Delaware music shops get creative to compete with downloads, chain music stores
Once-venerated local music shops get creative to compete with downloads and big box stores
BY RYAN CORMIER
As independent music stores in Delaware collapse around him, the 35-year-old owner of Rainbow Records in Newark says he's not going anywhere.
In a year that saw the closure of one of the biggest indie stores in the state -- Record & Tape Traders in Rehoboth Beach -- as well as Scooter's Records, a Wilmington shop that specialized in R&B and hip-hop, Chris Avino is more determined than ever to succeed.
And he's doing so through sacrifice.
Avino is not married. He doesn't have any children. He lives in an apartment above the store. And he takes no salary.
"That's one way to survive. The other is being extremely adaptable," he says of his store on Newark's Main Street, which lost Bert's Music in 2007, but is still home to both Rainbow and Wonderland Records. "We basically set prices so I can keep the doors open."
Even though Avino's shop is the last of what was once a powerful seven-store Delaware-based chain, Avino is keeping his doors open by retooling his merchandise based on demand several times a year.
He also has embraced the Internet by retooling Rainbow's Web site into a more user-friendly blog format and using Facebook as a way to better connect with the local community, posting updates throughout the day, whether it's a note telling customers that the newest music magazines have arrived, spotlighting a favorite album of a staffer or announcing the arrival of an exclusive EP you can't find at stores like Wal-Mart.
"As we all know, this is a dying industry, but I've been able to adapt," he says. "Not many people can do it. You have to live a certain lifestyle -- one of which is not very plush."
In 2008, CD sales dropped by 19 percent, while music downloads on the Internet increased by 29 percent, according to the most recent report released by market research firm The NPD Group in March. Downloads now account for a third of all music tracks purchased in the United States, the music study found.
With just about any album or chart-topping single available with a click of a button, fewer people feel the need to visit their local music store. Since 2003, about 1,300 independent music stores closed, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a California-based industry research group. There are fewer than 2,500 stores left. And, in Delaware, you can easily count the number of stores remaining on two hands.
Brian Poehner, co-founder and vice president of merchandising for Value Music Concepts Inc., a Georgia-based company that operated the Record & Tape Traders store in Rehoboth, was blunt when explaining the store's demise after many years as Rehoboth Avenue's largest music retailer.
"We sell CDs and, as you know, most people are downloading or stealing their music these days," Poehner says. "You can't compete with free. Physical sales are dropping precipitously and the digital sales are really not increasing to make up for it because of piracy more than anything."
Newark's Rainbow Records is one of about 60 indie music stores that make up the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, a 14-year-old national organization that acts as a network for similar stores across the country, with owners exchanging business tips that seem to be working during these trying times. After all, being in a failing industry with a failing economy is tough to overcome.
"Many of these store owners across the country have been doing this for a long time and you just try to band together," Avino says. "But I have a very positive outlook for independent records stores, actually. There aren't many left and it's become a niche kind of store and there are plenty of people who love their music and love going to record stores. Is it something I'll become a millionaire from? No. It's enough to make a living."
In Bear, Sam Vaughn is using his local connections to keep business steady at Sam's Music Connection.
As a semiretired DJ, he is heavily involved in the Delaware music scene, especially the DJs that spin in clubs and bars across the state.
His store is home base for anything and everything local musically -- flyers for upcoming concerts and DJ battles, CDs by local hip-hop acts and anything DJs need, whether it's equipment or long out-of-print music to help give them an edge over other area acts.
Vaughn's ultralocal approach, paired with an in-demand niche in an area without much competition, has allowed his one-man store in Fox Run Shopping Center to stay afloat as other stores fall.
And his Philadelphia roots, planted over years spent working at Market Street music store Funk-O-Mart, don't hurt. Philly native DJ Jazzy Jeff -- who went to the top of the charts with Will Smith, aka The Fresh Prince -- moved to Bear shortly after Vaughn and visits the store regularly. He recently used it as a set for an appearance on an Internet TV show.
In the past eight years, business for Vaughn has been steady even as the number of independent music stores across Delaware shrinks thanks to loss of sales to big box stores like Best Buyand Kmart and both legal and illegal music downloads.
"You have to get your name out there and evolve with the current trends," Vaughn says in his 1,300-square-foot shop decorated with posters of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. and filled with CDs, mix tapes, hard-to-find vinyl and DJ equipment.
In the end, Avino says it's up to the music-loving public to make a decision -- buy an album from a place that makes its money from selling TVs and washing machines or turn to the indie store, where you might hear something you like playing over the speakers or get turned onto new music from a sharp music-lover behind the counter.
"This is what I try to preach ever since I bought this store: You really have to focus on where you're purchasing your music," he says. "If saving an extra dollar is really that important to you, you can buy it online or go to Best Buy. But if you value the service that independent stores offer, then that's where you should shop."
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