It’s no secret that the music business is in the midst of massive upheaval. Less noticed is the improbable resurgence of vinyl records, the format that dominated the twentieth century but was left for dead in the 1990s in favor of the compact disc’s promise of “Perfect Sound Forever.” Vinyl sales have roughly tripled over the past six years, causing production backlogs and sending manufacturers scurrying to reclaim equipment from decommissioned pressing plants.
Granted this growth is off a small base, but it’s a key factor behind 2015’s slight increase in music sales despite a continuation of the CD’s decade-long vanishing act. And it’s a welcome jolt of energy for independent record stores, which have been facing their own existential crisis. In fact, the market has seen a recent wave of openings of vinyl-only record shops.
For music fans, a visit to a well-curated record store remains a singular treat. Happily, several crafty entrepreneurs have found ways to survive and even thrive in this challenging landscape. Rather than some “secret sauce” that can be bottled and distributed, we found businesspeople attuned to their specific market’s interests and catering to communities’ needs- exactly what you’d hope from local businesses.
This summer Criminal Records in Atlanta’s Little 5 Points neighborhood will celebrate its 25th anniversary. Criminal has bucked trends by posting sales gains several years running. Owner Eric Levin scoffs at the conventional wisdom surrounding independent record stores’ health. “The truth is no one knows, because very few of our stores are scanned,” he explains, referring to the industry’s Soundscan sales measurement process.
Levin was instrumental in launching the Alliance of Independent Media Stores (AIMS), and is quick to point out that the M stands for Media rather than Music. “You’re more likely to find a barber chair or tattoo chair in one of our shops,” he continues. “It’s ‘entertailing’- and that could mean anything from a photo booth to a stack of used vinyl.” Levin says vinyl outsells CDs by 4-to-1 at Criminal. “The vinyl movement is a culture movement, a youth movement—and it’s happening.” Levin’s shop certainly benefits from the steady parade of hipsters traipsing through Little 5 Points.
Criminal also carries a healthy stash of comic books, and it was Levin’s involvement in Free Comic Book Day that helped launch Record Store Day, a semi-annual event featuring one-time releases created by top-drawer artists especially for the occasion as well as a variety of special events planned at various stores. “The people who told me they’d never make vinyl again are no longer in their jobs, and here I am selling vinyl,” he says with only a hint of gloating. “To the folks who are selling a million Adeles I say ‘Dude, I’m your canary in the coalmine.’”
Criminal isn’t the only record shop celebrating a landmark anniversary this year. 2016 marks the 40th year in business for Wax n Facts, the still-vibrant store also on the Little 5 Points main drag that along with the 688 Club served as Ground Zero for the city’s burgeoning punk and new wave scene back in the day.
Also blowing out 40 candles earlier this year was Wuxtry, the Athens institution whose Atlanta outpost is only a couple years younger. “People come in and say ‘Hey, I hear vinyl’s back’ and I tell them ‘Where have you been? It’s been back for ten years!’” Wuxtry owner Dan Wall tells me. Although Wall doesn’t see CDs vanishing anytime soon (“there’s too much hardware in cars and the like”), LPs clearly rule the roost. “Because we never gave up on vinyl, and because we’ve been around so long, we’re a very deep-shelved store,” he boasts.
Levin’s “youth culture” comment helps explains why Athens has the highest cool record store per capita ratio in Georgia. In a similar vein, Red Door Records has found fertile ground in the downtown shopping district near Valdosta State University. Red Door has been in business for six years, but a 2015 move to a larger location gave owner Jessica Ganas (a Valdosta native and VSU grad) the space to add a 50-seat cinema screening both classic movies and recent titles. “We keep around 10,000 used LPs in stock with new inventory arriving daily, as well as a small new vinyl section with today’s popular music and a small section of CDs,” explains Ganas. ”We’ve seen business increase slowly over the past six years with the vinyl resurgence,” driven mostly by students and residents of the local Air Force base. “Valdosta usually runs five years or so behind (the trends in) larger cities,” Ganas adds, suggesting this recent growth curve has legs.
“We’ve been riding the waves—I’ve really seen it come full circle over the last ten years. Once I saw they were selling record players again, I knew it was real.” So says Phyllis Habersham, who has run Habersham Records in Macon for 32 years (“back to when singles were the main draw”), 44 including the years before she took over the business from her brother. Habersham’s sales still run 2-to-1 in favor of CDs, bought by customers ranging in age “from 18 to 80.” Given her shop’s proximity to the Allman Brothers’ Big House Museum titles from those local heroes remain a draw, but diversity is the name of the game at Habersham, which hosted in-store appearances from the likes of the Commodores, Zapp and Babyface back in the day.
The not-so-dirty record store secret is that “used vinyl is where the money is,” according to Levin. This recipe isn’t lost on Don Radcliffe, who’s taken his store Ella Guru through multiple incarnations, currently as a 100% used vinyl outpost in DeKalb County ‘s Oak Grove area. “I feel a little like a rare bookseller sometimes, Radcliffe acknowledges. “You can make money these days if you know a little bit and can rustle up good used LPs. I love learning about different pressings, mastering guys and so forth. The best thing about record shops has always been getting someone into a record they can take ownership of, know what I mean? It’s a blast finding impressionable customers to force weird music on,” he laughs.
Representing another perspective is Decatur CD, located on the fringe of that town’s vibrant walking district. “I always knew I wanted to be a full-line store,” explains owner Warren Hudson. “We’re hardly an American Idol shop, but we sell plenty of Taylor Swift to dads who are shopping for themselves as well.” For Hudson’s 20-something assistant Isaac Bishop, record stores are a first time discovery rather than a return to roots. “I never bought CDs—I went straight from downloading on LimeWire and other sites to vinyl. If you want to hear something, you can always find it online. But plenty of folks still want the experience of owning it.”
While Hudson is appreciative of vinyl sales and stocks a nice selection of both new and used, CDs still drive his store’s bottom line. He also augments foot traffic with online sales. And Hudson marvels at one tale that proves you can’t overthink consumer behavior. “One of our best internet customers lives in Brooklyn. I got curious one day and did some research—he has ten record shops within a mile of his house! But he likes shopping with us.” When you know it’s right….
People love a party, and lines can snake out the door on Record Store Day as the die-hards rush to grab limited-edition releases and casual fans flock to the in-store performances and general revelry. If you missed the most recent one in mid-April you’ll have another chance on Black Friday—but an hour or so thumbing through the racks of these or other records stores is time well spent any month of the year.
For a list of additional independent record stores throughout Georgia, visit http://www.exploregeorgia.org/itineraries/georgia-record-stores.