Music Without Borders

5 Sep

As of this writing, Borders Books · Music · Movies · Cafe has only a few days left to live … and my feelings are mixed.

I’m sad to see them go because they were one of the few non-automotive Michigan companies of  international note; once again the state is taking a hit in terms of lost jobs and industry diversity. Yet Borders was one of those menacing big box retailers that drove small, independent book and music stores out of business, which was jobs lost as well as a crying shame for many neighborhoods that wanted to hold onto their local character.

We joined the other vultures at the Birmingham, Michigan location yesterday, searching for deals too good to pass up among the oddball remains. I touched every remaining CD, searching for artists to rescue from whatever fate will befall the discs that aren’t claimed. (I expect they’ll be foisted off on local libraries.) I almost purchased physical copies of a couple of albums I already bought on iTunes—Tom Petty’s Highway Companion and the Airborne Toxic Event’s All At Once—just so they wouldn’t have to suffer the ignominy of being liquidated along with dozens of Miley Cyrus CDs.

"You liquidated her, eh? Oh well, Miley wasn't translating to an adult audience anyway."

Why did Borders fail? The easy answer is Amazon, with its massive selection and rock-bottom prices. Brick and mortar discount stores like Costco, Wal-Mart and Target took chunks out of its business as well. In this age of ebooks and iTunes, downloading music and books is making physical CDs and pages irrelevant. There’s also piracy; according to the New York Times, an estimated 95 percent of all music downloads are illegal. Many music lovers now wonder, why buy the cow when you can get the cow’s latest single for free?

I’d agree that all those reasons contributed to their downfall. But looking at what was still left on the stacks in great numbers yesterday after weeks of price reductions, I think I know what really killed Borders: their low opinion of the taste of their customers.

Borders was happy to stock a steady stream of middle of the road fare—Susan Boyle, Josh Grobin, Michael Jackson’s posthumous legacy album and the like—at a slightly inflated cost of $12-$15 a disc. Anything more adventurous—alternative music, back catalogue for major acts, country, blues—was priced at $18.99, about nine bucks more than you’d ever pay through any other retailer. It became a vicious cycle: since no one could afford to buy the offbeat stuff there, it went unsold and Borders took that as a sign to stock more of the standard best-sellers, which you could get anywhere … for less.

Once most folks’ disposable income was disposed of by the wretched economy, Borders became a showroom for Amazon, where folks would hang out for hours, reading books in the stacks, test-driving albums at the listening stations, then buying their selections for considerably less money online, if they bought anything at all. Thus, in a week, Borders will join the sadly-missed Tower Records and the not-so-sadly-missed Virgin Records in the retail graveyard.

Before leaving Borders for the last time, I rescued the latest Strokes album and a 2004 TV on the Radio CD, each of which were $6 after a 70 percent discount. That’s about what I pay for used CDs at the locally owned Solo Records on Woodward, where I’ll be doing my music store browsing from here out.

Maybe there’s an upside after all.

See you on the flip side …

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