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Glory days @ The Mighty Music Machine

By Jackie, Tuesday 17 August 2010

On Auburn Road, down towards Toorak Road, is a slightly ominous-looking warehouse. It's the head office of travel accessory supplier Korjo, it's massive, and it's one of the last places you would expect to find a record shop.

But nestled in its belly is just that. Mighty Music Machine (MMM) used to be located on Chapel Street during its pomp, when it rode the crest of a wave of underground buzz in the 1980s and '90s to become one of Melbourne's most iconic music destinations.

Alas, as owners Steven and Jackie Worth tell it, the steady gentrification of Chapel Street saw its soul ripped away shop by shop.

"Chapel Street was a very different place in those days. Very bohemian, very cool. It was very classy, but once they renovated the Jam Factory and all those shops, the whole street started to lose that vibe," says Jackie.

Many shops began to suffer with swelling rents, including some of the small designers synonymous with that part of the street. MMM was among the afflicted.

Fortuitously, the MMM website was in the process of being set up at the time, so the Worths hit upon the idea of making the transition into a web-based business.

"We got to this place last year; we're in a little cave in an office building, we thought this was definitely not going to work. It was a big culture shock," Steven says.

"This was our way of sort of easing people into feeling comfortable with the website - they can still come in and listen to the music and talk to us."

But reminders of the glory days are everywhere. Photographs of MMM's illustrious clientele decorate one wall; there's everyone from Chaka Khan, grinning in between the Worths, to Boy George, cheekily peeking out from behind Jackie.

"The record people used to bring the artists they had in Australia straight to our store. They wouldn't take them to a chain store because (the artists) wouldn't feel comfortable there," Steven says.

"We used to make them feel very comfortable and really didn't gawk over them and want photos and autographs, so they used to come back to our shop every time they were in Australia."

There was certainly no shortage of celebrity customers. Jazz legend George Benson would call to say he was coming in, so Steven would close the store for an hour or so to let him look around.

"All the tennis players used to come in from the Australian Open. Prince and his band came into the shop; one of the drummers couldn't even fit through the door, he was that big," he says.

Kylie Minogue and her sister Dannii were "nice, loyal customers", as was Molly Meldrum, who wrote an article in the Herald Sun describing Mighty Music Machine as "the best place to come shopping".

On their website, immortalised in prose and pixels, are testimonials lamenting the shop's move away from Chapel Street. "A whole universe gone in one fell swoop," writes Kate Ceberano. "It's the way of the world I suppose but the symbol of your shop and its purpose has always meant a lot to me! You will be missed!"

MMM, which opened its doors in 1976, was originally set up as an "import sort of store", bringing in rare vinyl for DJs to pick over at the height of the disco boom.

Steven, a former customer, bought out the original owners in 1989. At the height of its popularity, queues would form outside when a new batch of releases arrived - all this in those dark days before the internet, when buzz grew and travelled by word of mouth.
"I'd never seen anything like it," Jackie says. "They were salivating."

A loving emphasis on niches outside the ambit of most music shops - American R&B, for example, in the days of Anita Baker and Luther Vandross - helped contribute to MMM's growing reputation.

"There was always a focus on customer service, on processing information that customers told us, so the next time they walked in there'd be a pile of suggestions on the counter for them immediately," Steven says.

Today, MMM splits its revenue between online, physical and mail-order sales. And while Steven doesn't miss the retail hours, he does miss being a part of Chapel Street when it had a thriving music scene.

"For the first Chapel Street Festival, we had a big stage out the front and a local R&B group was playing. There were thousands of people out the front; it was such a huge day, that festival," Steven says.

"In later years the festival was just a place for people to come and get drunk. It was a different sort of crowd, and they had to cancel the festival because it was just a waste of time."

As you might expect, it was their shared love of music that brought the Worths together. The couple have been married 16 years, and have two children.

"I just married him because I wanted to work in a music store," Jackie says, laughing.

"We went to the same school but we were probably four years apart. I came into the store to buy a single, because I was into my R&B and all the lovey-dovey songs - my taste has changed a little since then - and a friend introduced me to him at a Kate Ceberano launch, and we were both into music, so it went from there."

Steven has also branched into another business - Mighty Mixes, which are compilations of fully licensed tracks for retailers, chain stores and restaurants to play.

He's had some success with this venture, counting the likes of French Connection and Seed among his clients, but he remains passionate about the future of music.

"It's a challenging time for the music industry, and if people aren't buying CDs in the future, they're going to have to buy something better than compressed files," Steven says.

"The trend towards releasing singles instead of albums is just laziness. Consumers wanting fast fixes. It's like fast food. But while some acts are still releasing quality, people will continue to buy it."

4.29PM  10-8-2010 Hari Raj  


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