AUGUSTA, Ga.—’Tis the season for buying, but this year, Augusta’s longtime record store retailer Robert “Flash” Gordon says he’s experiencing a significant downturn in the sale of music and video products.
Among several reasons like major retail outlets and computer downloads, he directly blames what he describes as the illegal sale of bootleg music, mixed tapes and DVDs.
In Pittsburgh, two surviving record dealers are also being feeling the pinch of new technology, free downloading and illegal bootleggers.
Neil Dorsey, owner of Dorsey’s Records, a business he inherited from his father, said his 63-year-old firm in Homewood has been forced to adapt with the times in order to survive.
“There’s a difference between mixed tapes and bootleggers, I think. We sell mixed tapes, but we buy them from a professional company. We pay $5 for them, but sell them for $7.99. They’re popular because people like the variety.”
Dorsey admits bootleggers have also his sales.
“In barber and beauty shops, they’ve got the latest movies and CDs selling for $5. My average CD costs $15.88. I can’t compete with that price.”
To adapt, Dorsey repairs computers and laptops, along with converting LPs and VHS tapes to digital CDs and DVDs. At his company’s height during the Motown era, Dorsey recalls the city boasting of at least 12 retailers competing as small record shops.
On Pittsburgh’s North Side, Ron Stedeford has owned his shop since 1964. His primary problem is with the downloaders.
“You’ve got guys who’ll burn an entire Whitney Houston or ’Lil Wayne CD and the police can’t do anything about it. They’re too mobile. Hard to catch,” said Stedeford.
While times are now tough, Stedeford recalls the good days in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when vinyl still ruled as CDs started to permeate the market.
“We had lots of business from regular customers and deejays at that time,” he said. “The money flowed then.” He added his business is down 50 percent from just five years ago.
Darryl “Boogie” Dunn, a veteran Pittsburgh club deejay, said he refuses to buy bootleg or mixed CDs, adding that the death knell for the music industry was forecasted by radio industry executive Jack “The Rapper” Gibson in the mid-1980s.
“Jack predicted that radio stations were shooting themselves in the foot by not playing the classic artists. It still continues. Older artists still produce new music, but the stations won’t play their songs. The kids don’t buy CDs, they’re all about the computer. But older patrons probably would continue to buy music if they could hear music by their favorite (mature) artists on the radio.” Gibson sponsored several music industry conventions in Atlanta during the 1980s and 1990s before his death in February 2000.
With the end of Pittsburgh’s only urban radio station (WAMO-FM) earlier this year, both Stedeford and Dorsey agree that mixed tapes serve a positive role in disseminating new tunes throughout the Pittsburgh market.
But in Augusta, police are cognizant of and adamant about cracking down on both music and movie counterfeiters.
Sergeant Randy Hayes of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, heads the Technical Crimes Division which oversees and investigates activities related to counterfeit CD and DVD sales in metro Augusta and countywide.
“Sure, it’s illegal. And if we get complaint calls about someone sitting out in a parking lot selling CDs or DVDs, we’ll investigate and seize their product,” he said.
Typically what occurs, says Hayes, is that deputies will seize products and ultimately provide contents to investigators from the Recording Industry Association of America or the Motion Picture Association of America.
“The RIAA and MPAA are experts when it comes to determining whether products are authentic,” said Hayes. “If counterfeit, we’ll follow up with arrest warrants. If the product is legit, we must return it to the perpetrator. Although that’s rare, it does happen sometimes,” Hayes added.
“These guys are like drug dealers,” he said. “We pop ’em all the time, but there’s always three or four more to replace them once they’re removed from the scene.”
The downloading issue recently surfaced nationally on NBC’s “Today Show,” when Hoda Kotb said to her co-anchor Kathy Lee Gifford, “I can’t believe people still buy the whole CD with all this downloading going on.”
They were referencing the new release by breakout British singer Susan Boyle.
According to the RIAA website, in 2005, Atlanta authorities confiscated more than $20 million worth of illicit products during continuous police raids of suspected pirating operations.
The RIAA also cited a report by the Institute for Policy Innovation, a Lewisville, Tex. think tank which noted that in 2007, global theft of sound recordings cost the U.S. economy $12.5 billion in lost revenue, more than 71,000 jobs and $2 billion in wages for American workers.
Global losses are estimated to be more than $1.6 billion during the same period, according to the IPI report.
As owner of Pyramid Records one of Augusta’s last-remaining small record outlets, Gordon said he’s witnessing diminishing sales at both his downtown Augusta location and his Gordon Highway site. Gordon said he concerned about bootleggers “because it affects my bottom line.
“Not only are they stealing from the artists, they’re stealing from me too. It’s a crime. You have guys going around selling bootleg CDs or DVDs for $5 or two for $10. I can’t do that, because I’m selling the actual legitimate product.”
Bootleg products are copies of CDs or DVDs that are typically mass-produced from an ill-gotten versions of a song or motion picture source.
Gordon says he witnessed bootleggers walking near his south Augusta business, openly soliciting their products from plastic bags or car-trunks.
“What’s really bad is that many times those bootleg copies are sometimes blank. Then what? It’s too late. They’ve got you.
“It hurts the entire community. No one’s getting paid. Not me, not the artists, publishers, the tax man, the retailers. We’re all affected,” said Gordon, a former promotions manager with Motown Records and for James Brown.
More recently he was general manager for the Augusta-Richmond County Entertainment Complex and James Brown Arena.
“It’s happening at flea markets too,” said an openly frustrated Gordon.
“C’Mon this stuff is illegal. Just like selling illegal cigarettes or whiskey. They (authorities) can stop that, I don’t understand why they can’t stop this?”
Gordon said he also has a problem with one of his retail neighbors, a new business called Street Dreamz, also on Gordon Highway.
When customers enter Gordon’s shop, often they’re asking for $5 mixed tapes, he said. “I don’t sell that type of product, so they’ll go down the street looking for that store. Gordon, who opened his business 30 years ago, said he’s openly against the sale of mixed tapes, which he categorizes in the same capacity as bootleg products.
“I may buy a CD wholesale at $10 and they’ll sell the same thing for $5 or maybe two for $15,” he said.
Several calls to speak with Street Dreamz’ owner, whom an employee identified as “J.C.,” were not returned in time for publication.
While Gordon’s story is a somber one, unfortunately, it’s a story that’s being shared by mom and pop record retailers nationwide.