Updated: May 14, 2014 6:14AM
Rich Wagner could be the Kevin Costner of independent record store owners.
“Why would someone plow a cornfield and put in a baseball field? Why would someone open a record store at the tail end of a recession and in a dying market? Really, it’s border line insane,” he says, laughing.
Yet in June 2010, Wagner opened Rediscover Records, a vinyl-only record store in downtown Elgin; one year later, sales were sustainable enough that he quit his job operating his family’s local restaurant, and cut back hours he spent moonlighting as a caterer. Last month, he relaunched the store a block away in a space nearly double the size of the old store, and hired three part-time employees. Selling new and used records, in an era where music streaming and downloads dominate sales, and tangible forms of music are marginalized, is indeed a “Field of Dreams” come true.
Celebrating such small victories — and pushing for more of them — is the mission of Record Store Day, an annual campaign each April to drive sales at independent record stores nationwide. (This year, Record Store Day is Saturday.) Now in its seventh year, the day is intended to reward fans with limited-edition releases from artists ranging from Jack White to the Everly Brothers. But the underlying result is that neighborhood shops are feted all day, not just with sales, but via crowds showing up for live performances, giveaways, contests, food, video screenings and other activities meant to illustrate that brick-and-mortar shopping actually can be fun (opposed to the solitary shopping experience on digital screens).
“We live in a time when running a record store or shopping at a record store is cool in popular culture. People are looking for that experience, which they can’t get from the latest downloading or streaming service,” says Carrie Colliton, a Record Store Day co-founder and the director of marketing for the Department of Record Stores, a coalition organization that serves as the umbrella organization for the event. She and others involved in Record Store Day do not draw salaries for their work on the event, but they consider it an offshoot of their day job; they work with more than 450 releases from both behemoths and small indie labels — ushering product to stores, and they help stores in coordinating promotion.
The number of Record Store Day releases — on CD, LP and 7-inch — varies greatly. While Sony’s labels — Columbia, Epic and Legacy have 26 titles each — Milwaukee indie Beer City Records has nine. Third Man Records in Nashville, Tenn., operated by White, is promoting “The World’s Fastest Released Record”: In the morning Jack White will record a direct-to-acetate recording, rush the masters to a local pressing plant, which will press 7-inch editions that will be sold to fans later that day.
Colliton says that the number of participating record stores this year has increased 50 percent, representing 1,200 sites. In the Chicago area, 28 stores are confirmed. Stores are asked to sign a pledge saying they will not hike prices of the limited items, hold them, or sell them online on auction sites. To qualify, at least 50 percent of a store’s stock must be music, the stores can’t be part of a large chain, and owners largely have to live in the state of operation. Record Store Day is also international, taking place in eight other countries, including the Netherlands, Mexico, France and Italy.
Independent record stores, while growing, still represent the underdog regarding the ways consumers purchase music today. While digital sales accounted for more than 60 percent of recorded music revenues in the U.S. in 2013, according to the London-based International Federation of the Phonographic Industry data, physical sales accounted for 30 percent, or $1.35 billion.
Where those physical sales take place: Largely at mass merchants like Walmart (14.1 million units sold in the first quarter of 2014, according to Nielsen SoundScan); chains (7.5 million units); non-traditional CD merchants like Starbucks (8 million); and independent record stores (4.1 million units). All outlets posted recent declines in sales, but if there is a silver lining for local indie shops, it’s that their declines (16.6 percent) are much less than chains and mass merchants (24 percent each).
That’s a small piece of the overall pie. Yet the stores that say they are thriving — adding hours, employees, even expanding locations — are offering more than just music: They are also selling community and a curatorial hand in the purchasing process — two factors that have largely diminished in our culture thanks to the downward spiraling of strong independent media (both radio and newspapers) and the one-click shopping model that drives online retail.
Chuck D of Public Enemy, who is this year’s Record Store Day ambassador, told reporters last month in Los Angeles that record stores are “in the revolutionary phase” of proving that consumers will respond to retail models that engage them.
“Radio is working against record stores; it’s working against music lovers. [Record stores offer a place] where you go to catch a vibe and experience the love of the music,” he said.
Also, what independent record stores sell now represents a niche — albeit a growing one. Nielsen SoundScan data shows that vinyl records represented the only music format that increased in total sales in 2013 (32 percent), unlike drops in digital tracks (5.7 percent), digital albums (0.1 percent) and CDs (14.5 percent). Vinyl records now account for 2 percent of U.S. album sales, which means that stores that exclusively sell vinyl are largely insulated from digital trends.
“We’re not trying to be Virgin Megastore, we operate on our own level that’s sustainable,” says Dave Hofer, a new product buyer with Reckless Records, a three-store chain in Chicago that has been operating since 1989 and employs nearly 50 people. “We’re not trying to be something we’re not and we’re not trying to overreach our bounds. We know what sells.”
Like Rediscover in Elgin, Reckless is also expanding: This summer, its Wicker Park location is closing and reopening down the street in a space at 1379 N. Milwaukee that is three times the original size and spread over three floors. Hofer notes that Reckless opened its Loop location the same year both Tower Records and Virgin Megastore closed, suggesting he knew something both chains did not: “They were pricing things way too high.”
Because indie shops can be nimbler and are often infused with the personality of their owner, they can fit more easily into the fabric of a community. In Elgin’s historic downtown, located on the banks of the Fox River, Wagner discovered a hunger among city officials to support businesses such as his own that are perceived as helping energize a struggling business district via younger buyers and entrepreneurs.
For him, advertising costs are minimal — word of mouth, Google search, and “indispensible” social media — and he benefits from being the only record shop in the area for miles. Although he sells stock over his company website and eBay, the majority of sales traffic is through walk-ups, from both locals and others who say they’ve traveled from as far away as Naperville or Chicago.
“It’s people walking into a brick-and-mortar store,” he says. “I hear people talking about music or I’m talking about music with people. It’s just that good record store energy that you don’t get shopping with a mouse.”
Mark Guarino is a local freelance writer.