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See you later, CDs

Forget vinyl: Now CD stores are suffering from a generation gap, and they're closing down in increasing numbers

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Norman Isaacs of Norman's Sound and Vision, pictured in his store in New York on June 28, remembers jam-packed aisles, but he has moved with the times. He sells used CDs on the Web.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

So this is an evening rush?

On a recent Monday, six people -- soon enough four, then two -- were browsing the bins of compact discs at Norman's Sound & Vision, a music store on Cooper Square in Manhattan's East Village, around 6pm, a time that once constituted the daily rush hour. A decade ago, the number of shoppers might have been 20 or 30, said Norman Isaacs, the owner. Six people? He would have had that many working in the store.

"I used to make more in a day than I probably make in a week now," said the shaven-headed Isaacs, 59, whose largely empty aisles brimming with punk, jazz, Latin music and lots and lots of classic rock have left him, many afternoons, looking like a rock 'n' roll version of the Maytag repairman.

Just as troubling to Isaacs is the age of his clientele.

"It's much grayer," he said mournfully.

The neighborhood record store was once a clubhouse for teenagers, a place to escape parents, burn allowances and absorb the latest trends in fashion as well as music.

But these days the store is fast becoming a temple of nostalgia for shoppers old enough to remember Frampton Comes Alive!

In the era of iTunes and MySpace, the customer base that still thinks of recorded music as a physical commodity (that is, a CD), as opposed to a digital file to be downloaded, is shrinking and aging, further imperiling record stores already under pressure from mass-market discounters like Best Buy and Wal-Mart.

The bite that downloading has taken out of CD sales is well known -- the compact disc market fell about 25 percent between 1999 and last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade organization.

What that precipitous drop indicated by the figures doesn't reveal is that this trend is turning many record stores into haunts for the gray-ponytail set. This is especially true of big-city stores that stock a wider range of music than the blockbuster acts.

"We don't see the kids anymore," said Thom Spennato, who owns Sound Track, a cozy store on busy Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

"That 12-to-15-year-old market, that's what's missing the last couple of years," he said.

Without that generation of buyers, the future looks bleak.

"My landlord asked me if I wanted another 10-year lease, and I said no," Spennato said. "I have four years left, then I'm out."

Since late 2003, about 900 independent record stores have closed nationwide, leaving about 2,700, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a marketing research company in Studio City, California. In 2004, Tower Records, one of the nation's largest chains, filed for bankruptcy protection.

Greta Perr, an owner of Future Legends, a new and used CD store on Ninth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen on Manhattan's West Side, said that young people never really came back to her store after the Napster file-sharing upheaval of the late 1990s.

She has responded to this by filling her windows with artists like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.

"People come in and say: `I remember when I was 20, Steve Miller's second record came out. Can I get that?'" she said.

Industry statistics bear out the graying of the CD-buying public. Purchases by shoppers between ages 15 and 19 represented 12 percent of recorded music last year, a decline from about 17 percent in 1996, according to the Recording Industry Association. Purchases by those 20 to 24 represented less than 13 percent last year, down from about 15 percent.

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