Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CXXV: Music Millennium and the Fate of Good Old-Fashioned Record Stores
(October 2020)

Tell me about your favorite record store. I mean the one you currently patronize, or even the one you went to regularly as a young person when you were just discovering your music. You know, the store that's probably been closed for 20 years now, and you really miss it and wish you could go there one more time. I've been to all the great ones in the US- Tower on Sunset Boulevard, Amoeba in both Los Angeles and Berkeley, Waterloo in Austin and Music Millennium in Portland.

The first time I lived in the Portland area, from 2007 to 2009, I quickly discovered Music Millennium. In many ways, it's a garden-variety record store, not too different from the big music chains from decades ago, all funky and cluttered and smelling a little bit like mold and ammonia. I realized I was in the presence of greatness the very first time I visited and found everything I wanted. Music Millennium's story is even classic--it was a mainstay in the Portland scene for a long time. When the owner finally decided to retire and sell the place, one of the clerks at the store--someone who had worked there from the time he was a teen--popped up and grabbed the helm and has kept it running ever since.

That man is Terry Currier. I've met Terry numerous times, even worked with him on an audio magazine while I lived here in the PNW. We're Facebook friends, but I'll bet dollars to donuts that he doesn't remember me since he's such a legend in Rose City, the kind of guy who stands next to the mayor when it's time to celebrate something. Everyone in Portland knows Terry, and he can't know everyone. I went to lunch with him once and a continuous parade of well-wishers crowded our table.

Once I returned to Portland in late June, I immediately wanted to check out Music Millennium to see if the place had changed. Tower, of course, is gone, and Amoeba has closed a store or two recently. Well, the store itself hasn't changed. I haven't stepped foot in Music Millennium for almost a dozen years, and I still knew where everything was.

The mood, however, was quite different--all thanks to COVID-19. Only a few people could shop in the store at the same time, and MM is such a big store that I rarely encountered another record lover in the aisles that afternoon. All of the initial excitement about my visit vanished once I looked around and saw the huge, muddy and destructive footprints of 2020. Thumbing through the bins eventually seemed like a very risky proposition, and I found myself not wanting to touch a single LP. After snapping a few photos, I left empty-handed.

What happened? It's certainly not the fault of Music Millennium. They still have all of that magic, but now leavened with a heavy and somewhat distracting dollop of customer safety. If you love to look for old vinyl, new vinyl and anything else you might find in an old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar record store, this is still one of the best places on the planet to be.

Maybe it's me.

I'm not much of a record collector these days. One of the finest perks of being me is that people are constantly sending me new music--LP's, CD's, thumb drives, URL's for streaming. I no longer have that "I need something new to listen to" itch. My LP and CD collections have gotten so big in the last few years that they are starting to dominate my house. If one of my favorite artists releases a new album, I just stream it on Qobuz the day it comes out. I no longer have a need to visit record stores. My visit to Music Millennium made me realize that. It made me feel sad.

It's a bittersweet feeling, knowing that you're no longer going to do something that you've been doing your entire life.

Record stores aren't the only businesses that are suffering in the COVID world, of course. The high-end audio industry is hurting, as is the rest of the business world. Someone, it might have been me, once put forth the unrealistic notion that a hobby like high-end audio would survive the pandemic because it's a perfect antidote for quarantines and social distancing. TV, books, music and GrubHub--what else do you need? But as soon as states started to shut down, a lot of well-known audio companies, some that have been around for a very long time, started laying off employees and shutting down production.

COVID-19 has hit our society, our culture, in ways that we didn't predict--I still can't find those disinfectant wipes that come in the white plastic tubs. Compact discs, digital streaming and ever-shrinking audience have always conspired against the vinyl LP. Will a viral pandemic be the final straw, the one that keeps us from going out and rummaging through record bins forever?

Twenty years ago, I would have been out in the streets, protesting the death of brick-and-motor music stores. Now, of course, there are far more important things to protest and living here brings that realization to light. In 2020, it took a sunny August day in Portland for me to realize that I probably no longer needed to go to record stores. I wonder if other people my age are coming to the same conclusions, that we should all stay home and just order from Amazon?

That, of course, would not be a good thing--at least to me. Until the day I die, I want to drive down Burnside Drive in Portland or Lamar Boulevard in Austin or Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and see those stores open with people walking in and out with shiny plastic bags full of LP's. I've been saying the same thing for 22 years now, that we need to keep LP's alive as a music format, and we need to listen to turntables and we need to do all of the things I've mapped out over 135 columns.

So what do we do?

I don't really know, and I don't think I need to know. A few years ago, older audiophiles lamented about the state of high-end audio and kept asking two rather insipid questions. First, how do we get more women into audio? (the answer is to remove the NO GURLS ALOUD signs from our clubhouses, boys). The second question: how do we convince younger generations to keep this hobby alive?

We found out the answer to that one too. Those younger generation audiophiles still want their music to sound realistic. They dig good sound just as much as we do. But they've found new ways to accomplish this because, for the most part, they don't own big houses with dedicated listening rooms like the boomers did at the same age. I don't want to get all Che Guevara on you, but the middle class is a lot smaller than it was when I was fresh out of college, and that's what really kept Millennials and Gen-Z'ers from spending all their disposable income on $35,000 turntables and $50,000 pairs of speakers.

That's why the high-end audio industry started to focus on headphones a few years ago, and they pushed the performance envelope to new highs (if you don't know, we're living in the middle of a Golden Age of headphone design). They started focusing on small DACs and headphone amps that could be plugged into your laptop so you can have great sound anywhere. Most importantly, they saw digital streaming as a juggernaut, something so flexible and superior in its interface that the idea of physical formats became arcane almost overnight.

And yet.

Everyone I saw in Music Millennium that day was younger than me with the possible exception of the clerks (who are old, crazy rockers just like Terry Currier). Young people, all of them. Every time I visit a record store, that's what I see. For every old and dusty audio guy rummaging through the jazz bins, looking for some obscure Wes Montgomery LP, there are ten people grabbing Taylor Swift's Folklore or Katy Perry's Smile--yes, on LP.

Once again, the kids are all right, and LP's will soldier on, just like they have been. But once things return to normal on this planet, I'm going back to Music Millennium, buying a shitload of LP's and then asking to talk to Terry to see if he remembers me from back in the day.

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