Shakespeare’s Richard II says,
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Once upon a time, up until only ten years ago, A&B Sound was the king of record stores in Vancouver:
There was a time when a stretch of Seymour Street in downtown Vancouver was a mecca for music lovers.
Long before Spotify playlists and Soundcloud uploads, fans would seek out new music by strolling the aisles of independent record shops like Odyssey Imports, Track Records, and Collectors RPM — which had a Beatles museum on the top floor — or chains like A&A Records and Sam the Record Man.
Tucked under the arms of many who walked along Vancouver’s so-called “Record Row” were square, bright orange plastic bags containing albums bought at A&B Sound, a record store chain that at one point dominated music sales in B.C. and had stores in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
“We had customers back then who spent the entire day there,” said Lane Orr, A&B Sound’s former vice-president, of the flagship Seymour Street location. “They’d be there in the morning when you opened at 9 and they’d still be there at 6 and they had an armload of of classical and jazz [records] and whatever else.”
Founded in 1959 by Fred Steiner, A&B Sound prided itself on selling a deep catalogue of music at rock bottom prices. Their relentless pursuit of bargain prices frustrated competitors and distributors. In its prime it had enough size and influence to ensure that customers in western Canada enjoyed some of the lowest music prices in North America.
“The prices were incredibly low,” said David Ian Gray, a retail analyst with DIG360. “They were benchmark pricing that other retailers had to fall in line with.”
“We were very polarizing in the industry,” said Bob Hitchcock, A&B Sound’s former senior director of marketing. “I think some of our competitors and some suppliers that we didn’t do business with considered us to be sort of cowboys in that respect.”
Hitchcock said A&B’s competitive prices on records and CDs built customer loyalty.
But then came the Internet:
For the longest time, A&B’s business model worked. At its peak, the company had 60 to 70 per cent of the local music retail business and $300 million in annual sales, according to a 1993 Financial Post report.
Hitchcock said the company explored the idea of using its deep catalogue to start a music streaming service in the late 1990s, but it never got past the discussion phase.
In 2005, A&B Sound applied for bankruptcy protection, claiming it owed creditors more than $50 million.
The chain said it had revenues of approximately $200 million in 2004, down from about $300 million in 2001.
U.S.-based Sun Capital expressed interest in buying the company, but it was ultimately sold to Seanix, a Richmond-based computer manufacturer, for an estimated $25 million.
The company wasn’t able to turn things around and closed stores.
The flagship Seymour Street location closed in August 2008. Months later, on Nov. 7, 2008, A&B Sound quietly declared bankruptcy, ending a business that lasted nearly five decades.
The story is familiar, but Canada lost one of the greatest record stores that ever existed, with a physical selection of music the size of which will sadly never be seen again:
Although A&B did its best to expand into computers and other forms of consumer electronics, the company was ultimately a music store, and no amount of business savvy could have saved it from the sea change of digital music and streaming.
In the 10 years since its bankruptcy, there has been something of a record store renaissance with small independent retailers catering to audiophiles who prefer the vinyl to digital. Major retailers still sell CDs.
Gray says that even though there is still an appetite for physical media, A&B Sound’s size — too big to be a boutique record store, too small to compete with box stores — would have made it difficult to survive.
Gray and others say there’s nothing the one-time retail giant could have done.
“It’s just one of those iconic stories of the death of a sector because of the internet and no matter how good they were they just weren’t able to withstand what was happening with online music.”
When I worked in downtown Vancouver, I used to browse the Seymour Street record shop every day on my lunch hour. I limited myself to buying only one CD per day. The deals were so incredible, it was a hard limit to keep.
What a time. It was a truly wonderful experience, like visiting a magnificent castle, full of treasures. I feel sorry for those who never knew it.