Record Store Day: The Continuing Battle For Independence

Record Store Day: The Continuing Battle For Independence

While most retail stores bank on holiday sales to put them in the black, there are others that take a different approach. Sure, that time of year is important to just about every industry that sells a product to the general public. There are some though, that celebrate independence. There are some segments of retail life where the large conglomerates crush the small competition with no more than a glance and a big offer of cheaply made goods. There is one industry however, that has bucked that trend for years.

The independent record store is a business that has become the lifeblood of any decent music scene. It is the resource for music fans that don’t spend their days focused on what Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest are shoving at the public. These record shops fought tooth and nail through the 80’s and 90’s when the large box stores tried to take them down. As you will see here, these small businesses had something those large companies couldn’t offer.

Record Store Day has become Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan and Halloween all wrapped into one big event for audiophiles all over the world. This year was no exception. Special limited releases, in store performances and big sales are just the tip of the iceberg for many that flock to their local shop every April. We sat down with the owners of independent stores in Greenville, SC, Phoenix, AZ & West Chester, PA to find out what makes them tick, and how they navigate the small business world.

Horizon Records – Greenville, SC – Gene Berger: A beacon of hope for 38 years and a local icon, the store and owner Gene Berger have epitomized the label “fiercely independent.” It has become a haven for music fans of any style and a learning center in many ways for others to break the ice. With in-store performances like the recent visit by Victor Wooten, it has become a staple for any in the area.

What motivates you to run a record store?

Kimber Lanning – Stinkweeds: I’m really a social worker cleverly disguised as a record store owner. What I mean by that is I love the people- I love their stories, and I love the fact that no matter how different we are, we still share the love of music. I absolutely LOVE watching music transform people.

John Harton – The Mad Platter: Certainly not the income haha. I love coming to work each day and I love music.  The music landscape is constantly changing with new releases happening all the time.  You are not just selling the same old paperclips over and over. And you get to interact with interesting people.

Gene Berger – Horizon Records: I love music. I have very few other job skills  at this point.

Do you have a more personal relationship with customers and how do you maintain it?

JH: That’s easy, we genuinely like people. We interact with all walks of life.  An indie store is a music oriented social environment that people use to escape their daily grind. And we hear lots of tales. We may charge for the music, but the therapy is free. We like the challenge of finding something that the customer(our friends in many cases) has been looking for or helping someone explore a new area of music.

GB: Treat them right and with respect, be honest, and listen when they talk.

KL: Of course! Everyone who works for me knows that relationships are important. We work to know everyone’s name and music taste- we make LOTS of recommendations.

How do you compete with big box stores such as Best Buy and Walmart?

GB: We don’t any more than your favorite home cooking fresh neighborhood gourmet cafe competes with McDonalds and Taco Bell.

KL: I don’t even consider them to be our competition. First, better customer service, and knowledgeable staff. Second we carry stuff they never would. Third we have an experience to share. Live music, a free poster, 90 listening stations- whatever we do, it’s better than what they do.

JH: Well it used to be harder when they were using our main product, CDs,  as a loss leader to sell TVs etc. But now they have dropped that strategy as they have seen the same erosion due to downloads that we have. We have always been able to carry the collectibles and rarities and cool stuff that they don’t.

Stinkweeds – Phoenix, AZ – Kimber Lanning: We’ve been here 26 years. I opened the store when I was 19, and re-invested all of the money as quickly as possible to grow the store. I was tiny when I started, but I made it. My brothers came and helped me make my record bins, and I sold my whole collection when I opened- that was the used section- my collection.

Can digital and analog coexist, what about iTunes and Amazon?

JH: We don’t think the CD or the vinyl LP is going away at all. Actually, we are finding a trend where people are experiencing “download fatigue.”  There is such an ocean of music from paid and free sites available that the joy is lost when your “collection” consists of billions of zeros and ones with no physical substance. It’s nice to have artwork and graphics liner notes and a prized place on your shelf. You will never meet the bass player for your band, or your next boyfriend/ girlfriend on iTunes or Amazon like you can in an indie store.  And even used cds at $3.99 to $7.99 are price competitive with a full album download.

GB: They don’t help!

KL: Yes and it is right now. Our customers are music fanatics, so they look on line for new stuff, download a few things and once they decide they really like it, they come in and buy it. I think the digital market decimated the main stream and casual listener- but it hasn’t killed the fanatics who want the better sound quality, the package, the lyrics, and the experience of buying it in a store.

Why do you feel vinyl is making a comeback?

GB: Have you ever compared mp3 on earbuds to a real record (or quality CD) played back on real stereo? The tangible art tactile factor is a big part of things too. Plus it’s fun collecting, digging, seeking, acquiring…A file doesn’t just have the same feeling!

KL: I don’t ‘feel’ it’s making a comeback- it IS making a comeback. Because real music fans want the best sound possible and they want the great package. We are selling TONS of vinyl and turntables too.

JH: For us it’s not a “feeling” but a fact.  We have always had vinyl but the steady and accelerating growth over the last 12 years has been really something. Vinyl is such a warmer, richer sound and you get the benefits of a “real” collection. Vinyl has brought the younger digital age demographic back into the stores and it’s a refreshing thing.  If you had told us in 1994 at the height of the CD boom that in 2012 we would have days where vinyl records made up the lion’s share of our sales, we wouldn’t have believed it.

A big part of vinyl is the appeal of the large album art, what do you feel defines a great cover?  

KL: Really so many different styles are great, it’s too hard to say. But I like great photography, I like nice letterpress sleeves- anything that looks like a small piece of art.

JH: Not David Bowie’s latest.(grin) I like the cover to reflect the music that is inside, or barring that, to be so conceptually interesting as art to stand on its own. Cream Wheels of Fire silver cover did both, for example. I like the reverse to be loaded with information, liner notes, band members, song credits etc. Also, it’s fun to look for details like on Dylan’s Bringing it All Back Home, where there is a stack of records in the photo and you can identify what he was listening to.

GB:  Look up David Stone Martin.

The Mad Platter – West Chester, PA – John Harton: My first business partner(he left in 1988) and I graduated with degrees in Political Science in the mid 70s. The job market then was similar to how it is now.  If we wanted a job, we had to make one. There were a few record stores in Newark, DE where we went to school that we admired. Not wanting to step on toes, we looked for another college town without a full service record store. Hence, we opened in West Chester beginning in 1976 and have loved the town ever since.

What can artists and independent record stores do to make buy physical copies of an album appealing?

KL: They are already doing it- go into any indie store and you will see tons of collaborations and tons of small pieces of art.

GB: Know their shit and share their passion, ditch the attitude. Quit worrying about what some trendy label is doing or how many YouTube views are going on.

JH: Well artists are making the effort by putting out new releases on vinyl as well as CD and offering added incentive items(posters and prints etc) to go with them. As a store we have to display and play.  We have days where we play nothing but vinyl and it is interesting how many people comment on the sound. Really though it comes down to the outlook of a given music fan. Some people want a collection and some people are happy with a file loaded phone.

How do you obtain your vast collection and rare albums?

GB: Been open since 1975, been collecting since 1968 or so, didn’t waste a lot of time following top 40 or bands of the week pop crap.

JH: Actually, we never got rid of it when the CD boom occurred. It just went into storerooms and basement etc and then came back out little by little on the sales floor when the vinyl comeback started. Most of it is still in storage waiting for space.  We also buy collections and, of course, order the new reissues from various suppliers.

KL: We buy all the time- word is out that we pay the best in town, so we often get first pick at collections.

Whether it is the independent musician, record store or website, we are all here for the same reason. It’s a passion really. Like breathing, it is something we absolutely need to do and be a part of. We all need the support of the music lover and rely on their word of mouth for survival. Check out a band, go to the local store, and tell your friends about the websites and blogs that are out there supporting the music you love. The grassroots movement of the 21st century is here. Join us. You’ll be happy you did.

{Editor’s Note: Kerri Curtis & A.J. Santini contributed to this article.}