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With another edition of Record Store Day behind us, it seemed like a good time to ask local record shop owners how the era of downloads is treating them.
We asked Ken Chrisien at Acme and Dan DuChaine at Rushmor – both in Bay View – and Luke Lavin at Bull’s Eye, on the East Side, about how the recession affected the business, about Record Store Day and more. Their answers might surprise you.
OnMilwaukee.com: Do you think you've weathered the worst of the recession?
Ken Chrisien: I honestly don't know. It seems that people that are really into music will find a way to buy more of it, regardless of their financial situation. I think timing has had a lot to do with it as far as the popularity of vinyl for sure. A lot of people I've not seen before are becoming big vinyl buyers, which is great.
The shop has exceeded my expectations for sure. Perhaps I didn't think enough of what I was capable of, but it has been very well received, and I’m kind of overwhelmed with the support from my customers.
Dan DuChaine: Music is always needed in good and bad times, it's one of the more affordable entertainment choices. Being affordable, it hit the bigger record labels and media outlets with the major overhead, the little guys still had a decent margin – as long as the overhead wasn't too much – to survive in leaner times.
The shortened attention spans via the ‘net has caused many to forget the ritual of actually seeking out music and enjoying the whole adventure of physically finding and digesting your choices. As long as music is still being created, people will search it out.
Luke Lavin: Sales definitely took a dip for a few years. People were really hurting. A number of our regular customers had their hours cut back or lost their jobs.
OMC: How did the recession change your business?
DD: Like any consumer, we had to be conscious of our buying decisions. We're even more aware of the titles we stock and try to make find unique, yet timeless material to stock in our store. We feel confident in the choices we offer and stand behind our catalog. We house approximately 10,000 titles – vinyl and CD – to choose from, and maintain that number to keep control of the spending and the quality.
LL: One big aspect of our business is buying records and CDs. So while sales slowed for a while, we were able to good some nice records and CDs, as well as help out some folks who were down on their luck.
OMC: What's the biggest part of your business – is it new vinyl, used vinyl, new CDs, used CDs, etc.?
KC: The biggest part of my business is used vinyl. I’m still not carrying CDs; haven't had that much demand for them. I do sell a fair amount of new vinyl, as well, but not nearly as much as used. It will be the biggest challenge for my business, acquiring more quality used records. a lot more people buying them these days than getting rid of them.
DD: It's really a mixture. We find that it's the material that is sought after and its format dictates its availability and affordability. If a compact disc contains $400 of collectable vinyl for less that $15, people will often choose that route to discover the music. If it's the actual physical memory, or recent re-discovery, vinyl often wins.
LL: With many younger people starting to collect records, there has been a run on a lot of the used record store staples, as well as more people handing down their collections to their children instead of selling them to the store, further pinching the supply, which has kind of forced us to stock more new vinyl. I'd guess the vinyl breakdown is about 50/50 new and used and the vinyl/CD split is roughly 85/15 or 90/10. CD sales are getting scarcer for sure. Just five years ago it was more like 50/50. We still need people's record collections. And we'll pay good money to get them.
OMC: Do you tend to get a boost from Record Store Day?
KC: Record Store Day is a huge boost. The day here was absolutely bananas, tons of people, lots of sales – it was great. My favorite part was that I recognized almost everyone that was here as a previous customer – either a frequent one, or at least someone that's been here before. But there was also a fair amount of new customers, as well, who weren't specifically after the exclusive releases, which most likely means they will probably come back when it's easier to look through the bins. While it's a bit stressful to have such a crowd present in the shop, it's also really satisfying.
DD: Absolutely. It's a designated day that music lovers can dedicate to stopping at all the outlets that offer recorded media. As well as the exclusive titles that are generated just for that day’s release, it's just a great day in Wisconsin to acknowledge that we survived the long hard winter and good times are coming with some the good weather.
LL: Very much so. The increased media coverage certainly helps. We had a number of people in the shop buying stacks of records and they had never heard of the store before. You would think with how few stores there are left in the city, that record collectors would know all of them, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
OMC: Do you invest in record store day vinyl editions? Does that work for you?
KC: I did carry some of the exclusive releases for the day, and most of them sold really well. I had ordered quite a bit more of them, but was not allocated very much of it at all. Not sure how the whole system works as far as who gets what, but at the end of the day it didn't really seem to matter to most of the shoppers. I think I was fairly smart about what I ordered, and don't see having too much trouble selling the titles that I have left.
DD: We've been involved with RSD since its inception (in 2007). We were very fortunate to be at ground zero when this event began and understand that with all events of demand and interest grow so does the responsibility of hard work and coming through for all your visitors that day.
Yes, it works because, like the individuals seeking out these records, we enjoy researching, finding and supplying the titles to have for people visiting here. We wouldn't have a store without the great people who support us. We wouldn't be able to do the things we do throughout the year in the community without them. So, yes, it works and we will continue to work harder and do more things as this and other events get stronger.
LL: I think the concept of Record Store Day is great. Get people accustomed to the community aspect of hanging out at the record store and discussing music with like-minded people. Enjoying the visceral experience of flipping through an owner-curated selection of music, as opposed to having a computer algorithm suggest that if you like this one CD, you might also like these other ones.
I think the idea of turning this "holiday" for record collectors into a chase to find these impossible to find limited edition releases just sullies the whole experience for a lot of people. Why do they need to be such limited editions? Why would artists or record labels want to deny their fans and customers the joy of buying the record they're looking for? The day that the limited releases stop and there are plenty for everyone who wants one will be the day they finally get it right. Keep the special Record Store Day releases, and keep them for physical bricks and mortar stores, but by making them so limited, all they are really doing is driving people BACK to the internet business model: "Go grab that rare record and put it on eBay."
OMC: Do you think adding the second record store day waters down the effects or boost them?
KC: I think that consumers are starting to tire of the "manufactured collectible" angle of record store day. Six months to sometimes a year after the fact there are still copies of some of this stuff around, and I think that's rather telling.
DD: Well, there is the Black Friday RSD, yes. It's a busy retail spending time regardless. Making another day does lend to the mindset that it's the industry selling product. The spring RSD is much more developed, much more anticipated. Maybe less titles but more special and unique material, as well as bigger quantities being made available so more individuals can enjoy the music and less hoarding will occur. It's fun to see the real music fan get the material they want to enjoy and not just "flip" it on the secondary market for money. It happens and people enjoy record hunting that way also, it's just that the music gets overlooked very easily with the lack of availability.
LL: I think a second one (is) great. Obviously you can't start having them once a month or it waters down the specialness of it, but the calendar is long enough that it can accommodate two Record Store Days.
OMC: Do you think record shops will remain viable in the age of the download?
KC: I really wish I could see the future. I have no idea. This business is a roller coaster, trying to make sense of it will drive a person to drink, or to an early grave. There will always be people who listen to music via downloads; I can't change that and I honestly don't have a problem with that, either. That's how a lot of people consume music, it's just never been for me, and a lot of people into vinyl feel the same way.
I think as long as Acme can provide good records, and enough of them to satisfy a good customer base, that the business will be okay. As long as customers think of Acme Records first before pre-ordering something online – that they check with me here at the shop before they get into a bidding war with someone on eBay for something they've been looking for forever – I just may have it.
I will do everything I can to stay a viable business, but at the end of the day every local business needs customers to support them as frequently as they can. So far I've been blessed with a great community of vinyl buyers, but I'm always looking for more.
DD: As long as individuals want to reach out and interact with each other there will always be a need for the physical brick and mortar store to visit, meet and discover what we don't yet know. It's up the record labels, to a great extent, to continue to take chances on new music, and new artists, to cultivate a reason to want to support hard work presented. It's always the case, so much great art and music will never be heard or seen, or at least when it's at its most vital point. Time will tell and we'll be there to see what it presents. It's going interesting, to say the least. It's gonna be great!
LL: Record stores that are run by music lovers for music lovers will always have a place. Mass market record stores that count on selling a couple hundred copies of the new releases each week to cover their overhead will disappear fairly soon. There's just not enough business left in the physical musical media .... the future for the mass market music business is digital. Our store is not for the mass market.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.