Visiting Virgin Megastore, 540 N. Michigan, on the “Magnificent Mile,” on Friday the 13th, on the penultimate day of its existence was a jarring experience for me. Not only had I been a patron of the store for most of its nearly 10 years as a music-based retailer, I also worked for the shop in 2000 as a sales associate.
Virgin is the latest Chicago-area multimedia giant to be brought to its knees. It joins Crow’s Nest and Tower Records, which folded in 2005 and 2006 respectively. The closing of these shops was caused, in part, by the convenience of music access through the Internet.
Patrons now have the option of downloading their music directly from websites or ordering their DVDs from on-line shops like CD Universe. The idea of going to a store to buy a CD has become virtually passe. The popularity of iPods have rendered compact discs and, to some degree, DVDs largely obsolete. In fact, the Sun-Times reported last year that it foresaw compact discs going the way of vinyl records and cassette tapes in about five years.
As a music-lover, I am disheartened by the closing of Virgin Megastore for many reasons:
Virgin was the last Chicago-based CD shop that catered to the well-rounded record buyer. There will always be fans available to fork over $16 for the latest music from Beyonce or R. Kelly. These artists have the name recognition, radio play, and tabloid coverage to guarantee that their music sells well in spite of its lack of artistic sophistication.
Meanwhile, a group like The National, a critically acclaimed band whose success has yet to translate to the charts, lacks the name recognition to really compete in this market despite the overall quality of their music. Unless you discovered them on Myspace or heard clips on Amazon, you might not have ever heard of this group.
The music industry is set up so those who move units get exposure, those who don’t, won’t. Places like Virgin gave a voice to the voiceless and as a music lover, it was the one place I knew would overlook Soundscan and just consider talent. Their closing just makes the playing field that much harder for underground artists.
“I liked the variety of music that Virgin Radio DJ B’Drid would play,” said Eliot Hines, a history major at Chicago State University. “He wouldn’t just play the predictable hit songs but would mix it up and play a little reggae one time, a little alternative another time, or a little rap after that. He had a great ear for music. I always discovered some artist I did not know before when I went in there.”
The evolution of the iPod and the dismissal of the record shop as primary supplier means the actual experience of browsing through compact discs may soon be phased out. This strikes me as deadly boring.
I don’t want to download all my music. I want the experience of buying it at a store. I want to flip through the compact discs, jeer at the new release posters, unwrap the plastic and read the cover notes, lyrics and thank-yous.
Downloading music also means the death of cover art which has waned since vinyl LPs became scarce. Artists once took pride in creating an eye-catching album cover that hinted at the content inside. Frank Zappa’s legend was built primarily on the bizarre world his covers created.
Now it’s no big deal. A well-known artist knows its his visage that will sell his album, so he doesn’t have to do anything special with his cover. You doubt it? Look at almost any Rap cover. No creative energy expended. Nothing to compare to, say, the famous peeled banana cover of Velvet Underground’s first album. There is no excitement value. When an artist created a great album and a great cover, it made the entire process of buying the album all the more worthwhile.
Although this battle was lost, I take comfort in the fact that a place like Virgin Megastore existed as long as it did. It truly recognized that the staff loved music-to the point that they could discuss it, be enthralled and awed by it or even disappointed by it.
The latest Soundscan figures meant less to them than what actually came out of the speakers. I made many discoveries while employed at Virgin. During lunch periods, we would gather and discuss music-what artists we liked, what albums affected us the most.
“It was the one place you could go to on Friday night if you wanted to socialize and meet people or just hang out with your friends without worrying about any hassles,” said Akeem Lawanson, a second year film student at Columbia College who used to trek to the store following his classes. “We would sit at the cafe and talk over coffee or buy DVDs on the second floor. It was always something to do. It always had a really homey feel.”