One-Day Record-Store Revival
April 16, 2011 - Wall Street Journal
By NICK NEYLAND
Other Music in the East Village, above, is one of the city's few remaining brick-and-mortar record stores.
When mouse-clicking fingers replaced album-flipping thumbs as music consumers' digit of choice, New York City lost almost all of its once-proud record-shop subculture.
Long gone are most of the neighborhood retailers as well as the behemoths like Tower Records and the Virgin Megastore. But a handful of hardy brick-and-mortar merchants are hanging on, and Saturday marks a sort of celebration for these against-the-odds businesses.
The fourth annual Record Store Day brings limited-edition releases by an eclectic array of artists—including Fleet Foxes, Nirvana, Lady Gaga and Fela Kuti—to independently owned record stores across the country. In New York, at least 40 stores will participate in the one-day event.
Vinyl is the main lure: Most of the limited-edition items available this year can only be played with a needle. Vinyl sales surged by 376% on last year's Record Store Day compared to same-day sales in the previous year, according to Billboard statistics.
Michael Kurtz, the co-founder of the event, said he was "completely shocked" by the dramatic upswing in vinyl sales. The first Record Store Day, in 2008, drove about $25,000 in sales nationally, he said. For the 2011 event, there will be nearly 300 special releases and about $3 million of merchandise shipped to participating stores.
"It's now our largest [sales] day," Mr. Kurtz said. "It surpasses Christmas."
The city's remaining record-store population now stands at just 69, according to market research firm Almighty Music Marketing. Joel Oberstein, the firm's president, estimated that there were more than 200 stores in 2003, a time when the city was "heavily saturated" and before a wave of store closures that began in 2006.
Many of the New York stores participating in Record Store Day are not survivors from the glory days of music retail but newish startups swimming against the digital stream. Permanent Records, a compact outpost in Greenpoint, launched seven years ago on Long Island and relocated in 2007 to be near Brooklyn's live-music nexus. Last year's event had avid collectors lined up outside before the store opened, something the clerks had never experienced before.
Marjorie Eisenberg, the store's owner, is blunt about her business prospects. "Am I ever going to be a millionaire? No," she admitted. "Can I support myself? Yes, thankfully. But it's a struggle."
Longer-established stores feel that same uncertainty. Josh Madell, co-owner of Other Music in Manhattan's East Village, has kept his tiny shop afloat since 1995 by selling an array of indie rock and avant garde artists. The store's location -- across the street from the giant and now-defunct Tower Records -- was once his greatest asset.
"Tower brought a lot of music shoppers to the neighborhood, and we were good neighbors for each other," he said. "We used to send people over there all the time for stuff we didn't carry, and they would also send people to our store for stuff they didn't have."
But the death of the local retail giants hasn't been all bad. When Virgin's Union Square store closed in 2009, it left college students in the area with few alternatives. "We definitely picked up some business," Madell said. "A lot of kids used to shop there and they now come to us."
One of the longest record-store survivors sits on the far eastern edge of Bayside, Queens. Anthony Cascella opened Breakdown Records 25 years ago, and he still plies his trade amid dusty racks of cheaply priced vinyl and CDs.
"When we first opened it was mainly vinyl, and then CDs came along and made vinyl virtually obsolete," he said. "But once downloading began people rediscovered vinyl because they felt more of a connection to it."
Record Store Day feeds into that sense of connection to tangible LPs and 45s, which Cascella likens to collecting "baseball cards or comic books."
But even as the one-day event has blossomed into a sales bonanza for these stores, it also highlights the challenges they face in retaining customers once it's over.
"We work hard to make it a fun experience for people, to have staff there who are knowledgeable, who love to talk about records, who are good at recommending things," Madell said. His business also keeps one foot on both side of the digital-vinyl divide, running a modest download operation through Other Music's website.
Eisenberg and Cascella have also turned to online strategies. "We did a Groupon at the very end of the year and it was extremely successful," Eisenberg said, "so we have a whole gang of other customers that we would never have had had we not done that."
Cascella's cluttered shop is also headquarters to a successful eBay store. "That's how we survive these days," he said.
But it's the real-world performance of stores this Saturday that will be of paramount interest to industry analysts. "If it keeps going and artists keep adopting and embracing it like they are now, I could see in two to three years in that one day we'll be creating upwards of $10 million of commerce," Kurtz said. "Which, in this environment, is huge."
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