Music History

Remembering the 90s: “What was it like to buy CDs, Daddy?”

Back in the 90s, the strip of Toronto’s Yonge Street between Queen and Gerrard was record store heaven. Starting with Tower Records on the northwest corner of Queen and Yonge, shoppers could move through at least a dozen different stores.

Sam the Record Man. Music World. A couple of HMVs (the flagship at 333 Yonge and the one in the Eaton Centre). Play Da Record. A&A. And there were plans for a Virgin Megastore.

The crowds on Saturday were so insane that HMV had to introduce shopping baskets so customers didn’t have to juggle all their purchases on the way to the cash. And the competition drove down prices so that some of the best CD bargains in the world could be found along those few blocks.

That’s all over, of course. Is there even one store left?

Billboard has this guest column about what it was like to work selling CDs in an age when everyone collected them.

In 1995, I applied to work at Blockbuster Music with only babysitting experience on my resumé. After scoring the minimum wage gig ($4.75 hour) I found myself ringing up customers while wearing a name tag and “Ask me how to pre-purchase Hootie and the Blowfish” button. It was the closest to an Empire Records experience as I would ever come.

During Blockbuster’s heyday as a multi-billion-dollar company dominating the home video market, the retail giant opened what it was calling the “entertainment store of the future” in the suburbs of Maryland with the tagline, “The Power to Hear it All.” This meant that customers could listen to anything in the store, in its entirety, with no pressure to make a purchase.

The gimmick gave Blockbuster a leg up on its competitors like Tower Records, Best Buy and Circuit City, some of which had listening stations, but all of which had limits on what you could listen to. This “future” concept put “power” into the hands (and ears) of the consumer, obliging employees such as myself to open (and re-seal) dozens of CDs each day to meet the demands.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38300 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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