Newbury comics founder talks industry woes

Newbury comics founder talks industry woes

By Kate Augusto

When it comes to the major record label’s complaints about declining CD sales, Newbury Comics co-founder Michael Dreese said the labels should look at themselves for signing such weak talent.

“There’s a content issue,” he said. “Marvin Gaye sang about Vietnam, and today’s artists sing about what it means to be a hooker.”

The closure of the Virgin Records Megastore on Newbury Street last month because of declining CD sales is a sign that digital music is continuing its steady march toward replacing the CD.

Dreese addressed this issue in a lecture Nov. 16 in West Village F, sponsored by the Northeastern chapter of the Music ‘ Entertainment Industry of Association and the music department. As the head of a music retail chain that has weathered the digital music storm successfully, Dreese said one of the reasons the music industry is suffering is the low quality of musicianship compared to past years.

He said Newbury Comics, which he described as “the neighborhood record store,” has been successful thus far, mostly because its history isn’t rooted in just being a record store. It began as a comic book store, then in the ’80s broke into the business of selling pop culture items like punk rock buttons.

“Good ideas generate very rapid returns,” he said of the expansion.

Leon Janikian, an associate professor who coordinates the music department and has 15 years of music industry experience, said places like Newbury Comics have carved a sharp niche in the marketplace.

“Many people still enjoy leafing through what’s there,” Janikian said. Record stores “should be a destination.”

The main threat to traditional CD sales has been online downloading, which Dreese criticized on flawed logic.

“You can hack an artist, but if someone hacks you, it’s identity theft,” he said.

Assistant professor of music Ava Lawrence, who has 10 years of music industry experience at Virgin Records and TVT Records, said online downloading isn’t the only culprit. She said declining CD sales are a result of numerous factors, including poor artist quality and low-cost alternatives to buying the CDs.

Lawrence said record labels aren’t investing in their artist roster and are only interested in releasing a couple of hits.

Legitimate downloading through iTunes and other sources has also had an impact on the CD industry. According to RollingStone, Apple’s iTunes became one of the 10 biggest music retailers, ahead of Tower Records, with a 150 percent jump in downloads last year.

While CD sales have dropped, and programs like Kazaa, Limewire and Bearshare are still used for illegal downloading, not everyone downloads illegally.

“For the most part I buy music off iTunes or I’ll buy CDs if I really like them, but I don’t download music,” said freshman music industry major Alex Sanchez.

Lawrence said this shift toward digitizing music has been harder on the industry than those in the past.

“When CDs came out all cassettes were swapped for them, but now, with the Internet, there’s nothing to swap for, so record companies aren’t making much money off of [downloading],” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said the issue of disposable income comes into play because students buy music playing devices like iPods, which can hold a large music catalog, as opposed to a cheaper Discman.

Dreese said consumers are hesitant to spend money on CDs because the artist’s music quality has also diminished.

Lawrence said despite the difficulties, the industry is going through a phase that’s a normal part of change.

“When there’s a new technology there’s the same unsettling feeling, and then things settle down,” she said.

Janikian agreed, saying the music industry just needs to adapt to the new technology. He said the record labels should develop technology that allows music afionados to customize CDs online so record companies won’t overproduce goods.

Vicky Sandoval, a freshman journalism major said record companies need to adapt to the digital age.

“Society is modernizing so fast that this is just part of the process,” she said.

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