Saturday, June 26, 2010

Indie record stores are keeping vinyl alive

By Kerry Gold

There are dozens of record stores across the country hanging on as chain stores fall all around them. In the vinyl business, it’s survival of the smartest.

Here's the usual scenario. A boomer has a vinyl collection he's amassed over the last 30 years that is so big it takes up a part of his basement. The kids are gone, he and the wife are renovating or downsizing to a condo, and he's discovered there's a whole new generation interested in his collection of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd records. It's time to unload the collection.

It so happens that there are tons of boomers across the country retiring their beloved vinyl, which has enabled used record stores to keep afloat. Add to that the record industry trend toward new vinyl releases, and business gets even better. Not great — but good enough to keep going, which is all that a record store can ask these days.

The independent record store is an ode to rock 'n' roll nostalgia that has somehow managed to survive an obstacle course of new technology, Internet downloading, economic downturns and an aging market.

It's a relic that's seen better days, but there are dozens across the country hanging on. The vinyl record is an important component.

"We have seen an increase in new vinyl sales, absolutely," says Matt Flook, a manager at Toronto's Sonic Boom Music. "We have opened a whole second area of our store, dedicated to vinyl. We are getting new vinyl several times a week, large shipments. I think it's a reaction to the digital age of music — people are getting rid of CDs and making copies of them, but still there is a large portion of music buyers who want to own the record."

In Vancouver, Zulu Records is an institution. Owner Grant McDonagh has made vinyl a bigger priority due to demand.

"We converted our bins around the New Year — as it stands now, half our store is CDs, the other half vinyl, new and used on each side.

"We get tons of old vinyl traded in and we do quite well with it. It just depends on if it is a classic band that younger fans still care about."

The old-time record store, with its collection of vinyl records and rock posters, is one of the few music shrines left for music fans. The only other physical place left would be the burned-out club or venue that is stained and smelly from years of concert debauchery. Most every other place to purchase or learn about music has gone online — which simply doesn't have the same romanticism with everyone in the virtual community hidden behind their keyboards. It's that "music nerds only" feeling of belonging that makes the record store a draw, and successful record store owners know that.

It's also a sanctuary for music nerds who have turned the vinyl record into a pretentious antidote to new music formats like iTunes and file sharing. An MP3 file, they argue, doesn't have the same warm play of a vinyl record. For them, to listen to Pink Floyd's The Wall any way other than as it was intended, on vinyl, is like pouring 25-year-old single malt whiskey over ice cream. You'd be missing the point and losing out on the flavour, big time.

It's this appreciation for the finer things in life that has kept the beleaguered record store hobbling along. Many mom and pop record stores across Canada have definitely lost the good fight and have had to close shop.

"For example, record stores in the suburbs that just focus on used CDs, that would be a tough thing to do," says Flook. "It's tough to expect to float just on that. We wouldn't be able to do that — we need vinyl just to survive."

But others have managed to carve out a niche market and keep afloat, sort of like a Darwinian distillation of the most resourceful, forward thinking and brave. When times get tough, the toughest really do survive. And as we've seen from the fall of the corporate giant record chain, small is sometimes a good thing.

"I think the difference is the smaller store is easier to adapt," says McDonagh. His store even expanded several years ago. "And the people who run these stores know quite a bit about music," he adds. "That's what it's about, the music. That's why a few stores do quite well."

Flook concurs that the independent record store must be staffed with employees who know a lot about music and how to appraise old records. Music knowledge is part of the draw — certainly not a major focus of the corporate record store.

Last year, Virgin Records closed shop, including the one in Manhattan — the highest-volume music store in all of America. Considering that CD sales fell 20 per cent between 2007 and 2008, it's not surprising that the industry would be especially hard hit by the economic downturn that followed in 2008 and 2009.

Flook says that the independent record store industry might have benefited from the fall of the corporate giant.

"A lot of those people are having to come to our stores, and realizing it's a whole different thing than those corporate stores."

And CDs, too, just aren't useful anymore. The compact disc never had that prized authentic quality but it was easier to use than a vinyl LP. By the late '80s, the CD had revolutionized the record market, almost entirely replacing the vinyl record in every major store. The CD had a strange too-perfect sound and was less destructible than the vinyl record, which was always getting scratched or warped. Sure, they all but destroyed the art form that is album cover art, but music fans were willing to make the trade-off for a format that didn't take up so much space on their shelves.

In the last five years, however, CDs have gone the way of the tape cassette. Digital downloading has become the favourite method of obtaining music, not only because it's often free (and often illegal), but because it's just so easy and accessible, and hey who doesn't own an MP3 player?

While the Internet has been the kiss of death for big music retailers, it's no big threat to the vinyl record. The vinyl record has always managed to hold onto its cool, and hipster kids and old boomers both understand that no serious music fan would be without a turntable.

The artists are also getting in on the act. There is even such a thing as Record Store Day to celebrate record store independence. Every year in April, small stores celebrate with in-store performances and the release of special editions, such as this year's cover of Dark Side of the Moon by Flaming Lips, or Neko Case's new album released on clear vinyl.

As these indie stores have proven, diversity is the key to survival. Many of the successful stores have in-store performances, featuring local or visiting artists, usually with a record to promote. Artists love to support indie record stores. Billy Bragg recently played Zulu and stuck around to sign autographs.

"You have to keep people shopping in your store," says Flook. "We have concerts, we carry T-shirts and video games, all kinds of CDs and DVDs, Blue Ray, all that stuff.

"We try to make it a place to come and you can see music, hear music and buy music."


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