Are We in a Music Retailspin?
Seattle Record-Store Bosses Refuse to Sing the Recession Blues
This was supposed to be one of those stories that come with a free hankie—yet another feature that would, after it was read by its target audience (music fanatics who value physical arti-facts), make all concerned need a group hug and perhaps some world-class psychotherapy or prescription mood elevators.
Because we've all heard the grim news about the music industry's moribund state and how those damn kids downloading songs 24/7 are killing the business and putting hardworking record-store employees (stop sniggering) on the dole. Peruse the cityscape and you'll note that brick-and-mortar shops are going the way of the cassingle and Animal Collective's underground cred. This is the music-biz status woe, right?
Not so fast, Gloomy Gus. A survey of six Seattle record-store bosses paints a picture that, while not all blue skies and "la la la"-laden choruses, is far from the dirge-y, pitch-black scenario some observers think it is. Yes, record stores are struggling, like many other businesses in the wake of W's reign of error, and nobody's buying fleets of Ferraris by selling circular bits of plastic and aluminum with music data on 'em. However, these cagey survivors of the music-retail wars lean slightly more toward the view of the crate being half full than half empty. They give one hope that we won't all soon be soullessly purchasing (or pilfering) MP3s online in miserable isolation.
So, you're probably wondering, how's business at our local music retailers? It's mostly holding steady or slightly increasing, although Everyday Music and Sonic Boom suffered financial setbacks due to location moves that forced closure of their Capitol Hill branches (the former store is expected to reopen in mid-March). But the consensus is that the decline in CD sales is being almost canceled out by the increase in vinyl transactions. (Talk about a classic example of the major-label execs' cluelessness... Turns out that CDs' "perfect sound forever" may have a shorter shelf life than vinyl, which was supposed to die quietly in the '80s. Now records are becoming a key factor in labels' and retailers' bottom-line fattening.) Dave Voorhees, owner of Bop Street Records—a two-level sanctuary of mostly old, oft-collectible vinyl (reputedly 750,000 records, though we didn't count 'em) in many genres—who's been in the biz since 1974, says, "The last two or three years, I've never sold as many records in my life, and I've always sold records."
Matt Vaughan, owner of Easy Street Records—an all-things-to-all-people establishment with sizable new and used vinyl and CD stashes and a fab magazine stand (its West Seattle branch also includes a cafe)—laments record companies' lack of promo/marketing muscle in area shops and media outlets and notes, "The days of ordering 1,000 copies of a Modest Mouse CD or a Wilco CD are over." The Sonics basketball team's departure and the dearth of musical events happening at KeyArena and the Seattle Center have further depressed business at Easy Street's Queen Anne branch.
The economic downturn obviously has dinged music retailers, but it has had an unexpected benefit for stores trafficking in used wax and discs: Jobless folks are unloading their collections out of desperation, providing bonanzas for scourers of the used bins. David Miranda, manager of Everyday Music's Capitol Hill store—an even more vast all-things-to-all-people place abounding with new and used CDs, vinyl, cassettes, DVDs, and audio accessories—says, "The stuff customers are bringing in is unbelievable. Huge collections full of amazing stuff I thought I would never see. Probably stuff people thought they'd never sell, but now they have mortgages to pay and no job. It opened my eyes to how many physical records are out here. If we didn't have people bringing in vinyl and CDs, we would be out of business."
Vinyl's role in Seattle's music-retail ecosphere can't be overestimated. We heart those grooves in inordinate numbers, but our proprietors aren't really surprised by this turn of events. "The more [vinyl] we stock, the more classic albums that get reissued on 180-gram vinyl with downloads, the more we sell," says Miranda.
"I think there is also something about vinyl that just makes it cool," asserts Jason Hughes, owner of Sonic Boom Records, an archetypal indie-rock shop bolstered with fairly substantial electronic, hiphop, world, and jazz sections and a great array of zines and books. "It sounds better, feels better, and you can actually enjoy the artwork. The download card/CD insert makes it a great piece. I buy more vinyl now than ever."
David Day, owner of used-vinyl-centric crate-digger's paradise Jive Time Records, says, "As an early MP3/iPod adopter, I've always felt that vinyl was the perfect complementary medium. MP3s are practical and they're always with us. There's nothing practical about vinyl, but it gives us something tangible to hold while we listen. And album covers are sexy and will always appeal to music and art lovers. I love my iPod, [but] I love my records more! I wouldn't want to give up either."
"Our passion and sentiment has always been with vinyl," Vaughan says. "My Queen Anne store was designed with 20 percent of the space dedicated to vinyl. We still use the same amount of space for vinyl as we did then. I do think we will need to expand it a bit, but overall it doesn't surprise me too much. We naturally and unpretentiously changed with the times, and we were ahead of the curve when it came to this whole vinyl resurgence."
In order to adapt to changing music-consumer behavior, these retailers are diversifying their stock, emphasizing customer service, and striving to make their spaces social hubs where like-minded fanatics can swap information, network, seek potential bandmates, and form lasting friendships. Some are beefing up their online presence, though surprisingly most of them rely more on meatspace transactions than on web purchases to stay afloat. Sonic Boom, Easy Street, and Wall of Sound hold in-store concerts and the latter two companies maintain policies that reward high-volume-buying patrons.
One thing all these honchos agree upon is Seattle's robust music-retail environment compared to other American cities. We have it better than most metropolises, according to these keen observers. "Seattle is really lucky in a lot of ways," notes Sonic Boom's Hughes. "It's remote and doesn't feel the shifts in the economy as quickly or painfully as other cities. There is also a great infrastructure here for music, including KEXP, local shows on our commercial stations, great clubs, a ton of bands, designers, poster makers, all-ages clubs, local press, and some great stores. If you go to a lot of other cities, you'd be hard-pressed to find such a healthy scene, and that translates into consumers and music sales." Day adds, "We constantly hear from our out-of-town customers that we have an unusually high number of great record stores in Seattle. I think we do, too."
So, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the highest, how freaked out about music retail's future are these guys?
Voorhees isn't fazed at all; in fact, he's seeking a new spot with a 10-year lease. Miranda and Hughes rate their fret factor at 6, while Vaughan registers a 5. "We're in a tough spot at the moment," Hughes says. "The economy is in the tank and just starting to come back. The record industry is in turmoil and keeps making bad decisions. Digital downloading has become a huge threat to CD sales. But I think record stores are more than just retail stores. They are social hubs. We just need to figure out how to make it work with the shifts that are happening now, and we are trying." Jeffery Taylor, co-owner of Wall of Sound—a small but expertly curated emporium of experimental, electronic, world, and beyond, with stock almost evenly split between wax and CDs—sagely forecasts, "Until the music you want to hear is directly beamed into your skull by some magical telepathic means, or until we suffer a complete economic collapse, we'll give it a 5."