February 23, 2007
Buch Spieler Sails On Despite a Music Industry Decline
by John Walters - Montpelier Bridge
If Fred Wilber seems a bit fatigued, it's easy to understand why.
Wilber is the owner of Buch Spieler Music, a longtime fixture in downtown Montpelier. It's been in business since 1973, but WIlber isn't sure how much longer he can keep the doors open. "My bookkeeper recently told me that I need to find something that's going to generate more income," he says.
The situation is not unique to Buch Spieler. According to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a market-research firm, one-fourth of the country's independent music retailers closed their doors between 2003 and 2006.
The stores are battling fierce competition from national chains and Internet retailers, and they're all fighting over a shrinking market. Nationally, compact-disc sales have declined by more than 30% from their peak in 1999. The industry set a dubious record recently; Wilber says that when the "Dreamgirls" soundtrack hit #1 on the charts, it sold fewer copies than any other #1 album ever. In other words, it was the worst-selling best-selling album of all time.
Through the 1990s, the industry was buoyed by consumers replacing their old LPs with compact discs. Since then, the Internet and digital media have made it easy for consumers -- especially tech-savvy young people -- to acquire and share music without buying CDs.
"The metaphor I like to use is that we're a sailboat," says Wilber. "Up through 2000, there was wind in the sails. Then the wind died down and we were floating. Then we came to a stop, and now we're rowing as hard as we can. If the boat springs a leak and we have to start bailing, then I'm going to get really worried."
"It's no secret," says Joel Oberstein, President of the Almighty Institute, "A lot of retailers have been struggling. But some are finding ways to survive and thrive." He says the key is to become a "cultural hotbed" -- supplementing CDs with items like greeting cards, novelties, clothing, DVDs, and computer games. He points to Newbury Comics, a New England chain that aims to provide one-stop shopping for the culturally hip. Wilber has taken steps in that direction at Buch Spieler, adding a variety of cards, bumper stickers, and novelties. Even if a shopper doesn't buy any music, it's easy to plunk down a few bucks for a card, a fridge magnet, a set of headphones, or a rubber snake. "And I might make as much on a 3-dollar card as I do on a 16-dollar CD," says Wilber.
It's a fact of life in the music business: the bulk of the proceeds go to the record companies. According to one estimate, music-store profit is less than a dollar per CD. And that meager slice of the pie disappears rapidly when CDs sit in the store for any period of time. In the past, a music store could count on brisk sales of new CDs to help cover the costs of a healthy inventory. That's no longer true, and as a result, stores like Buch Spieler are caught in a vicious circle: they need to maintain a varied inventory, but if they carry too much they lose money on every sale. "It's tough," says Oberstein. "You need to have catalog titles available, but you can't sit on inventory for very long."
One bright spot for Buch Spieler is its location: downtown Montpelier is a good place for locally-owned retailers. "The community understands it's important to support local business," says Claire Benedict, co-owner of Bear Pond Books and Rivendell Books, and former chair of the Montpelier Business Association. "There's a greater social consciousness about that in Montpelier than in many other communities." Wilber agrees; but positive vibes alone won't keep his doors open, and he worries about the future: "What happens if the entire industry goes down?"
He doesn't mean the end of music, just the end of physical distribution: "At what point do Sony and BMG and Universal say, 'What's the point of pressing CDs?' " If they can figure out how to turn a profit on downloads, Wilber fears they will just stop making discs. They wouldn't have to deal with production, distribution, and sharing profits with retailers. And Wilber wouldn't have any product to sell.
Oberstein is more sanguine. "I don't think they'll ever stop making CDs," he says. "They may hope it will be a smaller and smaller part of their business, but there will always be a place for retail sales."
There may always be a place, but that place continues to shrink. Sounding equally wry and fatalistic, Wilber says "I've more or less made the decision to try to be the last standing music store in America." At the age of 55, having spent 34 years at Buch Spieler, Wilber doesn't want to do anything else, and doesn't know what else he might do. So he's working hard to keep the S.S. Buch Spieler afloat. And he's gratified -- at least somewhat -- by the expressions of support he receives from the community. "I hear this all the time: 'God, it'd be awful to see Buch Spieler go!' And I say, yeah, it would be awful. I'd be out of a job! So you need to buy more music or more cards, and encourage others to do the same."
That humble storefront on Langdon Street has been providing the soundtrack to Montpelier's life since 1973. Fred Wilber is doing what he can to keep the music playing.
Permission granted by copyright holder for this express use only.
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