Independent Records Stores: Model for Success?
In the past, record stores have worked with local artists through consignments. Reckless Records buyer Dave Hofer notes that Reckless will generally work with anyone that‘s willing to work hard to support their release, so as to counter the reputation of the elitist record store. Hofer points to local artists such as local alternative marching band Mucca Pazza that labored to promote sales of their debut CD through word of mouth referrals. Ultimately success is dictated by how much effort the artists contribute. Reckless extends its support to the local community by partnering with local home grown music venues such as Empty Bottle and Schubas to offer free tickets for select shows at the venue if customers purchase work by the artists. Reckless views these arrangements as critical to building good relations with local establishments and local artists, and in giving back to the community.
Other Music in New York has played an active role in the career development of emerging artists, through consignments, not surprising given the high density of bands in the area. Other Music tends to draw a lot of musicians so tends to sell a lot of vinyl. In general, New York is a competitive place where artists have to work hard—local artists such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol labored tirelessly at pushing sales of their first works.
Independent record stores that are thriving are the specialty destination stores catering to the hard core fans and collectors. While digital downloads continue to eviscerate sales of physical product, vinyl sales are offering consumers a tangible product. The linking of MP3s, digital download versions of tracks, and bundling of special offers like merchandise and additional tracks serving as a boon to collectors.
Michael Kurtz is bullish about vinyl’s prospects, and the success of vinyl to the overall success of the industry. While the fortunes of the music industry will still be tied to the sales of CDs, the success of select artists such as Animal Collective and Wilco on vinyl have alerted the industry to vinyl‘s potential. It is part of an explosion in interest that has placed a spring in the step of the artists and retailers alike, which has grown organically, capitalizing on the realization that fans valued ownership of physical product as a way of “making a connection” with their favorite artists. While initially it was about being able to acquire digital downloads of music, fans realized that “there is not much exciting about having ownership of a digital file”. This sentiment is shared by the artists themselves. Michael Kurtz notes that artists like vinyl releases, which in many cases they sell directly to record stores, as they offer a much higher margin per unit.
On the one hand, the demise of large music chains such as Tower and Virgin, has actually served as a boon to local independent record stores. The plummet in sales of physical product and decreased overall revenue have had a bit of cleansing effect. The universal sentiment among independent retailers is one of the cream rising to the top: destination record stores thriving largely at the expense of chains and big box stores which didn’t really know what they were doing with their music departments. In a sign that imitation may be the best form of flattery, big box stores, which have used sales of music as a loss leader for sales of higher margin items, have been selling vinyl and turntables in increasing numbers.
On the other hand, Dave Hofer of Reckless Records notes that the overall climate looks grim. While major releases and artists with deep support such as Wilco are available on vinyl, the major labels are generally reluctant to support vinyl and CDs. There has been some movement with reissues of catalogs on vinyl, particularly given the appeal of including download versions of the music, with the success of collectors edition versions creating a sense of urgency that has trickled over to some other soul and jazz vinyl releases. CDs generally are the major driver of business. While a major release like Vampire Weekend will sell a lot of copies, CD sales continue to shrink every year, and the increase of vinyl has not come close to offsetting the losses due to digital. “Record store day is not about to save the industry. The key is what happens with digital. Increases in digital sales explains why we continue to be down.”
In sum, it remains difficult to generalize from trends when it comes to local indie music stores. While the Coalition of Independent Music Stores offers coordinated support to record stores, record-store co-founder Kurtz notes that many local stores remain resolutely independent.
Indeed, Bill Daly, the owner of Crooked Beats, an indie record store in Washington, DC epitomizes this independent spirit. Bill has carved out a niche with a core independent community that harbors a which has a deep appreciation for the roots of the independent music scene of Washington, DC, symbolized by the DIY success of Fugazi, Minor Threat, Bad Brains and the free shows at Fort Reno that served as a coming age of experience for a generation of indie music fans. Bill initially experienced success working with a similar niche in North Carolina, where he cultivated a friendship with Mac McCaughan of Superchunk, founder of Merge Records, one of the most successful indie labels. Knowing his customer base, Bill gradually phased out his inventory of CDs. He has sold more vinyl than CDs for the last five years in a row, and his business has evolved to the point where 99% of all sales are on vinyl. While he will still sell CD releases on local labels like Dischord and a top 25 of indie pop, but his dedication to vinyl makes him a destination for customers, and for labels. Recognition by indie labels such as a top seller have forged a special relationship that allows him to get as many of 30 copies of highly sought vinyl releases such as the Magnetic Fields. For Bill, Record Store Day was a validation. “I had 200 people lined up on the sidewalk when our store opened. It was the best business we did in 13 years.” His dedication to the local scene continues with consignments with local artists and close friendships to the artists that helped build the scene. “Ian Mackaye lives a few blocks away. He comes by the store on a regular basis. Usually he’ll come by here first to tell us when he’s planning a new release or when he’s planning to do a show. Not surprisingly, if you look at our top sellers, it’s some combination of Merge artists like Cat Power or Ian’s work with the Evens.” Not surprisingly, he sees vinyl’s resurgence as enduring, noting that he’s sold 100 turntables in the last year.
Record Store Day’s Legacy: the portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan?
While Record Store Day remains a once a year phenomenon, its success points to a shared appreciation of preserving the person-to-person contact. Michael Kurtz has ambitious plans for Record Store Day, including international coordination through work with partners such as Rough Trade to get releases available in as many countries as possible. He also sees it as more of a recurring event. The success of the Record Store day tent operated by Zia at Coachella opens up the possibility of working at other festivals. The Coalition of Independent Record Stores, a national network of independent stores, has been working through the year to provide a united front to major labels and through its ThinkIndie offering, offering coordinated releases.
The vinyl revolution is consistent with the emerging business model for both enterprising DIY artists. The industry has always valued touring and audience exposure. But whereas promotions were viewed as a means towards the end of selling product, artists and labels are recognizing that fans are placing a tangible value of opportunities to interact directly with their favorite artists. Despite the impact of the recession on the top line and large scale tours, indie artists continue to thrive with continuous touring. In a sense, the traditional label driven business model has been turned on its head. Touring, once a loss leader to get people to buy product, has become the end in in itself. With digital distribution rendering physical ownership of the music inexpensive, enterprising artists are making music readily available, giving much of it away, and then cultivating a loyal following online and then recouping revenue through sales of merchandise and touring.
The independent artists that have thrived are the ones that have cultivated strong ties with their fans, utilizing social media to complement the direct contact with fans at the merch table and through mailing lists. An encouraging sign of greater independence, paralleling the resurgence of the indie record store, is the mastering of technology by artists who utilize social media as the means for organizing continuous contact with fans characterized by non-stop touring, local meet and greets, and instant fan polling in decisions ranging from cover art, track selection to new music. A sign of the times is the pop-up show, with a band making a non-advertised surprise appearance, with the intent of debuting the public performance of unreleased tracks, only to be serenaded by fans, already familiar with the new material.
In the end, the ability to realize the creative potential for artist-store-fan collaborations lies with the creativity and energy of the artists. Rusty, a buyer at Generation Music marvels at the lengths to which the band Fucked Up promoted a special custom 7-inch of its Daytrotter session by inviting record stores across country to submit pictures, illustrations or concepts for covers. The band ultimately awarded ten stores with special covers, including Generation Music (see attached). The success of vinyl sales, Rusty notes is linked to the tangible quality of vinyl, which allows people to show off the artwork, not the same as simply owning rights to a digital copy of a track. One of the more unique Record Store Day releases was hardcore legend Sick of It All’s release of its first single, which featured original covers left over from the original limited printing.
Collaborations between independent artists and retailers through in store performances now occur year-round, allowing fans the opportunity to enjoy unprecedented up-close and unscripted access to their idols. But whether the independent spirit represented by record store day can serve as a bellwether for the industry is yet to be determined. In the meantime, musicians and fans are enjoying the renaissance of interest in independent record stores, and the renewed support by the industry for vinyl and special releases. Rusty of Generation Music sums up this spirit: “It’s the independent labels that continue to think like fans, made up of people who are very passionate about music, that bringing excitement back to music.”
As I leave Generation, Rusty is having an animated discussion with a customer, debating the value of a rare 7-inch metal single, with the ardor of comic book fan boys. At the end of the day, the indie spirit lives on, through these everyday one-on-one interactions. On Saturday, April 16, on Saturdays to come, make it a point to visit your local record store and rekindle the excitement.