Sadly, Australia’s oldest classical music shop, Thomas’ Music on Melbourne’s Bourke Street is due to close on March 16 after 96 years in business. The reason the store gives is declining sales brought on by digital consumer platforms. “In the face of online sales and streaming, and a dwindling retail environment, management have chosen to exit gracefully,” quotes Limelight magazine. The news has been much lamented on social media by loyal customers, and it bears further testimony to a trend that has hit a number of other iconic businesses around Australia over recent years.
In 2016, Mills Records in Fremantle, another iconic classical record store that had been operating since the 1940s, closed its doors – although the good news is that it has managed to keep going as an online business. Adelaide’s oldest CD shop, John Davis Records, closed in the same year after having moved location and changing its name to If Pigs Could – despite a determined campaign to save it.
The closure of 50 ABC Shops nationwide announced in 2015 was also attributed to the rise of the new digital marketplace and the death of bricks-and-mortar sales of recorded music. Now the national broadcaster sells its ABC Classics and other CDs online but maintains a physical presence in its network of ABC Centres around the country in bookshops, newsagencies and the like.
Still in business thankfully is Fish Fine Music in Sydney, which in defiance of market trends opened its Town Hall Square arcade outlet in 2016 to supplement its main store in the Queen Victoria Building that has been selling classical records for the last 12 years.
The difficulties facing record sales have been staring industry and retail for many years now, and it seems that only businesses that have a well-developed online sales arm, or specialise in the second hand market, can survive. Internet purchasing and streaming have been hovering over shopfront selling like a spectre, and consumption patterns have been showing this only too clearly. RIAA figures show that in the US for example, sales of CDs declined from 939m units in 2004 to 99m in 2016, while downloads (singles and albums) leapt from 144m to 837 in the same period.
But the biggest surprise is how physical formats of classical music have been making a recent comeback. Discogs, which claims to be the world’s largest database for recorded music, reports that market place sales of classical releases on all physical media including CDs, vinyl and cassette, grew by 30.07 per cent in 2017. This is a sharper rise than any other category including rock, pop, electronic and jazz.
So it is unfortunate timing that retail outlets in Australia have capitulated when they have.
“Everything comes full circle, but sadly, it hasn’t been enough to save the store,” Thomas’ Music owner Elisabeth Vodicka told The Age.
Another casualty is the sense of community that records shops engender as music enthusiasts make their mecca and rub shoulders.
It’s always been a place where you can come and have a good conversation about music or about life,” Ms Vodicka continued. “It’s more of a community than a shop.”
Records fairs are a new phenomenon that are leading the renewal of sales of rock, pop and to a lesser extent classical records. In these, collectors can congregate and share their enthusiasm for second hand CDs and vinyl. The Australian Record Fair is one example, and another is Record Store Day.