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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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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 BOYCOTT-RIAA.com, 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.


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