The long-playing record is about to go the way of the 5-cent Coke, the Saturday afternoon double feature and the free-service gas station.
The longtime undisputed heavyweight champion of the record business, the vinyl LP, is on the ropes.
Fourteen Music Plus record stores in Southern California this week stopped carrying vinyl albums, while selected outlets in the 223-store Wherehouse chain will probably follow suit in the next few months. Both moves reflect a nationwide trend among record stores to abandon the LP, which was introduced 40 years ago and quickly became the most popular medium for recorded music.
LPs are being pulled out of the Music Plus locations on a store-by-store basis, according to Mitch Perliss, director of purchasing for Show Industries, the 59-store chain's parent company.
"The consumer, in a general way, has told us that he or she is interested in having their audio experience either on cassette or CD format," Perliss said this week.
As the much-conjectured demise of the LP shifts from rumor to reality, Music Plus' move exemplifies the swift infiltration of the compact disc into the marketplace since its introduction in 1983. At that time, it appeared unlikely that the new format would supplant the vinyl LP before the year 2000--if ever.
Equally evident is the continuing strength of the audio cassette, which maintains an average 40%-50% share of retail sales in the face of mushrooming popularity of the CD, which now accounts for as much as 50% of music sales in some stores.
"My feeling is that a year or year-and-a-half from now, there will be very few stores that are in the vinyl business--not just Music Plus, but most of the major record chains," Perliss said. He added that all Music Plus stores will continue to stock vinyl 12- and 7-inch singles.
As if to prove the point, a Wherehouse official said this week: "I envision that (elimination of LPs from some stores) will happen very soon, probably within the next three or four months. . . . For us, LPs are less than 10% of our music (sales), and they are heading toward 5%. Four years ago they were about 40%."
While all Wherehouse stores currently carry LPs, newer locations such as the Beverly Center store in Los Angeles stock fewer than 300 LPs, "which isn't very
much considering some of our stores have 15,000 to 20,000 LPs," said Jim Dobbe, who oversees buying of music merchandise for the chain.
Most major record companies have recently adopted policies that pay stores less for unsold LPs they return to the companies than for unsold cassettes or CDs that are sent back.
Perliss, however, said Music Plus' decision to remove vinyl albums from some stores is unrelated to those "return" policy changes.
"In terms of the entire Music Plus chain, vinyl LPs have gone from 10% of total music sales a year ago in January to somewhat less than 4% now," Perliss said.
"We are just looking at our sales figures and asking whether there are locations that no longer need the configuration. We have other stores that are doing 10% to 12% to 15% sales in vinyl and in those locations we'll continue our commitment to LPs as strong as we have in the past."
While video sales and rentals have come to take over as much as half the floor space in some Music Plus stores, the phase-out of vinyl LPs "has nothing to do with some other product taking up available floor space. It comes back to what the consumer wants--if they told us they still wanted to buy vinyl, we'd find the floor space for it."
Instead, the compact disc is largely responsible for the public's disenchantment with the LP.
Figures from the Washington-based Electronic Industries Assn. show that sales of CD players have jumped from 1 million units in 1985 to 5 million last year. The association estimates that 6 million players will be sold this year. The association does not break out individual figures for turntable sales, but Pfanstiehl, one of the largest manufacturers of replacement needles, reports that 4.5 million turntables were sold in 1988 and that there are 60 million currently in use.
Perliss said LPs that stores are returning to the company's headquarters may end up at a Music Plus "outlet store" in Long Beach, where most of the chain's overstock, cutouts and other miscellaneous products are sent.
Employees at several Music Plus stores that are shipping LPs back to the chain's headquarters this week reported that vinyl albums constitute only 1% or 2% of their sales.
"My God, it's ridiculous," said Christopher Lopez, manager of the Santa Ana Music Plus, which retains two small bins of LPs among dozens of racks of cassettes and CDs. "I don't think we sell five LPs a week. People hardly ever ask for albums anymore. They have a cassette player, a boom box or a CD player in the car, so who needs vinyl? When people do ask for something on LP, we're shocked."