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Force Behind Schoolkids' Success Moving To Boston

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Force behind Schoolkids' success moving to Boston


JAN 16 1988


He likes his job, he likes the place that he's doing it and he loves the city in which he works and lives.

Why then, is Schoolkids Records' executive buyer and 16-year Ann Arbor resident Michael Lang moving to Boston? Is it money? Prestige? A godfatherly offer he couldn't refuse?

The last guess is the closest. As the store's purchasing agent, Lang keeps in touch with buyers and sellers of recorded music all over the world; it was from among those contacts that Lang found himself presented with an attractive offer to buy BCD (short for Boston Compact Disc) Inc., a small corporation made up of a pair of small stores that sell nothing but compact discs.

It was so attractive he really couldn't turn it down, and so this week he finished training his replacement Jim Leonard, erstwhile manager of Schoolkids' subsidiary SKR Classical and Ann Arbor News classical music critic, who will now serve as executive buyer for both Ann Arbor stores as well as S'kids East Lansing CD-only store. Next week Lang and his wife Pat leave for Beantown.

Lang's defection is a loss for Ann Arbor in more ways than one. As the architect of Schoolkids' cosmopolitan atmosphere and efficient approach to comprehensive stocking, Ann Arbor has long been the envy of other, bigger cities for having a store that evolved so imaginatively.

But while vinyl is still stubbornly stocked at S'kids despite its rapidly dwindling share of the recorded music market, in a recent interview Lang cited two major reasons for "leaving a very comfortable and satisfying position and starting over," making a break with a professional pas seriously intertwined with vinyl.

One reason is clearly business oriented: "I think that the future (of the business) is definitely cassette/CD," Lang says. And while he feels the demise of the vinyl LP is exaggerated (they currently split the market in a rough 50-20-20 share with cassettes taking the lion's share and CDs about to overtake them), he gives the LP five years before it shares that tiny 10 percent "specialty" category with 8-track tapes, vinyl singles and other has-beens and oddities. "And I wonder if that's a little too long."

The other motivation is pretty much personal, for Lang used to act as buyer for and manager of Schoolkids, but the store's success forced him to choose one job over the other. There is always the threat that one will be kicked upstairs and out of the job one loves, but as manager, buyer and owner of BCD, that isn't likely to happen.

"A lot of people don't like retail," Lang says. "They like wholesale, because the market's more consistent." As a jazz fan, Lang prefers the retailer's proximity to the actual product -- and the actual patrons. "I don't particularly want to be away from Joe Public -- I like dealing with customers; I like selling stuff that I like, I still get a kick out of 'working the floor' so to speak."

Lang's love affair with the re-cord business and Ann Arbor began about two decades ago when his family moved from southern California to East Lansing, where his father taught at Michigan State University. Lang attended junior high and high school in East Lansing, and there landed his first job sweeping floors at Discount Records. "Your quintessential Horatio Alger story," he cracks.

He enrolled in the University of Michigan and in his second term began working at the Ann Arbor branch of Discount, which at the time was owned by the Columbia Records division of CBS. Rather than trying to rise in the CBS corporate empire (and limit himself to intimate familiarity with only one comany's product) Lang quit after a few years.

Then, at a 1975 Sonny Rollins concert, Lang encountered Steve Bergman, who was about to open an Ann Arbor branch of the Midwest Schoolkids Records chain and wanted Lang's kind of experience to handle the running of the store while he handled the business. Lang accepted, and the rest has been one of the consistent bright spots in the somewhat rollercoaster fortunes of downtown Ann Arbor.

So, Lang leaves. And he's taking with him a finely-tuned savvy about the business that comes from a fondness for watching the trends and personalities that makes it seem like more than just a business.

He has several advantages awaiting him in the market he is about to invade. First, the stores are ongoing, successful concerns. "(The owners) are getting rid of them because they've become so successful that they'd have to give up their other business concerns, which they don't want to do."

Second, BCD is similar to S'kids in that it isn't a "hot product" store (stocking full catalogue as well as hits in as many formats as possible -- excepting classical) and that the stores stock and display their product the same way (displaying the booklet from the CD package in browser shelves rather than having a floor full of crammed racks). BCD even uses the same boast -- that by using that system, they carry a larger stock than stores with much more floor space.

And third, the Cambridge/Boston market is surprisingly similar to the non-hit-oriented connoisseur Ann Arbor market. "I think that Ann Arbor is a great town for running a music store, and I don't think that there are too many towns in the country that could equal that. I think Cambridge has that potential, and that a lot of people consider the Cambridge market one of the strongest in the country."

Lang admits that he doesn't own a CD player himself yet, but asserts that there's a perfectly good reason for that: "I collect jazz and at this point, jazz is just beginning to flourish on CD, much to my chagrin.... If I were a rock and roll fan I would have been into it much sooner. And let's say I were a bluegrass fan -- I don't think I'd be getting into it for another 2 1/2 to 3 years."

Still, he admits that although the swiftness of his move hasn't given him much time for reflection, he will miss the city in ways too numerous to mention. "I was at the Ray Bryant concert (at the Kerrytown Concert House) last night and I was waxing nostalgic sitting there in the little crowd because, a) I knew a lot of the people there and b) I had a small part in getting Ray Bryant to town. I was a little fish in a little pond here, and I'm gonna be a little fish in a big pond there."


Michael Lang stands next to the up-and-coming compact discs