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The Independent Record Store in the Heart of Washington D.C.
The Independent Record Store and the Resurgence of Vinyl
The traditional music industry and major record labels have been overshadowed by online access to music (through both legal and illegal means) according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). CD sales have plummeted putting major CD retailers and franchises out of business, but Adams Morgan in Washington D.C. is swimming against the tide with the resilience of its independent music stores.
The changing scene in music required that owners of ‘mom & pop’ record stores also change their strategies for attracting customers, and this seems to be the recipe behind their survival. But innovation does not necessarily mean adopting new technologies and in the case of these stores it means reinventing older traditions.
An RIAA report states that in 1991 there were 9,500 chain music stores and that number had been cut down to 2,000 by last year. By 2005 the number of albums downloaded had gone up almost 200% resulting in the downfall of the CD. HMV closed down its last store in 2004, citing major losses, but Adams Morgan has seen the opening of two new ones in the past year.
On 18th Street lies Red Onion Records and Books and up the block is Smash Records and Crooked Beat Records just one door down. Smash Records just moved to Adams Morgan in April of 2007, prior to the shift Smash had been in Georgetown since 1984.
Red Onion Records and Books, which just celebrated its first anniversary is the youngest of the three record stores. Owner of Red Onion, Josh Harkavy, opened his store when all the big music stores were closing down in DC but wasn’t deterred by the trend. “I just figured they could not adapt with the changing scene in music,” says Harkavy whose record store is no bigger than the average studio apartment.
The stores have found stability and a sense of security by targeting a niche market. Crooked Beat Records has been in this location since 2004, but was in Raleigh, NC., for eight years. Owner Bill Daly is a veteran in the industry and has been a musician, DJ, and worked in numerous record stores and now finally owns his own store.
Daly prides himself on never giving into the “music coalition” that would rent out wall space in big franchise music stores, and is one of the reasons why music lovers continue to come to his store. The store’s walls, like the walls in the two other stores, are plastered with vintage posters and album covers and mostly bands that will not be getting airtime on MTV or the radio waves anytime soon.
His store caters to indie rock, punk rock and some classic rock aficionados but the streamlining has not lost him customers. “I get people who are seriously into music who don’t find it on the radio or on TV, more like people who found out about a band at The Black Cat,” says Daly.
Crooked Beat also sells t-shirts to “diversify” the stores appeal, but the bulk of sales come from vinyl LPs. In fact, all three stores get the bulk of their sales from LPs and although all three stores are catering to a specific market, their bread and butter come from a resurgence in the demand for vinyl.
Both Smash and Crooked Beat cater to punk rock but Smash goes deeper into punk rock clothing and memorabilia whereas Crooked beat has a wider array of classic and contemporary indie and alternative rock. Matt Moffat of Smash Records cannot single out the sole reason why, but says, “I see different kinds of people coming in now to buy LPs, we had to find a way to pick up the slack [that the slump in CD sales left behind] and vinyl and clothing has picked that up for us.”
All three owners believe that the physical element that owning vinyl brings with it is responsible for a portion of its resurgence. “People want bigger artwork,” says Daly, “they want something they can put up on their wall.” All three believe that vinyl sounds better and has a fuller sound. “You can come and flip through records and something will catch your eye more than it will on a computer screen,” says Daly.
Harkavy of Red Onion echoes this and says that it is also the reason why the bigger record stores didn’t succeed. “People can come and flip through for a half hour and find what they want in a smaller space,” says Harkavy, “people get lost in the bigger stores.”
Red Onion’s strategy incorporates books with music and is furnished with two cushy chairs for those who want to enjoy the old vinyl LPs playing as they read one of the books on offer at Red Onion. “Books and music go together…someone can come in and not even care about the music and read on the chair while their friend flips through records,” says Harkavy.
Bill Daly says that the online music revolution, when it got started with Napster, actually helped his record sales. “People would download one or two songs and then come into my store to buy the whole album,” says Daly. Moffat also says, “online avenues have helped kids find music they like.” That trend has also led people to invest in a vinyl LP of something they really like, but Daly says he’s not under the illusion that, “vinyl will once again set the world on fire.”
The demand for vinyl has gone up for the time being, but the stores will have to keep reinventing themselves to survive but Moffat sees it as a possible recurring trend. He alludes to the time when CD’s were rising and people were getting rid of old records and cassette tapes, and says it could be the same with CDs. He hints that people are selling their CDs for less and then the stores can buy them cheaper than ever and mark them up enough to break even or make a profit, and then people will be willing to buy those CDs at cheaper prices.
The three stores have catered to certain markets and have stayed afloat and at times made a profit. They are by no means the most successful businesses in town, but have managed to do well in trying times. Smash and Crooked beat cater to the indie, alternative and punk rock niche while Red Onion has a mix of folk, classic rock and also alternative and indie rock. One can find hip hop and other types of music in a limited amount in all stores but the loyalty of their niche market is what drives business.
All three owners keep music that they personally have an interest in and therefore they know what customers with similar taste will be looking for, be it rare or popular within its genre.
The three record stores situated in such close proximity hasn’t made a tangible negative impact on their businesses and all three owners see it as a collusion of sorts. Daly says, “certain streets are packed with bars and restaurants and you may not get what you want at one, but the next one might have it.” He says that although his neighbor Smash records also deals in punk, his record store may have something the other doesn’t and vice-a-versa. Moffat explains that, “common products may have taken a hit, but there are more benefits then disadvantages in the competition.” The three owners feel that they are all in this together and the competition is healthy.
Although vinyl is cheap, with quality artwork and sound, not everyone owns a turntable or even knows what one looks like. Daly sells turntables for just under $200 and the turntables come with a USB cable to hook up to your computer and with software that can even take out the “crackles and pops” out of the LP. He says, “when vinyl LPs start coming with free music download offers it will increase vinyl sales and that will be big for us.” He never thought two years ago that today he would be selling turntables and at the time would have thought the idea to be ridiculous.
The three record stores pride themselves on their taste in music and their trust in serious music fans, who share a similar taste in music. They haven’t “sold out” and do not get involved in promotions, advertising or renting out wall space to record companies. Daly understands the need for stores to sell out, but wouldn’t do it himself. They feel that the love for music will keep people off their computers and in the record stores, with the added advantage of the record store being a social environment.
The sub-culture of punk and indie rock has also contributed to the loyalty of the fans according to both Moffat and Daly. There is an indirect link between the nature of punk rock being, “for the people and by the people,” and fans buying the music of punk rock bands who have always had cheap shows. Whereas the big selling artists have expensive shows and CDs and as a result their fans may download the music as opposed to keeping loyal to those high-profile artists.
Red Onion’s owner plans to expand into a larger space within the next three years and says that, “there is probably more stuff in the back room then there is out in the store. They say most businesses don’t see a profit until their second or third year but I have been doing something right.” Both Moffat and Daly believe that there stores have legs for some years to come but adapting and innovating to their target markets is the key to success, rather than targeting the larger trends in the music industry.
“Buying a record is like capturing a snapshot in time,” says Daly. The shelf life of vinyl and the bands that are available in vinyl is longer than the single-driven albums of today according to Daly.
The independent record stores of Adams Morgan can relish in the resurgence of vinyl and their patrons’ musical inclinations but their optimism remains cautious. All three owners cannot say with confidence what curveball the industry is going to throw at them next, but they are optimistic that their musical instincts will adapt to the changes and contribute to the survival of the independent record store.
Published in the American Observer