October 13, 2005
Music snobs rejoice: Independent record stores still thrive in desert
by Michelle Theriault - Desert Sun
Record stores where clerks will roll their eyes at you for not knowing that “Ant Man Bee” is the last track on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica are probably an endangered species.
This year alone, 200 independent record stores have closed nationwide.
While 97 percent of all music is sold at retail stores, independent music stores — replete with music snob encyclopedic clerks a la Hi-Fidelity and indie hijinks a la Empire Records — are an endangered breed, losing hundreds of stores per year.
But two local, independent record stores manage to survive — and even thrive — despite intense competition from Wal-Mart, where one in five major label albums is bought, and iTunes, whose Internet catalogue of downloadable music boasts more than a million available songs.
"If somebody comes in and hums a song they heard, we can usually figure out what it is and help them find it," says Elecia McCoy of Record Alley in Westfield Palm Desert.
That's exactly what independent stores should be doing to preserve their share of the market, says Craig Rosen of the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a Studio City based consulting group that advises retailers and labels.
"A smart independent store is sort of super-serving their customers, acting as the friendly retailer," says Rosen.
Ben Gertsen has owned Rock-It-Man Records, a comfortable, funky space in a strip mall in Yucca Valley, for six years. A veteran of the corporate chains he now competes against, Gertsen credits his years with Wherehouse Music for giving him an understanding of what his business is up against.
When he moved from the San Francisco area to the high desert with plans of opening an independent record store, people laughed.
"People said we wouldn't make it six months, a year," he says. "I'm laughing six years later."
The key to his success is simple.
"It's stuff I never thought I'd carry," he says. "That 8-foot rap section pays for two thirds of the store to be here."
Gertsen credits the nearby Marine base in Twentynine Palms, which supplies him with some of his best customers.
"Twentynine Palms buys a lot of country, rap and death metal," says Gertsen. "If I sold what I liked, I'd be out of business."
In the store, a man in a business suit picks up Neil Diamond albums and inspects them, while a group of kids in floor-length black coats and white kabuki-style makeup browse nearby.
"You can see I get different styles of people coming in," Gertsen says with a smile.
Rory Izsak of Palm Springs was on his way out the door with a handful of new purchases. "I'm looking for usually hard to find things, and I'm also looking for a bargain. I'll come up here just to shop."
Reports on the demise of the local record store are greatly exaggerated, says Gertsen.
"That's what we're fighting the most," he says. "It's getting people to know that there are still stores out there."
Still, major labels do give exclusives and sometimes price discounts to mega-stores like Best Buy, which can hurt independent businesses. But a few seem to be more actively courting the independent record store. One label even sent Gertsen a "Support your local independent music store" display to hang.
"A lot of times they're cutting deals with big boxes because they can move more units through," says Rosen.
Record Alley has been around in various incarnations for 30 years.
Nighttime manager McCoy has an armful of tattoos and a rock 'n' roll scissors haircut and looks like a big-city hipster.
She did live in Los Angeles for a while, she says, but the smaller Coachella Valley drew her back.
She says she considers the record store she's worked at on and off for six years to be an indispensable part of the inchoate local music scene.
"I would really, really like there to be one good venue for all ages stuff," she says. "Kids are suffering here so bad."
1,380 music stores have closed nationwide since 2003. Most of them were independent retailers.
470 music stores have closed in 2005 alone.
3,000 independent music stores are still open in the United States.
One in five major-label albums is bought at Wal-Mart.
Half of all major-label music is sold at Wal-Mart, Target or Best Buy.
Source: Almighty Institute of Music Retail
Permission granted by copyright holder for this express use only.
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