and pointed to them. "Where else am I going to get these?" asked Gary Winrich, 34. "I remember shopping at Manifest 15 years ago when I was a kid; I'd go down to Columbia, because they'd stock a lot of the hardcore stuff, the punk you just couldn't get up here. Three or four times a week I came in here -- what the hell am I going to do now? Mail order, I guess. And save money."

That mix of bewilderment and anger could be heard from music fans across the Carolinas once the news got around, as though a beloved band had unexpectedly broken up. For years, Ward Crittendon, a 35-year-old Anderson, SC, resident, has driven 30 miles to the Manifest store in Greenville, SC, once a week to find items he couldn't locate even in the much-ballyhooed record stores of Athens, GA, or Atlanta.

"Singmaster saw the writing on the wall at this point, and that is a very good indication of where the industry as a whole will be heading," Crittendon said. "He got out early, some of us would say prematurely, but I wonder how long it will take before the School Kids, Wuxtry's, and Record Exchanges go under?"

Indies Abandoned By Industry
It's a testament to the volatility of the current industry that Singmaster made the decision to close even though Manifest in Charlotte and the chain overall still posted profits over the last three years. But as the owner hammered home in a phone interview before the public announcement, betting on a horse headed in the wrong direction won't result in too many more paydays. Manifest's chainwide sales mirror national trends in that they've declined for three consecutive years (though the Charlotte store grew incrementally this year over last), despite a mild fourth-quarter recovery this year.

For the last four years, Singmaster, a vocal board member of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS), said he's begged the record companies at trade shows and conferences to reintroduce the CD-single in order to help retailers compete with the internet. He's spent equally futile hours seeking a license from iTunes and other internet music-sellers to put a label-approved kiosk in Manifest's stores so that his customers could download music -- at cost -- right there, just to keep them coming through the doors.

But Singmaster -- and his soon-to-be-unemployed workers -- learned the hard way that the RIAA doesn't care about independent retailers anymore. The powers-that-be have always weathered any threats to their supremacy -- radio, vinyl, artists unions, cassettes, the CD -- through co-optation, intimidation and because as the only purveyor of physical music media they've never had to give a damn what anyone thought; there was, after all, nowhere else for artists or fans to go.

The most recent example of the RIAA's sense of entitlement and hubris -- and what may turn out to be its Waterloo -- was the decision to choose a few public scapegoats in its battle against free downloading. While their attorneys tried to justify the PR nightmare of suing 12-year-old girls and grandparents, the RIAA insisted it was only helping protect the rights of artists they've never shown much concern about in the past. Meanwhile, their cronies at the major labels offered exclusive releases to pay-to-play, internet-based music media like iTunes in order to keep their fingers in that pie; at least until they can figure out a way to gobble all of it.

The result is yet another bugle blowing "Taps" for the same CD sales they're kvetching about on the other end. If that doesn't make sense, remember this is the same business model that created the "piracy" it abhors when it eliminated CD singles and tried to charge $20 for a 25-cent CD -- when a lot of listeners only wanted the one song. Why'd they do it? Well, because they could, and because they knew that music is like crack to some people; they'll pay anything to get it.

Now the industry is trying to get Pandora back in her modem, with laughable results. The RIAA likes to suggest that its lawsuits have put a dent in file-sharing and helped spark the retailers' fourth-quarter comeback this year. But a more accurate interpretation is that those lawsuits only helped Apple's Steve Jobs get a huge jump on his internet competition. Since iTunes surfaced in April and grabbed 50 percent of the market, users downloaded 25 million songs through the end of the year. Before being sold and temporarily shut down in December, added 200,000 new subscribers between March and May. Also in December, a digital version of a song, OutKast's "Hey Ya," outsold the top conventional single, an industry first.

CD sales, on the other hand (if you can believe the RIAA), have free-fallen 22.3 percent from January 2001 to January 2003; the first half of 2003 saw another drop of 9.8 percent before things finally leveled off in the fourth quarter. The result was a violent contraction of the independents' market share, as retailers mighty (Wherehouse Records) and meek (roughly 220, according to Benson) alike fell by the wayside. And even though 326 of the 1,000-plus bankruptcies and liquidations came about as a result of the pummeling one Mart (Wal) put on another (K), the former made up for it by opening new stores almost everywhere you look.

Trapped In A Big Box
With all those closings, you'd think the major labels would try to stem the tide and convince the fleeing masses to return to the independents, chain or otherwise. But you'd be wrong. One label, Universal, did slash its deep catalog prices by 25 percent in September, but with lower prices came lower profit margins for an industry already on life support. Instead, the labels and the rapacious monsters they've created, like the Rolling Stones and the Eagles, found new ways to squeeze more money out of their fans and screw most retailers in the process. Both signed deals with mega-retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart for exclusive releases, dooming the independent retailers to 30 days of telling their own customers: "No, you have to go to Best Buy to get that Stones' DVD you've seen advertised on TV."

And apparently people are going in droves to the Big Boxes for music. Discount stores like Wal-Mart accounted for only 13.5 percent of music sales in 1994; a decade later the behemoth controls 34.8 percent, according to Benson. And it's not just the exclusives that got them that share of the market. The big discount stores -- with the labels' blessings -- have been offering top sellers at below-cost prices for years, and it's not because they're really big music fans (go ahead, ask one for that first Strange Cargo disc or the latest by the Mekons). If Singmaster or any other music-first retailer did that (and most of them, in desperation, have tried), they'd have to recoup the cost of that below-wholesale CD by overcharging you for a refrigerator on your way out.

Jim Parker, or Jimmy Repo as most people call him, the owner of Repo Records, says of the Big Box phenomenon, "It's very sad that the community has embraced the Targets and the Best Buys; (the customer) is looking for the price instead of the convenience of customer service."

Together with the iTunes-only releases available just for internet users, the Big Box exclusives may not be the biggest straw, but for some they are the last one. Even outside analysts cringe at the new trend of exclusive deals and what they mean for the average retailer.

"It's almost like you're kicking the man when he's down," Benson said.

"If we were selling sneakers, and Nike said they wouldn't let us have their hottest model, we'd say, "Screw you, we'll sell Reebok,'" Singmaster said by way of analogy. "But when they say you can't have the latest music by the Rolling Stones, we can't say, "OK, we'll sell the customer Britney Spears instead.'"

All of these factors, and some exclusive to Manifest, led to Singmaster's decision, he said. Manifest actually began downsizing in January 2002, when the Clemson store closed after the university installed broadband in the dorms and business dropped by 30 percent virtually the next day. The Florence store followed suit after a Best Buy moved within a stone's throw down the block.

Singmaster is still paying rent on the shuttered Florence property two years after it closed, a factor that weighed heavily in his decision to quit. With all of the store's leases coming up for renewal this year (the Charlotte store, a former supermarket, costs $9,300 a month), Singmaster looked down the road five years and didn't like what he saw.

"I'm no longer willing to assume the risks," he said.

Another reason Singmaster chose not to go on is the current marketing mantra you can hear echoing throughout what's left of the industry: "Diversify or die!"

"The key is to have as many revenue streams as humanly freakin' possible," said Michael Martin, a 46-year-old collector who's bucking the trend and opening up The Music Spot, a new record store and bistro in Tampa, FL. "You need as many tricks as possible these days."

"I think the Moms & Pops are having to specialize and become better at what they're doing," said Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago Sun Times rock critic and author of several music-related books, "and the start-ups are having to be more creative and better, and there's a weeding out of mediocre stores, which is still a sin. But a record store should not have to make cappuccinos."

Singmaster conceded that used CDs and sales of counter-front knick-knacks had helped make up some of the lost margin over the last couple of years, but it wasn't what he'd gotten into the business to do and if that was the successful model of the future, he wanted no part any more.

"I don't really wake up getting excited every day at the prospect of becoming the next Spencer's Gifts," he said. "And as an individual and music geek, if I can't sell new music also, I'm not that interested in the business. I could probably run a sub-standard store and still feed my family, but that does not fulfill my passion for the music. And all that downsizing would still have had an impact on all our great employees."

Human Toll
Singmaster's concerns are small solace for the employees, though, as he recently found out when some employees vandalized his car in Columbia after he announced the closings. Managers were given small severance packages, and hourly employees received $2 more per hour to ensure that he would still have staff to work with as the chain ceased operations. And though some employees understand what went into the decision, there is a great deal of anger and frustration directed toward a man many once held in high regard.

Even if Singmaster's decision makes sense from a business vantage point, the human cost is one that's difficult to quantify and doesn't fit neatly on a flow chart. Simply put, only those who've lost a job unexpectedly can know the toll it can exact on a bank account, a home, a relationship, a life.

Over 80 full-time Manifest employees have had the rug pulled from under their lives. Some are recently married, or just moved, or became new parents, or work two jobs, or play in bands and are reliant on their schedule's flexibility in order to play (one of the rare record store perks). Some will luck into other work without too much stress, some will have to re-tailor their lifestyles to fit whatever work they can find, and some -- and this isn't just hyperbole -- may see their worlds come unhinged.

"I uprooted my whole life to move here from Greenville," said Wishart, who became general manager of the Charlotte store during the hectic 2002 Christmas season and is considering starting his own smaller-scale music store. "I convinced my wife to leave a job she really liked and come up here, and for me to lose my job? It's devastating for both of us."

Wishart also inherited a dysfunctional store from his predecessor, who'd been fired after half the full-time staff quit to escape their old boss' arbitrary outbursts. Wishart had to retrain the other half, too. He knew exactly one person in Charlotte, and commuted every week to see his wife, who had stayed behind to finish a teaching contract. There were days, that first Christmas, when the stress of it all made him regret ever coming here.

But he soldiered through, as he'd done as an assistant manager at the Greenville Manifest, before being promoted. And when this year's holiday season came and went much more smoothly, and the store had done its best used-sales month ever in December, he felt that the future was looking relatively bright. He'd even planned to use his profit-sharing bonus -- remember: Manifest made money the last three years -- to buy a home in Charlotte.

"I've been busting my ass here for seven years, doing everything above and beyond the call of duty, which is just how I work," Wishart said. "To go back and have to start completely over again? It sucks."

But the bottom line is . . . the bottom line. In the battle of art and commerce, the latter regrettably holds all the high cards. So chalk up another one for business acumen, and add some more folks to the unemployment roll call; it doesn't make you a Luddite to bemoan the fact that progress, whatever that is, always comes with a human price tag. In the case of Manifest, the price seems steeper than normal, because Charlotte loses more than just a strong retail outlet. The staff was, with rare exceptions, an eclectic and broad-minded group of people whose enthusiasm for music was visceral and contagious; at a little over minimum wage, there's rarely any incentive to work in a record store other than the music. They're the kind of people, by and large, who lost their jobs but felt equally bad for the regulars who came to rely on Manifest.

"The thing that gets underplayed is that a great music store is a center of community," DeRogatis said. "Sure, it's real easy to sit here and one-click on Amazon to buy something, but it's just not the same."

"I pretty much have a feel for everybody who works here," said Cailin Deery, an 18-year-old Providence High student and weekly visitor who does not enjoy shopping on-line. "I know their tastes and so I always know who to ask when I'm deciding between albums. I don't even know most of their names, but I have a decent familiarity with all of them, and we have conversations about music all the time. It's nice to have a real opinion."

Compare that with the browsing experience you get at the superstores, where the faceless help (assuming you can find them) wouldn't know Iggy and the Stooges from Larry, Moe and Curly.

But let's say you get all your music needs met on-line and are wondering what all the hand wringing and fuss is about. Alex Steinenger, owner of the Portland, OR-based independent label, In Music We Trust, has never set foot in a Manifest but is familiar with the retailer's excellent reputation through first-hand experience of a different sort. He also has a clear warning for what its loss means for music lovers in the Carolinas:

"Manifest was one of those stores where when your bands played North Carolina, Charlotte especially, you could get window displays with posters, you could buy a listening station, you could get product in the stores, and you'd pretty much be covered in that market, even if no other stores picked up your title," he said. "Without Manifest, it leaves a lot of people scrambling when our bands go through that town. Where can I place product where it's noticeable and meaningful? It leaves a big gap, and, frankly, makes it a little harder to justify stopping there (Charlotte)."

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