The mall was never the place for cool kids or true heads to get their music fixes, but in 2014 they couldn't even if they wanted to. The scant number of crates at the sprawling Alderwood complex can be thoroughly dug in a couple of hours. Something is seriously amiss in the suburban music-retail ecosphere when the best spot for purchasing music is Urban Outfitters. Not one store strictly dedicated to selling recorded music occupies real estate at this Lynnwood consumer paradise. If Alderwood is an accurate gauge of mainstream American consumption habits (and why wouldn't it be?), digital has won. Industry pundit Bob Lefsetz may be wrong about a lot of topics, but on this issue, he seems to have nailed it. While some still mourn the death of Tower Records and hundreds of other mainstream music emporiums that have gone bust in the last 15 years, most of the population has blithely moved on, embracing cloud-based services for their sonic gratification.
As a staunch champion of vinyl and someone who still buys a few handfuls of CDs every month, I find music retail's steady post-Napster decay depressing. Say what you will about the convenience of purchasing music on a computer or a phone, but it will never replace visiting a brick-and-mortar establishment and rifling through the goods alongside other humans, some of whom—hygiene aside—can dispense wisdom about records you may not know, but need to, damn it. Many of my favorite people in the world work at record stores. Many of my best friendships were solidified at record stores. Some of my best experiences have occurred in record stores. So I'm dismayed to see the infrastructure of my passion eroded.
As a budding record collector in the late 1970s and early '80s, I followed the lead of my brother and mainly shopped at several indie spots in the metro Detroit and Ann Arbor areas, most of them now long defunct. (Shout-out to Sam's Jams, Off the Record, Make Waves, and Schoolkids.) Back then I lived less than a mile from Southfield, Michigan's Northland Center, which was once America's largest mall. There were a couple of big music-retail chains there, both with generic-sounding names like Musicland. My knowledge back then was neither broad nor deep, so it didn't register that mall stores really only appealed to listeners of ordinary tastes and desires, folks who'd want to pick up the 45 to that song on the radio that made them tingle or an album they read about in the daily newspaper (remember those?) or Rolling Stone. I recall buying LPs like Paul McCartney & Wings' Back to the Egg, Led Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door, the Cars' Candy-O, and Eric B. & Rakim's Paid in Full at Northland. But mostly those were impulse purchases. I didn't go to the mall intending to score amazing records; I went for the Orange Julius.
Today's music obsessives don't have it so great. Wandering around Alderwood, a shopper has three main options to obtain music: Hot Topic, f.y.e., and Urban Outfitters. Hot Topic's offerings are the paltriest: It has a narrow display unit next to the register that houses three bins of vinyl and precisely four CD titles (why even bother?). To browse the bottom row, you have to kneel and peer into a poorly lit bin while reaching to finger through the records. Unsurprisingly, the stock leans toward youth-oriented hardcore and emo acts (Atreyu, Bring Me the Horizon), with some nostalgia-bait artists who've attained classic status (Depeche Mode, Misfits, AC/DC, and Descendents). You can also pick up the Breaking Bad soundtrack and Wu-Tang Clan's debut LP.
The f.y.e. store stocks CDs and music-oriented DVDs, all shunted to the rear of the store. Receiving more prominent display are figurines and dolls (Ron Burgundy, Homer Simpson, Chucky, etc.), masks, Skullcandy headphones, video games, Bluetooth boom boxes, ball caps, and other pop-culture ephemera. The nice f.y.e. clerk Haley Farrar said that these "trend products" keep the store afloat. She lamented the decline of CD sales and noted that f.y.e.'s empire has dwindled to about 300 units nationwide. According to the Albany Times Union, f.y.e. closed 125 stores in 2009 and the Albany Business Review reported an additional 52 were shuttered in 2012.
The CDs at f.y.e. sit on spindly, shallow, 50-foot metal racks. The categories include Pop/Rock/R&B, Heavy Metal, Rap, Dance, Jazz, Easy Listening, and Musica Latina. The selections skew toward the predictable, but I spotted priced-to-move Poster Children and Unrest discs. How much do you want to bet they've been sitting there for more than a decade? I almost bought Ravi Shankar's Sitar Virtuoso double CD for $10 but balked because I already have some of the tracks in my collection. (Sorry for killing the music industry.)
Though their bins of records appear to be just one more fashion accessory, Urban Outfitters turns out to be a substantial player in the global vinyl-peddling field. According to the September 29 Billboard, the retailer had an 8.1 percent market share, second only to Amazon. While the selection at the Alderwood branch is respectable, it's still far inferior to that of any deftly curated proprietor—Wall of Sound, Jive Time, and Spin Cycle—and larger indies like Everyday Music, Sonic Boom, and Easy Street. But if you were unaware of the world outside the mall and you felt the urge to cop some wax, UO is as good as it gets. Go ahead, cry—you'll feel better.
The music department of Alderwood's Urban Outfitters is strategically placed in the store's center. Records occupy several bins to the right while Crosley turntables with USB ports are stacked on the back wall. Several copies of the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die adorn the shelves, as do Kurt Cobain's journals and Jesse Frohman's photo book about the late Nirvana star. The content here is geared toward what could charitably be called the moderate music consumer—somebody slightly more fervid than average, but who's several degrees removed from fanatic status.
The bins contain a mix of classic-rock warhorses (Led Zeppelin, Santana, the Beatles), KEXP faves (Animal Collective, Beck, Belle and Sebastian), high-profile electronic acts (Daft Punk, FKA twigs, Caribou), soundtracks (A Charlie Brown Christmas, Dazed and Confused), megastars (Justin Timberlake, Lana Del Rey, Michael Jackson), cool old cult icons (Velvet Underground, Rodriguez, Joy Division), a dilettantish but solid array of rap (Childish Gambino; Kendrick Lamar; Tyler, the Creator; Danny Brown), and token jazz legends (Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Chet Baker, John Coltrane—A Love Supreme, of course). You could do worse. You could also do a lot better. During my 60-plus minutes scouring the inventory, only one other person checked out the merchandise—that being a middle-aged woman who skimmed for about a minute. Granted, this was on a Wednesday morning, but still... Perhaps Black Friday will be a total clusterfuck.
One thing about Urban Outfitters' music section that rankles is the way it uses shattered records as decor. An interior decorator thought it would be clever to affix shards of wax to a wall and then string up some more cracked plastic as jagged mobiles. I'd be in favor of this move if they were all Billy Joel LPs and 45s, but alas, that is not the case. Ultimately, this aesthetic decision reflects a superficial interaction with the vinyl medium, a misguided presumption that such a display will draw curious music fans toward the shrink-wrapped long-players in the bins. It suggests that Urban Outfitters' brain trust are neophyte dabblers in this racket. It strikes a wrong note. But at Alderwood, it's as good as it gets.