Tuesday, March 15, 2011
“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones” – Brutus, Julius Caesar
“Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone.” – Cinderella.
People love the concept of record stores. The idea of going into a small business, looking for that special song or album and hearing something mind-blowing on the store stereo is idyllic and not far off. Getting into intense discussions about the merits of artists who never-made-it-but-should-have with employees whose existence at the record store is the only thing preventing them from welfare or McDonalds. These generalizations are not far off from what an actual record store looks like. What is a complete load of buttkiss is the nostalgia directed at them. There would be no need for nostalgia had the public supported record stores in the first place. Instead, music lovers flocked to the big box stores where one could get any album they wanted for ten bucks or less. Now were are left with few independent stores, many of which would just as soon sell a water bong than the limited edition Bruce Springsteen 7-inch.
As a teenager in the early 90’s, I could go countless places to find records and CD's. I bought many a vinyl at John’s Army Surplus in Howard Lake. He had thousands of records at his peak – all about two bucks or less. A lot of it was total crap but I did snag the only album by The First Class (they sang “Beach Baby”). Another great place for vinyl was a consignment shop outside of Winsted. Everything was under four bucks and I must have spent over half of my paychecks there every week. That was thing romantic ideal of music shopping. You never knew what you were going to find, only that you would find something and spend the following weeks discovering music that was only read about in review collections. This is how I became an expert on the music of Yes. However, as I was wearing out needles discovering overrated prog artists, the majority of the public was flocking to the big box stores.
Granted, the low low prices on new music at Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, Circuit City and Media Play had little to no effect on the day to day operations of consignment stores or John’s Army Surplus. What the big boxes did kill was the suburban and urban record stores that used to be found in any major retail area in the country. Twenty years ago, a person could spend all day in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area record shopping. Now, a similar excursion in 2011 would take you about three hours – if that. When the first few stores disappeared, it probably went with little notice. After all, Dinkytown in Minneapolis didn’t need five record stores, did it? Note to the reader, there are now ZERO record stores in the University of Minnesota’s shopping district. Little by little, the big boxes took their toll on the small stores. Why would anyone pay $16.99 for a new album when Best Buy has it for ten bucks?
In 1998, I was able to land what then I considered a dream job: Record Store Manager. I could now wear a black t-shirt of a cool band, blast the Sex Pistols on the store stereo and get paid for doing so. The store’s sales were so-so when I took over, as DVD’s had just come into the mainstream. I did several things which took the store from monthly sales in the low $20,000’s to the low $40,000’s in about six months. Almost all of the following can be used to run any successful business but I can claim to have originated none of these ideas. I took the best things from the best stores in the area and incorporated them as soon as I could. First: get a great staff. One that forgets more about music than the average humanoid will ever know. Two: unload all the crappy albums that nobody will ever buy. Record stores look crappy if all they have to offer is used copies of the Spin Doctors and Hootie and the Blowfish. Third: carry new albums that are critically respected but seldom purchased. Play them. They will sell. We sold tons of Britpop, punk, techno and 60’s rock for the simple reason the staff got behind them and the albums were that damn great. Fourth, deal with sellers like they are peddlers at the flea market. Yes, you somehow have five promo copies of the new Britney Spears, but we’re not buying your budget albums for twice of what you paid for them. Like I said, crap product equals crap store. Fifth, sell the new stuff that Best Buy has for as cheap as you can while at least making one dollar. It doesn’t pay the rent but hopefully they’ll buy three other things while they’re there. For a while, it was a splendid time guaranteed for all. Then the roof caved in.
I vividly remember the day record stores were going to die. I’m assuming the dinosaurs smelled something similar before they became two ton fossils. Change is coming and like semi truck driving 100 miles and hour into a confused looking Bambi, there is little you can do to put the brakes on. It was a Friday afternoon in August of 2000. Two young ladies came up to me with a handful of CD’s to purchase. One said to the other: “You buy these two, I’ll buy these other two and we’ll burn each other copies.” With that statement, true believers, the end appeared to me and no 60 dollars sales of Bruce Springsteen concerts were going to help. Anyone with a tiny bit of economic knowledge would be able to tell you if someone if looking for a discount of an item, they will go to the place where the discount is the greatest. I can’t say I would not have done the same thing and neither would any idealistic supporter of the almighty Record Store Day. When I was buying the entire Clash, Pixies, Husker Du and Rolling Stones catalog at full price, you’re darn tootin’ I would have loved to have split the cost with a buddy and get the same albums for half the price. Truth be told from someone who actually was there: Downloading albums from Napster or Limewire didn’t kill record stores. CD burners broke the butterfly on the wheel.
Independent record stores knew they were in trouble. As any business professional will tell you, if one product is in decline, you have to diversify. That is, find something else people will buy at your record store instead of records. I’ll give the original owners of my store credit. They knew when to get out while the getting was good. The new owner, who in my honest opinion was not a bad guy – far from it – had an idea he pimped to me within one month of ownership in the fall of 2000. “How do you feel about selling adult DVD’s in your store?” he asked. I respectfully replied I did not think they had a place in a record store, a place I (and my staff) had worked very hard to make family friendly. Nobody was for this move but I was told it was coming anyway. I felt so self-righteous at the time, sticking up for the music, the staff and the customers. In retrospect, many other record stores were doing the same. They weren’t diversifying with porn, however. They decided to sell drug paraphernalia. The equation was not hard to deduce. Selling a $100 bong was a much bigger profit than selling 100 White Stripes albums. Plus you still get to somehow call yourself a record store. Of the few record stores left in the state of Minnesota, at least a third of them peddle a chunk of paraphernalia, including stores I used to respect and somehow pimp Record Store Day.
In 2011, I can count approximately three record stores in Minnesota that are independently owned, sell music and not other questionable items as a means of revenue. They are Hymie’s Vintage Records, Treehouse Records and Yeti Records, both located in Minneapolis. Some might make the argument for the Cheapo, but they are indeed a chain and do not qualify as independent. The rest I will not mention by name but they are definitely stranded on Keith Richards’ island. If you choose to patronize a record store on holy Record Store Day, please check out Hymie’s, Treehouse and Yeti. If you follow the stores on Facebook, it is immediately obvious the owners and staff care about one thing: music. Go there and buy the limited edition Gorrilaz and Springsteen. Go there and chat with the staff. Give them the ultimate challenge of a record store. Tell them to sell you something cool. I guarantee you they will. But as you are feeling so proud of yourself patronizing these fantastic businesses, bear in mind that you bear responsibility for the demise of a dozen others. As you hug that Gorrilaz record tight after you buy it, bear in mind the store you bought it from made like 3 bucks from the sale at most. Ask yourself, are you going to go back there?
As Charles Dickens might say (if he loved records): “Make Record Store Day every day. Keep it in your heart, each and every day of the year.” If you have a few extra dollars in your pocket, give yourself, your kids or someone else you love a real gift. Music makes our heart glow, our minds pulse and our booties dance. Discovering new music is something you always remember. You remember the time, the place and how you were feeling when you found that record. The one that just might change your life. The record you will play on a date when you’re trying to impress, the record you play when the date makes you depressed, the record you play with the morning coffee, the record you play when you’re back from a party, the record you play for your kids, the record you play that just might make your parents understand, the record you want played at your funeral. Record Store Day is not a day. Like Christmas, either you believe or you don’t. As for me, I believe.