Tuesday, January 10, 2006

David & Goliath, Indie Style

The Rhino Records Store in Westwood is closing down.

The Rhino store has been there for 35 years, and was the origin of the label of the same name (although they are now separate entities). It is the only independent record store in Westwood, home of UCLA. It is one of few independent record stores in LA.

Rumors abound that the Rhino kids blame downloading and Amoeba Music.

Aron's Records in Hollywood, another great indie record store which served the music geeks for over 40 years, shut down suddenly back in November. Their business had been tanking for a few years, most notably after Amoeba Music moved in up the street.

Rumors abound that the Aron's kids were really pissed with Amoeba.

I didn't move to LA until 2001, but I came down to visit all the time. So often that people thought my best friend and I were dating (ick!). I used to shop at both of these places. I wouldn't set foot (and still try not to) into a large corporate chain - no Virgin Megastores or Towers or Wherehouses for me, if it could be avoided.

You see, I was lucky enough to grow up with one of the best indie records stores in the land - Lou's Records in Encinitas. Lou's was the kind of place that encouraged you to try new music, and you could hang out there for hours. Everybody who worked there was in a band (everyone else surfed). Music people know about Lou's - when I used to interview bands with some regularity, if they'd find out I was from Encinitas... they'd ask about Lou's. I was dating a guy from Boston and when we visited my hometown, he asked if we could go to Lou's. (And WHY wasn't he the one? Sigh...)

Then I went to Berkeley, and we had Rasputin's and Leopold's and Aquarius and Saturn and a bunch of other places that I can't remember the names of right now. Rasputin's sort of came to dominate the area, but those other places hung around. Then Amoeba opened, and became major competition to Rasputin's, despite the fact that it had less than half the square footage that Rasputin's has. Why? A great selection, awesome prices, and cool staff. (The people who ran Rasputin's were dicks.)

Then Amoeba opened their "big" store in San Francisco in an old bowling alley in the Haight. I remember the first time I walked in: I was so overloaded, I walked right back out and went back an hour later. It was bigger, but the same - great selection, great prices, and nice, knowledgeable staff.

Finally, in 2001 - Amoeba takes Los Angeles. And I was there, opening day. I even rang one of the first sales. Yep, I'd just moved to LA and was an employee of Amoeba Music. Info.

I was excited to be in LA, and went shopping at Aron's and Rhino. What I found was that the people at Aron's were pretty nasty and hated the Amoeba folks. Rhino was just way overpriced. I gave both several chances over the years, and never enjoyed my experience. I stayed at Amoeba for a year, and now work by Rhino so I still pop in there with regularity.

I am also not someone that can survive with MP3 files as a music library - I own VINYL. I like linear notes. I want the art, complete with its packaging. I know people who are getting rid of their CDs, which replaced their records, and will now have all their music at their fingertips on a computer. So yes, that can be a problem, but it isn't THE problem.

My feeling is that the people at Aron's were mean and they lost customers because of it. This is not to say the Amoeba staff are total angels (Of course, I'm biased... But I worked Information and dealt with hundreds of people every day - I certainly had my moments). For the most part, Amoeba strives itself on being helpful to customers. As for Rhino, a friend commented upon hearing of its closing, "Well, they are the Virgin Megastore of the Westside. Too expensive!"

There are still indie record stores in LA (Sea Level in Echo Park, Poo-Bah's in Pasadena, Rockaway in Silver Lake, and a great one in Venice - the name is escaping me, damnit!) but it's shocking to me that Westwood is letting Rhino go. Aren't college towns supposed to be places where independent music thrives? Not in LA, I guess. And blaming Amoeba is too easy... Many of the independent stores which existed before Amoeba in the Bay Area still exists today. And in Los Angeles, people have to drive great distances (or deal with heinous traffic and parking) in order to get to Amoeba. You'd think it would be easier to support your local store. So what happened?

Just throwing that out there. Discuss.