Hi Fi Nation

The text of a piece I wrote on independent record stores for the July issue of Southwest Airlines' Spirit magazine.

Fly Southwest this month and read the magazine; the pictures in the article make for a better story.

The first time I saw High Fidelity, I thought my life story had been put on the big screen. It turns out the movie was based on lots of stories like mine, beginning with the young kid buying music albums at a place just like High Fidelity's Championship Vinyl, where a mere transaction defined how you rated on the coolness meter. The surly guy behind the counter, played in the film by Jack Black, would usually sneer at my plebeian tastes. But after a while, right around the time I brought Van Morrison’s Moondance, Leon Russell’s debut, and the first Allman Brothers Band album on Capricorn to the counter, I was earning a raised eyebrow of approval. Eventually, I’d prompted so many raised eyebrows that I became that surly guy behind the counter at The Electric Fetus in Minneapolis, although my disposition was a tad sunnier, so as not to offend customers. High Fidelity became my life. I lived for music, and so did the people who came in the store.

Places like The Electric Fetus came to be known as independent record stores, places of coolness that serve as anchors for music scenes across America. If not for stores like the six Homer’s Music & Gifts in Omaha and Lincoln or the two Kief’s in Lawrence, there would be no local music scene in their respective communities. But CD burnings, Napster, predatory pricing by big-box chains, digital technology, and Internet shopping have altered the landscape. Apple’s iPods and iTunes present an even greater threat with their closed distribution system of delivering music to ears that shuts out brick-and-mortar record stores altogether, indies included.

Consumer habits follow in lockstep. The term “music freak” once had currency. These days, recorded music is just another choice in the Out There buffet. Sales of full-length CD albums slipped 8 percent in 2005, according to Nielsen SoundScan, continuing a five-year slump, while digital single downloads on iPods and MP3 players shot up 150 percent, surpassing the number of CDs sold.

Those figures suggest the end of the indie record store, especially considering the recent adds to the dead-store list — Rhino Records in Los Angeles, the store that triggered reissue-mania; Aron’s in Los Angeles, the one-time giant of used-record stores; and the homegrown Cactus chain in Houston, which was a key factor in breaking H-Town’s pistol-hot hip-hop scene. The Tower Records chain, once regarded as the hippest retailer in the nation, is up for sale again while it tries to reinvent itself as an online podcast resource.

Hard times? Try telling that to the hardy group of survivors who’ve staked their fortunes to their passion for music and the acts these kind of stores are breaking, such as alt-chanteuse Neko Case and Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu. Business is hubbing at places like Amoeba Music in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles; Lou’s Records in Encinitas, California (which made Jack Johnson a star); Easy Street Records in Seattle (in an old Tower location, no less); Good Records in Dallas; Mountunes in Jackson, Wyoming; the four Finders Records & Tapes (“Your Music Library”) in Bowling Green and Findlay, Ohio; the 26 Newbury Comics stores across New England; and the 10 Gallery of Sound stores in Pennsylvania. Some indies are even getting bigger, such as Twist & Shout in Denver, which has partnered with Tattered Cover Book Store, Colorado’s leading indie bookseller, to move into an old movie theater in June that will effectively double the record store’s space. It turns out that being cool, while managing to stay in the game, is not an impossible dream. But it sure isn’t easy.

John T. Kunz of Waterloo Records & Video in Austin knows this too well. His 6,400-square-foot store, which seems very busy for a Wednesday morning, has endured a lifetime of challenges over its 24-year history. “Everyone’s having to experiment, change, and adapt,” he says while walking through the bins. “That’s true for recording artists, record labels, everyone and anyone associated with music. Someone told me Jane Siberry has songs she’ll give away on her site. She’d rather have people come to her to get it for free than to an unauthorized site.”

Waterloo may have a prime location — on the fringe of downtown in a walking neighborhood catty-corner from the flagship store of Whole Foods Market — but it’s still a jungle out there. “Anyone who sells music and video is my competition,” Kunz explains. “The edge is our connection with the music and with the community. Our slogan from day one has been ‘Where Music Still Matters.’ We’re not kidding. This is a lifelong love and a lifelong pursuit.”

Over the years, Kunz has responded to shifting consumer demands by staging more in-store live shows (more than 100 in 2005), adding a 2,400-square-foot video and DVD store, leading the “Keep Austin Weird” buy-local campaign, raising Waterloo’s Internet profile with an online store and, soon, downloading, and even making a nod to iPods with in-store listening stations that look and work like an iPod. Perhaps his most creative idea was accepting gift cards from any big-box retailer. “It’s guerilla marketing, and our customers get it,” he says with a smile. “Besides, we always need things like computer paper.”

At the end of the day, he says, it comes down to service, selection, and price. Since he can’t compete with the biggies on price, Waterloo focuses on the other two basics. “Hiring people at the store who live, eat, and breathe music is a key reason people come to us. They’re looking for guidance … the person whose tastes or recommendations they share. It’s like reading a review. You follow your critic.”

In-stores are an important part of the mix, he says. “It’s where the rubber meets the road between fan and musician. The store as performing space influenced the design of the store’s expansion 12 years ago. “It’s worked for Lyle Lovett and His Large Band just like it’s worked for the Bulgarian Women’s Choir and for James ‘Slim’ Hand,” Kunz says.

The weekly Top 10 sales chart, published in the Austin Chronicle weekly and broken down into subcategories on Waterloo’s website, tells the tale: Waterloo was the first retailer to report number-one sales for Buena Vista Social Club, the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou, Norah Jones (at her first Waterloo in-store she told Kunz it was the biggest crowd she’d ever played in front of), and Los Lonely Boys — all of which achieved sales in excess of 2,000,000 units. The store’s all-time bestseller is local hero Bob Schneider and Lonelyland, which has turned more than 21,000 pieces over the years.

Sandy Bitman wishes he had Kunz’s problems. Bitman’s Park Ave CDs is one of the few indie record stores left in Orlando, a music town whose claim to musical fame is largely tied to 1990s-era boy bands who weren’t exactly driving customers to his store. Worse, he had to move after 21 years in a very hip part of town that became too expensive to a location not on Park Avenue in close proximity to a Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, Borders, and Barnes & Noble — category-killers all. So he did the illogical and upped his store size from 1,300 square feet to 3,200 square feet and opened a second 500-square-foot location in the student union of the University of Central Florida, burnishing a rep as the music center of O-Town.

He fights the big boxes with pizza listening parties for new albums at the UCF location, winning a clientele with free food and good music, midnight sales at his main store, selling albums on consignment for local bands, being the authoritative source for club listings, and Bitman’s in-store snow globe collection, at 200 pieces and growing.

The globes are part of the homey feel the store projects. “The architect designed the store to be different,” Bitman says. “Our bins are hand-crafted. When you walk in here, it’s not just any record store. It’s an atmosphere you want to hang in. We try to give away as many freebies as we can with a purchase, like T-shirts or a sampler. Our staff is educated to be proactive. Our customers know we’re the place where a band is going to do an acoustic performance or signing. We get kids who can’t get into the 21-and-over show, businesspeople who can’t stay out till midnight, and serious music fans. I got into this for the music,” he says. “But I get off making people happy.”

Terry Currier competes in a completely different climate than Park Ave CDs. Within three miles of the three Music Millennium stores in Portland, Oregon, that Currier owns are 30 businesses that sell and buy recorded music. His stores, though, are the only ones that can claim title as the oldest record store in the Northwest and being tied to the “Keep Portland Weird” campaign. That kind of legacy explains Currier’s simple strategy of having one of the largest selections in the country — 200,000 pieces alone in the classical-only annex store — and a knowledgeable staff.

“Collectively, you’re going to get all the right answers if you shop my store,” Currier says. “I have one guy who was the original manager here in 1969. He’s a clerk now because he wants to work in a record store.”

Like most indies, Music Millennium stresses community involvement, taking the concept beyond the norm with partnerships with the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Opera, and sponsorship of the five-day Fourth of July Blues Fest and the five-week Reel Music Film Festival of music films and docs. Those kinds of connections give the store a considerable advantage over chains whose music buyer is thousands of miles away.

“Things happen in the Northwest that don’t happen anywhere else,” he says. “We know our community and we know our customers.”

Still, after what he describes as “an iPod Christmas that was a real wake-up call,” Currier realized Music Millennium can’t rest on its reputation. Which explains Currier’s first trip to the MAGIC Marketplace clothing and apparel trade show in Las Vegas. “We had to look to nonmusic ideas to supplement our inventory so we could afford still to be a music store,” he says. After perusing items like Corpse Bride action figures, Mr. T key chains, and Napoleon Dynamite talking dolls, he came home with Gram Parsons and Flying Burrito Brothers T-shirts and CBGB belts that he can sell for twice what he paid wholesale, a considerably higher margin than records.

Currier’s best idea was thinking up the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, or CIMS, 13 years ago. “It’s a support group that makes survival a lot easier to accomplish,” he says of the network. “None of us are in competing cities, so I can call ear X-tacy in Louisville to ask about his wage situation.” Currier tries to be a realist. “You can’t change the kids,” he says. “We have to somehow get them into the store. But it’s not going to be like in the old days when music had a bigger impact on lifestyles. It doesn’t have the meaning today that it did then.”

Sometimes, though, he can’t help but let his music freak flag fly. “I got a call from a retailer asking how long he had before he went under. I told him, ‘It depends what you want to be.’ You just have to adapt. If you have the passion for music, everything else around will evolve to make that happen.”

Don Van Cleave, the head of CIMS, ties the success of surviving indies to the cult of personality. “Paul and Jill Epstein at Twist & Shout in Denver are the same folks John Kunz at Waterloo is in Austin. They are valued and trusted in their communities.” CIMS counts 58 members. Combined with similar groups AIMS — the Alliance of Independent Media Stores — 20 Independent Music Stores, and Music Monitor Network, the three organizations pool buying clout. “We have the power of up to 200 stores,” Van Cleave says.

Van Cleave lays some of the blame for the music downturn on the sad state of commercial radio. “If local radio was as good as it was in Seattle or Austin, there would be no problem among retailers.” To make a go without radio, stores have to be smarter, he says, to make the kids of today the music freaks of tomorrow. “There’s a lot of competition for people’s attention. It’s a fragmented marketplace. Our stores are putting up MySpace sites with their in-store schedules. You gotta be the center of the music community,” he says. “All things related to music have to lead back to you. We preach in-stores, customer service, and refreshing your inventory as much as you can.”

John Timmons of ear X-tacy in Louisville, another cult of personality kinda guy, is not complaining. “We had our best year ever this year,” he says. “The industry tanked, but we didn’t. Then again, we’re not the norm. Being against the grain is the spirit of indie. It’s easier for us to adapt.”

Timmons opened ear X-tacy as an indie rock record store but has broadened its appeal to all kinds of music after he took a leap of faith in 1995 and moved from an 1,800-square-foot space over the years into a 10,000-square-foot space. “I had only one bank loan in my life, but I wanted to grow my business. The move paid off handsomely. ear X-tacy is in the heart of the Highlands neighborhood between downtown and the East End that is often compared to Greenwich Village,” he says. “This store has a soul. It has a vibe to it. You can be in a social environment here that Internet record sites and the chains don’t have. We’re more fun than staring at a computer screen.”

He’s taken risks that didn’t pan out, including opening a second store in Louisville. He pondered expanding to locations in Lexington and Nashville because so many of his customers drove in from those cities, until John Kunz asked Timmons what was wrong with one great store? “I realized I would have spread myself too thin,” he says. As it is, Timmons is at the store seven days a week because he can’t think of anywhere else he wants to be.

He’s philosophical about technology’s bite on his business. “I’ve got an iPod, but it hasn’t killed my store,” he acknowledges. “The Internet may have taken business away from us, but it’s exposed more people to groups and songs than commercial radio does. I see it as a tool that drives people to stores like mine. We sell on the Internet, and we will have a download store. Our goal is to supply customers with any kind of platform of music.” His customer base includes kids with tattoos, skateboards, and piercings and clients in Dockers and wingtips. “We try to make it an interesting place that’s not too scary, even at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays,” he says.

“As long as the industry makes physical goods, we’ll be selling them. We’re selling tons of local records and ear X-tacy merchandise, bumper stickers and T-shirts, and thousands of “Keep Louisville Weird” stickers, even though we’re not that weird. But we’re trying.” Now, if only Timmons can keep his own fanaticism in check. “I have my own record label unfortunately,” he admits. He’s issued 46 titles so far, including one by The Mighty Jeremiahs, a gospel album by former members of local heroes the Kentucky Headhunters, that’s ginning up impressive sales.

The fever has spread to the ultimate corporate town for music: Los Angeles has been seized with indie-mania after Amoeba Music, which started on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and expanded to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, opened at Sunset and Vine in old Hollywood in 2001. Legendary stores such as the Sunset Boulevard location of Tower Records and the Virgin megastore suddenly became second-tier. Locals had never seen a store like Amoeba, a giant among independents.

Two million was invested in inventory for the 30,000-square-foot store before the doors opened. Between new and used albums, current inventory is around 1.5 million pieces, overseen by a staff of 230. Each and every one was hired by passing Amoeba’s musical knowledge test. “We developed it many years ago,” explains co-owner Karen Pearson, who runs the Los Angeles store. “We put a box of 50 to 100 CDs in front of the applicant to learn how much this person knows about music, and how broad their interests are. It’s about recognizing different years, eras, styles — from straight jazz to electronica and funk, from early Johnny Burnette Trio [rockabilly] to Ursula Rucker [who breaks down the barrier between rap and spoken word]. Only one person has ever had a perfect score. He’s one of our buyers in San Francisco.”

Pearson admits going south to open a third Amoeba Music store was a risk. “Doing something this big that was dedicated to the music community in L.A. was new for us. But we weren’t too worried because we really believe in what we’re doing, and we’d already done it in the Bay Area.”

Playing to local tastes, the store has already pumped up the DVD and movie stock. “In L.A., movies are a big deal,” Pearson says with understatement. “It’s getting to be 25 to 30 percent of our overall business.” But music is clearly the store’s bread-and-butter. “We’re committed to having a deep inventory of new music,” Pearson says. Used-record sales are equal to new product sales. Combined, about 1.5 million pieces are moved every month. “It’s scary, isn’t it?” she says, laughing.

She touts the store’s calendar and e-mail subscription list that alerts customers to in-stores, which are scheduled three to five times a week. “We’re trying to keep that connection going. In the age of downloading and accessing music in all kinds of ways, it comes down to how can we be involved? Music is all about human contact. There’s something about an environment where on a Saturday afternoon, a Roky Erickson freak is combing the racks next to someone who knows everything about Etta James.”

Now she’s convinced that Los Angeles is unique because a community built on music for music’s sake is thriving in the capital of the music industry. “I don’t think you could do this anywhere else,” Pearson says. Following in the footsteps of several other indies, Amoeba Music has started a label to complement its retail side, releasing a live recording of country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons from a 1969 concert, new product on jazz artists Brandi Shearer and the Robin Nolan Trio, and compilations of unsigned bands.

While each business has its own model to follow, one common thread runs through them all. The surly Jack Black character, it turns out, doesn’t exist. The High Fidelity insulting clerk is a myth. No store owner admitted having an employee who criticized customers for bad taste. Doing that, they said unanimously, would be bad business. Love of music isn’t enough. Which may be the best thing to happen to indie record stores. “If you’re a music freak and you don’t have business skills, you’re not going to be around long,” Van Cleave says. “If you’re a good merchant and you have your head screwed on and you love music, you’re going to do just fine.”

An Abridged Guide to Indie Record Stores
Amoeba Music Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, California, www.amoebamusic.com
ear X-tacy Louisville, Kentucky, www.earx-tacy.com
Easy Street Records Seattle, Washington, www.easystreetonline.com
The Electric Fetus Minneapolis, St. Cloud, and Duluth, Minnesota, www.electricfetus.com
Finders Records & Tapes Bowling Green and Findlay, Ohio, www.findersrecords.com
Gallery of Sound Several locations, Pennsylvania, www.galleryofsound.com
Good Records Dallas, Texas, www.goodrecords.com
Homer’s Music & Gifts Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, www.homersmusic.com
Kief’s Lawrence, Kansas, www.kiefs.com
Lou’s Records Encinitas, California, www.lousrecords.com
Mountunes Jackson, Wyoming, www.mountunes.com
Music Millennium Portland, Oregon, www.musicmillennium.com
Newbury Comics New England area, www.newburycomics.com
Park Ave CDs Orlando, Florida, www.parkavecds.com
Twist & Shout Denver, Colorado, www.twistandshout.com
Waterloo Records & Video Austin, Texas, www.waterloorecords.com

Southwest Spirit Magazine www.spiritmag.com/

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