Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Broadband requiem for Marbecks

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Wistful browsing through library-like archives increasingly the stuff of nostalgia in era of ultrafast internet.

Alfred Marbeck set up his record business in Queen's Arcade in 1934. Photo / Dean Purcell
Alfred Marbeck set up his record business in Queen's Arcade in 1934. Photo / Dean Purcell

Queen's Arcade won't be the same without Marbecks. Nor will Auckland. And I feel a little guilty that I'm partly to blame. Just as I did back in the 1990s, when I took the plunge and ordered my first CDs online from CD Universe, somewhere in the USA.

Now it's payback time. Next week, Marbecks is having a closing-down sale and come the New Year, instead of slipping into the arcade for a pleasant lunch-time flick through the latest offerings while being serenaded by a Bach aria or Beethoven sonata, I'll be left with an escalator ride up to the Warehouse Downtown.

It's not quite the same. Instead of the library-like filing of Marbecks, with ranks of Haydn and Handel and Lilburn, all tidily queued up in their respective places, the Warehouse offers an anarchic pot pourri of recorded music assorted as randomly as a secret FBI code.

Remaindered stock rubs shoulders with the new, classical and pop and everything in between, all mixed up together.

It's a fairground lucky dip, which is fun, in its place. The background soundtrack is rather different as well, loud announcements inciting you to rush to aisle five within three minutes to wrestle for women's underwear specials. That sort of thing.

Despite what some of my younger colleagues might think, I wasn't around when Alfred Marbeck set up his record business in 1934, but the shelves of LPs and CDs now clogging up my home, many still with the tell-tale little Marbecks label intact, do point to many hours of happy browsing over several decades.

And almost up until he died, aged 88, in 2009, Alfred's son Murray was usually on hand to share his knowledge, both on music and the state of the world.

I was rather sad when Murray and his son Roger sold the business to a national chain in 2007, and Auckland's only serious outlet for classical music fell into the clutches of a non-specialist music retail enterprise, but also a little relieved. I no longer felt guilty about my nocturnal shopping practices. I wasn't like those online shoppers who try on shoes in the local shop, then go off and buy them for half price over the internet, but I did know deep down that making the odd impulse purchase wasn't going to keep the business afloat. Not if other longtime regulars were being as disloyal.

Statistics suggest they were. The NZ Music Industry Commission reports that between 2003 and 2011, the retail value of total recorded music sales plummeted from $120.8 million to $71.6 million. No doubt illegal downloading played a part here, though I suspect not so much in the field of classical music.

But putting the decline in sales alongside a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of earlier this year which estimated overall online spending in New Zealand this year would rise from $2.68 billion to $3.19 billion and the pattern seems clear.

In the $3.19 billion worth of online sales will be the $25 - postage included - it cost me for the Blu-Ray disc of the Metropolitan Opera's Nixon in China, which arrived this week from the UK, just a week after its worldwide release.

And there's the core problem for any New Zealand retailer - and the incentive for shoppers of online shopping. It's cheaper - often half the price where music DVDs are concerned - it's quicker, and the range of product is infinite.

I do miss the browsing that was possible in a store with the range of stock Marbeck once held and also the chance to chat with knowledgeable staff or fellow customers. But with a search engine in one hand and a credit card in the other, such nostalgia for the old times quickly passes. At my computer, I have instant access to every piece of recorded music for sale in the world.

So far I've stuck to buying the physical object. I like the artwork, the booklet, a disc to hold. Also the idea of downloading compressed, low-fi music, seems a step backwards. But sites are now emerging offering better-than-CD-quality downloads, and with ultrafast broadband just around the corner, physical packages from the online warehouses may soon be as last year as poor old Marbecks.

- NZ Herald

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