Lew Prince has been telling the story of Carter Carburetor for more than a decade. The St. Louis auto-parts maker, he explains, thrived for nearly 40 years by serving the needs of the Big Three.
"They did everything right as a company," says Prince, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl in University City (and an RFT opera critic). "They improved their product, their delivery, their pricing." But, he adds, "What they never saw coming was fuel injection. They didn't learn how to make fuel injectors, and they went out of business."
The shaggy-bearded Prince first told the carburetor story when Vintage Vinyl was in the middle of a fifteen-year ascendancy that saw gross income jump between 10 and 20 percent per year. By all appearances, the store had few worries, as it was the destination for music fanatics throughout the Midwest. But Vintage and other mom-and-pop record stores saw dark clouds gathering on the horizon: Internet retail. The Carter Carburetor cautionary tale was Prince's way of explaining the need for Vintage Vinyl to adapt to the times.
That need is more pressing now than it was a decade ago. The arrival of Internet retailers was a mere portent. File-sharing software such as Napster and LimeWire followed, and signaled a sea change in the way society consumed music. Now, legitimate download stores like iTunes, Rhapsody and eMusic offer legal alternatives to "stealing" music, and consumers are growing more accustomed to storing their music not on shelves but on hard drives. This change has decimated the retail landscape.
It's like Carter Carburetor facing not only fuel injection but teleportation.
According to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks sales data in the music industry, sales at independent retailers in 2006 are down 27 percent from the same period from last year. In 2000 as many as 5,500 independent music stores spanned the nation. At the end of last year, that number had shrunk to 2,600.
Vintage Vinyl, despite its sterling reputation, is not immune to the vagaries of the market. Since the boom times of the 1990s, Vintage Vinyl has eliminated nearly half of its 40-person staff. Last year the record store laid off its longtime general manager, Steve Pick, and recently Vintage cut the jobs of three other managers. Pick is now a part-time manager at Euclid Records.
While customers could once be assured of finding the best musical selection at Vintage Vinyl, the pickings are now far slimmer. A fan looking for, say, the newest release on the hot Southern Lord Records imprint will come up empty.
Even with much advance warning, effective strategies to compete with the monolithic changes in the business have left the store feeling a bit helpless.
"I feel like we see it all coming," says Prince, "but it's at a level where perhaps we won't be able to compete."
It is reasonable to ask whether record stores are still relevant. If, for example, one wants to find out about the new Gnarls Barkley CD, or doesn't care to spend hours scouring bins for the best new music, there's Pitchfork (www.pitchforkmedia.com), the eleven-year-old Web magazine that can do the sorting for you. After reading an album's Pitchfork review, one can order the CD from hip online independent stores InSound (www.insound.com) or Other Music (www.othermusic.com), and the e-retailers will send the music the same day. There's no real need to visit Vintage Vinyl.
That wasn't the case a decade ago, says a frustrated Tom Ray, who, with Prince, founded Vintage Vinyl 26 years ago at a Soulard Market booth. "For a lot of people in St. Louis, there were two gatekeepers Vintage Vinyl and KDHX. Now, with the Internet, there are a million fucking gatekeepers."
"The record-store guy you trust is, in a lot of ways, being replaced by the music blogger," seconds Darren Snow, a manager at Euclid Records. Snow, a former Vintage Vinyl employee and host of Rocket 88 on KDHX (88.1 FM), adds that sites like Gorilla vs. Bear (gorillavsbear.blogspot.com) and Stereogum (www.stereogum.com) offer the same service that once belonged solely to the record-store clerk. "They're replacing the hip record store guy and the friend that makes you mixtapes."
Visit Google's blog search engine and, within 0.14 seconds, a list of dozens of bloggers will arrive, with each offering his or her opinion on Gnarls Barkley. Fifteen years ago, all a music geek had were the record stores. If you wanted to know what shows were coming to town, Vintage Vinyl was the place to go. Tickets to a concert at the Fox could be had at Streetside Records. Those days are gone.
All of this may seem blasphemous to many older music enthusiasts, who prefer the tactile pleasure of flipping through discs to find some hidden gem. But the younger crowd seems not to care. Why pay attention to Lew Prince's opinion when noted jazz critic and comic-book hero Harvey Pekar waxes poetic about his favorite albums at eMusic.com?
Every CD store in the nation could shut down tomorrow, and music fans will still get their fix. They can log in to their Amazon.com accounts, head to iTunes or access BitTorrent (www.bittorrent.com), where they'll unearth millions of songs, for free. With the click of the mouse, a hundred Sun Ra classics will instantly appear on their hard drive.
Last year downloaded tracks from online retailers reached 332.7 million, compared with 134.2 million in 2004 an increase of 148 percent. Those who weren't downloading were ripping perfectly reproduced copies of their friends' CDs.
"Nobody wants to spend $17 for a record when the record may suck," says Vintage Vinyl clerk Joe Steinman. "They can download their favorite song from the album for nothing. The whole industry used to be geared toward selling albums. Now it's geared towards songs."
Still, says Vintage Vinyl manager Matt Harnish, record stores have always been a musical hub. Youngsters looking to learn about a city's scene, or tourists looking for the rock action, always had a point of entry. "When you go to a new city, the first thing you do is go to the cool record stores," says Harnish. "Where are you going to go when there aren't any more record stores? To a Web site? That's not much fun."
What's more, explains Tom Ray, Web portals and the MP3 revolution have flooded the market. "The ultimate result of the Internet and the digital paradigm is to cheapen music and make music lose its value."
"I think it's cheapened the artifact," clarifies Prince.
Adds Ray, more adamantly: "It's cheapened the music."
Over in Webster Groves, Joe Schwab is sitting in his office at Euclid Records, running through his recent eBay auctions. Duke Ellington is playing on the stereo not surprising, considering that Schwab knows as much about collectable jazz vinyl as anyone in the nation, and he's harnessed that knowledge to build a small empire.
Schwab was one of Vintage Vinyl's first employees, and he helped run a second record store Prince and Ray owned in the Central West End in 1982. A year later, Schwab bought them out. Over the next twenty years, as Vintage Vinyl expanded from 600 square feet to 6,000, Euclid Records remained a small specialty store on Laclede Avenue. While playing bass for a then-unknown Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy logged many hours at that location as a clerk.
"What differentiates us from most other stores," explains Schwab, "is that we've always been a vinyl store that did CDs, rather than the opposite. Good or bad, vinyl's always been the crux of our business." To survive, preaches Schwab, one has to find a niche and become the best at it.
It's somewhat surprising to discover that, while Vintage Vinyl's fortunes over the past five years have declined, Schwab's house of wax has grown. After all, last year LPs accounted for less than 1 percent of the total sales of all music formats, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Mention vinyl to kids in the core age demographic of music consumers fifteen to twenty-four and most will think you're talking about kitchen flooring.
Despite the numbers, a few years ago Schwab, a casual guy with a dash of salt in his peppery black hair, consolidated his Central West End CD store and his Webster Groves LP store into his own 6,000-square-foot emporium on East Lockwood Avenue. Unlike Vintage Vinyl, which generates most of its income from CDs and DVDs, 60 percent of Euclid's sales came from used LPs in 2005, up 20 percent from 2004. "And," Schwab boasts, "that's without a drop-off in retail sales."
Schwab says his clientele are much wealthier, a major reason for the increase. "Eighteen-year-old kids aren't into collecting jazz records. Then they become doctors and lawyers, and they can afford them. It's the perfect age set for people who have always longed for the artifact."
Schwab racked up 50,000 miles on his car last year, scouring the United States for choice collections. He recently bought a noted Chicago collector's lifetime accumulation for $300,000. He holds up a pristine copy of one piece from the bounty, Dizzy Reece's Progress Report LP, which recently sold at auction for $4,260.
"Jazz is a really good market for me," he says. "And thank God for it, because it's something that I know." There's a decent market for classical records, he adds, as well as blues LPs, but nothing compares to the market for jazz. One of his customers, an Italian woman, spends about $2,000 a week on jazz records from Schwab's shop.
"The music's great, the sound quality on a lot of them is terrific, and the packaging is fabulous," Schwab says, then points to a copy of Charlie Mariano's Modern Saxaphone [sic] Stylings. "I mean, come on look at that cover. That is so awesome. And that's probably a good $600 album. And that's just beautiful. There's just something about it."
Scrolling down the list of recent items on his eBay store, Schwab details the past few weeks of sales: "Let's see: Jackie McLean's Swing, Swang, Swanging went for $1,100. Someone bought Elmo Hope's Meditations for $777. Here's another Jackie McLean that sold for $667, a Donald Byrd [Off to the Races] for $656."
Vintage Vinyl has seen countless music fanatics pass through its doors; everyone's looking for the melodic tonic that will fill the pit of longing in their hearts. Music, it's been said, calms the savage beast but it also turns otherwise calm beasts into savages.
If the brick-and-mortar stores vanish, a meeting place for a cross-section of humanity will disappear with them. No longer will fans of Japanese avant-metal band Boris rub elbows with Coltrane fanatics. Snooty buffs of Steve Reich's minimalism won't walk into a store and be exposed to the latest German techno on Kompakt records. The quirky record-store geek will go the way of the dinosaur.
(Full disclosure: This writer worked for seven years as a record buyer at Vintage Vinyl before joining the Riverfront Times.)
Vintage Vinyl's regulars are legendary. One man sporting glistening Jheri curls used to come in, dressed in purple from head to toe. He'd make a beeline for the Prince section, and, before leaving the store, he'd do his best impression of his idol. With a coy look on his face, he'd start moving his legs in rhythm, drop down into perfect James Brown splits, push himself up and let out his best Prince wail.
Another customer, Kozene, was a tall dude with Coke-bottle eyeglasses and awkward social skills. He headed straight to the Paula Abdul section and would walk the aisles carrying her CD around, shaking his head, in awe of her beauty. What strangers didn't know was that this tall, gentle, African-American man had a freakishly encyclopedic knowledge of opera. He could tell you not only how often Maria Callas performed, say, La Bohème, but on what dates and in which concert halls she performed it.
One Saturday morning in the mid-'90s, a shaky man, drool running down his chin, entered Vintage Vinyl carrying a reproduction of his "invention." It was called, he said, a "record player." He'd built out of balsa wood a turntable, complete with a wooden tone-arm, power switch, spindle and platter. He was positively convinced that the contraption would change the course of history.
A man the clerks nicknamed Smokey used to come into the store. He was always talking to himself and appeared to be battling schizophrenia. Often, he'd approach the counter and ask to hear some Smokey Robinson. The clerks, feeling charitable, would grant his request, and as Smokey's rich falsetto filled the store, the man's face would relax, a smile creasing his face as he gently swayed to the music. When the song ended, his face soured and the darkness returned.
The St. Louis College of Pharmacy is an unlikely venue for a group of hipster music hounds. In the couch-filled lounge sits a ragtag group of men and women, none of whom would be mistaken for budding pharmacists. Some wear Mohawks and Converse All-Stars. Others have retained their ponytails for 25 years.
It's early May, and they've gathered for the biannual convention of the Association of Independent Media Stores, a coalition of national independent record retailers. Faced with increasing competition from the likes of Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Borders, the group banded together four years ago to gain greater leverage in dealing with major record companies. Rather than juggle 30 different promotional accounts, the Warner Media Group, for example, can with one phone call simultaneously purchase advertising or display space at all the stores.
Arranged in a semicircle, the owners of some of the nation's best little shops including Shake It Records in Cincinnati, Grimey's in Nashville, Sonic Boom in Seattle, Criminal Records in Atlanta and our own Vintage Vinyl are here to talk business with Sony/BMG Music Entertainment, the world's second-largest record label.
First, however, Sony has insisted on treating or torturing the stores' representatives with a live performance by a mediocre alt-rock band called As Fast As. The Portland, Maine, ensemble just released its debut CD on a subsidiary of Sony, which is pushing it hard. Introducing it to the small stores could help nudge the band onto the charts.
After the performance, the shopkeepers clap politely and are offered a three-song set by a bland twentysomething songwriter named Mason Jennings. "We view Mason as a career artist," says label executive Drew Kantor, as he introduces the pretty boy. If independent stores had a dollar for every time those words spilled from a label executive's mouth, they'd all have vacation homes at Martha's Vineyard.
After Jennings finishes, Kantor fields questions from the group on day-to-day operations. Kantor politely answers, though he seems less interested in helping than in campaigning to get Jennings and As Fast As added to the stores' listening booths. Later, Lew Prince shares his opinion: "From the major labels, you have to just assume that everything out of their mouths is either self-serving or a lie."
Over the course of the weekend, the stores will visit with all of the major record labels. But that's not the most valuable component of the meeting, says Darren Blase, owner of Cincinnati's Shake It Records. "It's like Vietnam vets getting together at the White Castle for coffee. There are plenty of war stories to go through. Frankly, there are fewer and fewer of us in the world. Every month there's going to be some independent record store closing somewhere. I can guarantee it."
"It's nice just being in a group of intelligent people that are still staking a future in the recorded-music business," adds Vintage Vinyl's chief buyer, John Henderson. "And it's good to be reminded of that. You hear all the gloom and doom, but it's not the entire reality. Everybody isn't closing down."
The coalition also met with a Los Angeles-based company that will outfit the stores with state-of-the-art Web site templates. Soon, indie stores will add to their arsenal digital-download portals similar to those that iTunes and eMusic offer, as well as access to a database that offers 1.2 million CD titles.
But there's little incentive to visit an indie store for downloads other than to maybe root for the home team. "I don't know why a record store would need to do that when you can download them from iTunes," says a skeptical Darren Snow of Euclid Records. "What would the advantage be? I don't know why somebody would bother going to euclidrecords.com if they could go to iTunes.com."
This sense of futility loomed over the weekend's proceedings at least for some merchants. Explains Tom Ray: "I felt like I was standing on an iceberg with my fellow polar bears, and they're all telling each other, 'No, you're not doing anything wrong.'"
"It's global warming," adds Lew Prince.
Easy Street Records in Seattle is a music fetishist's wet dream. Customers walking into the shop, which is about the size of Euclid Records, are bombarded with a wondrous display of new tunes. The store is bursting at the seams with the freshest sounds.
There is a row of breakbeat records that sample the best one-liners from Napoleon Dynamite. A display of reissues from the great U.K. label Soul Jazz lines a wall. Recent reviews from Pitchfork.com have been copied and taped to shelves. Old phone booths have been reimagined as listening stations.
The key to success, says Scott Perry, president of Sperry Media, a Los Angeles-based retail consultant, is to create a destination. It's not enough to have a good store with a lot of records. People demand an experience. With so many options, says Perry, record stores need to refine their mission.
"Whether you're purchasing it, streaming it, or downloading it legally or illegally so many convenient means that the Internet provides you have to create an environment that draws people in," says Perry.
Shake It Records, explains owner Darren Blase, concentrates much of its energy on music-related ephemera. "Whether it's Japanese toy vinyl designed by American graffiti artists, or Andy Warhol doing the cover of a Velvet Underground record, the lasting effects of the music are sometimes more important," says Blase. "There are more ways to quote-unquote sell music than just selling music."
Blase's store has bucked nearly every market trend in the book. Going against a central tenet of retail theory, Shake It opened in a Cincinnati neighborhood with little foot traffic, figuring it would cater to the most devoted customers rather than uninterested browsers.
"Part of it was getting rid of all those people who have no interest in what we're doing, but just happen to stumble in," says Blase. "By getting rid of them, we can focus on the people that want to be there. They are our fellow travelers in commerce."
Feeding these fellow travelers is, of course, the mission of the record store. But Tom Ray fears that the marketplace is headed toward an inevitable split. "There will be a point at which there will be a customer base for ringtones and downloadable music, and there will be people who, for several reasons, will want and insist on the artifact, the hard copy. And that number will probably dwindle over time."
Ray says he'll stick to LPs and CDs. "We are all object-acquisitive," he explains. "I've got a house full of damn records."
"We are all fetishists," adds Prince, who's gone as far as dispatching fellow store owners to Euclid Records to check out the competition's wares.
"Their reaction to Joe's store was interesting," Prince muses. "They said, 'It's so expensive. I loved it, but I couldn't buy anything.' I said, 'That's because you're not a 50-year-old white guy. But if you had a gold card, and had already got your big car and big house, and your kids are out of college, you could afford that $45 for a '60s reprint.'"
With a tinge of jealousy, Ray joins in: "I wish we could get $45 for a reprint."