Indie music stores find their niche
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Despite the tales of gloom and doom, the disappearance of some 1,500 small music outlets and the increasing predilection of the young and old alike to acquire their favorite tunes digitally, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of the independent music shop have been somewhat exaggerated.
Although the song is over for iconic retailers like Tower Records, Record Bar, Camelot Music and Peaches Records, two independent record retailing survivors – Wuxtry and Schoolkids Records – are, to paraphrase Johnny Winter, still alive and well in the Classic City.
It's true, however, that the music business on the whole is on shaky ground. SoundScan reports that in-store album sales dropped 17 percent in 2007, while digital purchases have increased by 50 percent. And it couldn't have helped those affected when one of the country's longest-standing indie stores – Schoolkids Records – closed the doors of its Chapel Hill, N.C., branch in early April.
But the indies are determined to stay the course to remain open for those who still like to hold their sonic purchases in their hands.
"I just returned from the National Association of Recording Merchandisers' convention in San Francisco and although the overriding vibe was one of concern with all the stores that have closed and are closing, there were a lot of people there who were reporting their best (sales) numbers ever," said Scott Register of the Birmingham-based Coalition of Independent Music Stores, of which Schoolkids is a member.
"It basically comes down to the individual retailer's entrepreneurial expertise. And people can sit on their (behinds) and complain about the state of the industry or they can figure out new ways to get people in their stores," Register said. "Music is not going anywhere, and my guys know how to peddle music. They're saying, 'We've got no choice but to try to figure out how this works.' "
Register pointed to the success of the recent inaugural National Record Store Day, an initiative to remind consumers that music shops still have a place on the industry's landscape.
"National Record Store Day drove home the importance of independent retail stores in our communities," he said. "It was our answer to the overriding opinion in the press that we're going away sometime soon."
There's not much question that the Web-based iTunes store is outselling just about everybody else and big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, Borders and Barnes & Noble command a considerable share of the cheese, but there's something about an indie market that just can't be duplicated online or in the (shrinking) music section at Wal-Mart.
"Actually, indie stores, like indie labels, should be seeing more customers because the people who work there know music," said Bruce Burch, administrative director of UGA's Music Business Program.
"If we're going away, nobody's told us," Register said. "Guys are doing whatever they have to in order to stay in business and to keep their businesses relevant. There are stores closing in businesses all across the board, so what we have to do is work hard to continue to get people through the door."
The news of Schoolkids' closing in Tar Heel Country might have sent a momentary gasp along Clayton Street in downtown Athens, since the company that owned the Chapel Hill store also owns the Schoolkids in Athens and in Raleigh, N.C., but Rick Culross, who managed the Chapel Hill store, said the local store would "absolutely" remain open, despite the times.
"Forty-eight percent of people age 18-24 didn't buy one CD last year," said Culross, who opened the Athens store and now is situated in Raleigh. "We pushed ourselves on a market (in Chapel Hill), but then the market just went away. People started buying and sharing music online, which led us to losing half our market here. And people burning discs and sharing them hurts, too."
Culross pointed out that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Schoolkids' Chapel Hill outlet was one of four music stores on Franklin Street, which were doing a combined $250,000 in sales each month. Now all those stores are gone, replaced by "sub shops and Tar Heel T-shirt stores," Culross said.
"We've been the only store on Franklin Street for the last two-and-a-half years and we weren't even doing a fifth of what we were all doing before," he said. "In a six-year period of time, $200,000 worth of music sales left this street."
One thing that might have saved the Chapel Hill store, Culross said, would have been help from the major record labels' reducing the price of CDs.
"You'd think that after years and years of manufacturing CDs, the prices would drop," he said. "But we're still finding price increases. In most businesses, when sales fall, you get folks in the stores by lowering prices. But you can't discount prices when (the wholesale price) keeps going up."
Faced with almost overwhelming competition from digital delivery and big store buying power – many mega-retailers sell CDs with little or no intention of making a profit, hoping folks will buy something other than music while they're trolling the aisles – the indies have had to think outside the box, developing different products and attractions to bring in customers.
One of the nation's most successful independent music stores is The Sound Garden, located in Baltimore and Syracuse, N.Y.
General manager Philip Ley said they've thrived in Baltimore because "we have the best prices," but the store also hauls in the revenue with a considerable used CD/DVD business and with the utilization of "in-store" promotions, whereby touring artists visit the store for acoustic performances or autograph sessions.
"We buy and sell used CDs and DVDs, which is a huge draw," said Ley, who's been with The Sound Garden for nearly 11 years. "We pay good prices, which makes us the first place a lot of people go to and it keeps them coming back on a regular basis. And new DVD sales are a huge part of our business.
"We also do a lot of in-stores (events) and signings, which often brings new customers to us. We try to make this an exciting place to be – not your average retail store. It's definitely an energetic place, a little more of a treat than your average retail experience."
Like everywhere else, overall sales have diminished in recent years but the Baltimore store – which is located in the city's funky Fells Point district – is "holding steady" and will soon expand to start carrying video games, Ley said. CD sales alone might have sustained the business, but it would have left very little wiggle room and no opportunity for growth, he said
And as far as the proliferation of downloading music is concerned, Ley brought up an interesting observation that could well be the key that keeps the indies alive.
"I think the downloading craze has leveled off," he said. "Young people who grew up downloading free music now realize it's no longer free and then at some point they realize they've got a lot of music on their hard-drive, but they don't have much of a musical collection. Those are the people we're trying to get in our store."
"It is a collection thing," added Wuxtry's John Fernandez, who also performs in multiple Athens-based bands including Olivia Tremor Control and Dark Meat. "It's cool to have things to show off to your friends. And if you lose your iPod, where's your music? And people love album art and liner notes, so we try to order imports with good packaging and art. That's something you don't get when you download."
A swelling interest in vinyl also is helping to drive the survivors.
"Vinyl is making and will continue to make a comeback," said Burch, who before coming to Athens had a notable career as a songwriter, publisher and producer in Nashville, Tenn. "Real music lovers hate to hear music through bad speakers or those ear pods. Vinyl has a warm sound that just can't be duplicated. In the next several years, a lot more people will get turned on to vinyl."
"There aren't nearly the number of record manufacturers that there once were, so the vinyl plants are overrun with business," Register said. "I told people three years ago to watch out for vinyl and people thought I was crazy. But it's not a fad – it's (high definition) for music lovers. We're seeing a resurgence, and it's not just older people. Teenage girls who have the 'Juno' soundtrack buy a vinyl copy because they want the artwork."
Dan Wall, who owns and operates Wuxtry Records in Athens (which sells new and used CDs, DVDs, vinyl and even cassettes and 8-track tapes) has his own take on the increasing interest in vinyl.
"Every format has been slotted to kill the format before it, but nostalgia keeps it all alive," said Wall, who has operated Wuxtry for 33 years. "In the 1990s, everybody wanted CDs and vinyl. Through the years we've become more of a specialty shop, but it's a well-honed situation. We're not elitist – a lot of people want records now. They're cheaper and sound warmer. We've really seen a rebirth of vinyl – it's got a new buzz. The new R.E.M., B-52's and Widespread Panic all came out on vinyl this year."
"Like everywhere, vinyl sales have increased, and kids are buying vinyl," said Ross Shapiro, who manages the Athens Schoolkids, which opened in 2000. "I don't know why vinyl is coming back – maybe there's some kind of therapeutic quality about not being able to change to the next song."
In the face of the crumbling music industry, how have Schoolkids and Wuxtry been able to survive?
"One of the great things about Schoolkids and Wuxtry is that you've got musicians working there who know their stuff," Burch said. "They know music, they love music and they have a passion for music. That's what will keep them alive."
"We've supported local music for years and have the most complete selection of old, out-of-print things," Wall said. "It's been a big part of our business. There have been so many great Athens bands through the years and they've helped us as much as we've helped them. Borders sends people looking for old Athens stuff here all the time."
Diversification has been a key for both stores, as Wuxtry does a nice trade in selling old stereo equipment (most notably turntables) and has hosted late-night events touting the release of albums from artists like R.E.M., the B-52's and Pylon, and Schoolkids has sold its share of tickets for local venues and has hosted several in-store performances.
"(Wuxtry has) sold more copies of the DVD "Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out" than anyone else in the world," Wall said. "The place that has sold the second-most copies is the Virgin Record store in Manhattan – the biggest record store in the world. We sell more of that disc than anybody. And we sell old stereos. There are times when I've thought about changing the name of the store to '20th Century Cultural Detritus.' "
Both Wall and Shapiro agree that revenues have dropped through the years, but there's still enough business to keep the doors open.
"It's not booming," said Wall, whose Wuxtry "empire" also includes the Wuxtry Café and the popular comic book shop Bizarro Wuxtry. "We made more money in the 1990s than we do now. … We don't attract the masses like we did in the '90s. It's more of an exclusive group that's partial to vinyl. But we still have a lot of kids come in here who love to get old turntables and buy old records."
"Business is up and down," added Shapiro, who is known around town as the leader of the popular band The Glands. "The percentage of student business from years ago and the not-so-distant past was probably greater than it is now. Sometimes, when there's a weekend when not a lot of students are in town but there are a lot of tourists, we might actually do better business."
"There's been somewhat of a decrease in sales in Athens, but it has maintained its level," said Culross of the local Schoolkids. "We peaked out there in about 2003 and we haven't really wavered from that point. We used to carry twice as much stock there as we do now, but it's been a good store and we'll keep the lights on and sell, sell, sell."
And Shapiro and Wall don't have plans to go anywhere.
"I've got nothing better to do," Shapiro said light-heartedly. "I'll stay here as long as I can."
"Essentially, even if the bottom drops out of the music business, we're so deep-shelf that we could continue as an antiques store," Wall said. "We've got what people want and they're still buying."
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 052508