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Celebrating Independent Record Stores Near You

By Jessica Forbes

This Saturday, April 20, two area record stores are participating in Record Store Day, an annual event becoming increasingly anticipated amongst music lovers and vinyl record enthusiasts.

Locally, Music Box and Revolver Records will open their doors to customers, many who will be shopping for the various limited and early releases exclusive to participating stores.

Founded in 2007, Record Store Day (RSD) is intended to draw people to locally owned, independent record stores. The event, which was created in the U.S., now has thousands of participating stores in multiple countries.

Conceived by a group of record storeowners and employees, the goal of RSD’s organizers is to bring stores, musicians and customers together in celebration of music.

Held annually on the third Saturday in April, the event is open only to stores that are not publicly traded, have 70 percent ownership remaining in the state in which they operate, and have an inventory that is at least 50 percent music retail.

Stores must register on the RSD website in order to be vetted as independent and eligible to participate.

In other words, big boxes are out, if only for one day.

The Enduring Independents
Since the 1970s, when shopping malls truly began sprouting up like weeds, independent record stores have faced competition from big box—so named for their size and shape—and corporate retailers.

Since the early 2000s, brick and mortar stores of all sizes have faced competition from the Internet, where digital downloads and sites like Amazon.com have changed not only the method by which people receive music, but has also opened up a world wide market which people can access from home in their pajamas.

Despite the competition, independent record stores have remained a part of musical culture, a culture that Record Store Day strives to promote.

“All in all, it’s a nice PR boost for mom and pop retailers and record stores,” said Eric Jones, owner and sole operator of Revolver Records.

Michael Bunnell, the Executive Director of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores and an organizer of RSD, said that from what he’s seen over the past several years, “It appears that to a degree the great romance with digital goods has at least flattened out, and more and more people are seeking out a real musical experience and a real social experience.”

Throughout changes in format preference, from record, to cassette, to CD, to MP3, “the independent music store is and has been there,” said Bunnell, who has owned and operated independent record stores for 36 years, and believes that independents “have always been where the real music fan gravitates to, and now more than ever provide a rich experience.”

“It’s a forum,” explained Jennifer McGaugh of Pensacola’s Music Box. “There’s an elongated conversation that takes place here that you don’t experience elsewhere.”

Co-owner Jim Vasser agreed, “It’s not just from us, it’s from customers shopping next to them, too.”

Sign o’ the Times
Both Music Box and Revolver Records have previously participated in RSD, including last November’s Black Friday event, the second in RSD history.

Vasser, who co-owns Music Box with partner McGaugh, has seen crowds and awareness grow between the store’s two previous RSD events. “It seems to be growing, kind of reflecting the national growth of vinyl as a whole,” he said, with the number of releases and shoppers “definitely reflecting those numbers, getting pretty big.”

The resurgence of vinyl occurred not quite simultaneously with the rise of MP3s and iTunes, but it wasn’t far behind.

After surviving the 1990s mainly on the back of DJs and electronic artists spinning and scratching records, U.S. vinyl sales jumped from around 1 million pieces in 2007 to 3.9 million in 2011, and sales continue to grow at an average of 20 percent each year.

“Like everything in the vinyl industry right now, [RSD] gets bigger every year not in just customer base, but in bands, labels participating, the number of releases being put out. It’s growing,” said Jones.

Though some may assume vinyl customers are only young hipsters scouting the latest indie releases or middle-aged rockers rebuilding collections they gave up in the 1980s and 1990s, Jones said the demographics of vinyl customers in his store throughout the year and on RSD are “all over the map: all ages, sexes, backgrounds. It’s not just college kids, or retirees looking for classic rock, or doctors looking for jazz reissues. It’s a nice, broad cross-section.”

That broad customer base is behind the continued growth in vinyl’s popularity. As demand has increased, labels are releasing more new releases and reissues of multiple genres on vinyl, further driving sales.

Eyes on the Prize
The primary aspect of RSD that pulls in vinyl enthusiasts is the selection of exclusive releases, which are first and sometimes only available on that Saturday.

“The special releases certainly get people here,” said Music Box’s Vasser. “Historically, RSD releases have been rare investments that will go up in value.”

The special releases are coveted for a reason. Many are limited pressings, typically with less than 3,000 copies produced. With over 700 stores in the U.S. and hundreds of others overseas vying for copies, the odds of receiving requested items and quantities are daunting.

Decisions as to what recordings to release are a collaborative effort according to RSD’s Bunnell. “For the most part the artists are very involved in the decision process, but managers and labels do play an important role in bringing these releases forward,” he said.

Though CDs are part of the RSD offerings, the majority of customers are after the vinyl releases. Most RSD exclusives are 12” and 7” records, often containing recordings either previously unreleased, or reissued on vinyl for the first time in decades. Picture discs, colored vinyl, and remixes are among the most sought after items.

On the upside for retailers, with many RSD releases being highly prized, typically the items don’t sit on the shelves for very long.

“For the most part I sell out pretty quickly, but there are some stragglers,” Revolver Records’ Jones said. “[I] try to get as much as I can, because it’s in demand, it sells. The fact that it’s a RSD release, it’s a guaranteed market.”

Luck of the Draw
This spring, there are over 400 RSD releases to choose from, on a list that came to 32 pages.

“It’s almost too much,” said a somewhat awestruck Vasser.

Music Box’s McGaugh believes it is important for customers to understand how RSD works for retailers. “It’s a lottery system,” she explained. “You never get what you don’t put in for, but you may not get what you order; it’s a hit and miss.”

Retailers will be on the hook to pay for what they receive, so depending on a store’s budget, overshooting could be a gamble as well, in case the stars align and they receive more inventory than expected.

As the number of items has increased each year, Bunnell, a storeowner himself, acknowledges the somewhat overwhelming number of items. “Honestly we hope that the number of releases does stabilize, it is becoming quite a financial burden on the stores to stock everything,” he said.

Jones, who requested approximately 120 titles, said, “I get maybe a quarter or less of what I ask for. Even knowing that there’s a good chance I might not get that Grateful Dead reissue, or Syd Barrett picture disc, I’ll try.”

Likewise, Vasser, who is trying for 70 plus titles this year said, “There is no strategizing other than trying to get the most amount of stuff that the most amount of people will find interesting and fun.”

RSD organizers release the list of exclusives on their website well ahead of time, and have even developed list apps for iPhone and Android.

While pre-selling is strictly forbidden and any such promises misleading since there is no guarantee a store will receive anything they request, customers can talk to stores about requesting items they are personally interested in ahead of time, but shouldn’t wait long to do so as stores are on strict deadlines to have RSD orders placed weeks in advance.

No Muss, No Fuss in Pensacola
While larger stores throughout the country celebrate RSD with street parties, in-store performances, cookouts, and a variety of other festivities, Pensacola’s shops plan to keep the day more low-key.

“I’ve had stand-up comedians, local bands, big touring bands,” said Jones of past events, but he now believes, “It’s all about the vinyl; what people want are the records. I don’t have plans for anything special, besides working as hard as I can to get as much RSD product in as possible.”

Music Box will continue their tradition of holding a raffle for gift certificates and merchandise, but will otherwise keep the day focused on the music, and getting to know customers, new and old alike.

”We get new customers that get to see our store that probably wouldn’t have if RSD weren’t the reason for their trip, because they do come from a long distance away,” said Vasser, who has met RSD customers traveling from Mobile, New Orleans, Defuniak Springs, and even Denver.

McGaugh agrees, acknowledging, ”I think RSD puts us on the map for people who do not know we exist.  RSD has secured some of our best and most loyal customers who didn’t know they had this option.”

Both participating local stores report RSD events as among their busiest and most lucrative days each year.

“We didn’t see too many people leave with just a Record Store Day item,” recalled Vasser who said November’s Black Friday RSD brought “exponential sales that we weren’t expecting. It was the best day we ever had, except for opening day two years ago.”

Jones too has found RSD to be “a boon to business, comparable to the Christmas season if not greater, considering it’s one single day.”

Most customers are music fans and are there to shop beyond the RSD releases. “It definitely gets people in the record store, buying all kinds of product, not just the exclusive RSD releases,” he said.

As with Music Box, Jones said the RSD crowd at Revolver is typically from near and far, containing “a lot of faces I might see only once or twice a year. People will drive in from out of town, New Orleans or Birmingham or Tallahassee, or maybe a smaller town where there isn’t a Record Store Day.”

In a nutshell, RSD is having the intended effect for Pensacola’s locally owned record stores.

The State of the Independents and the Future of RSD
Based on his work with the Coalition of Independent Music Stores and RSD, Bunnell reported, “We honestly have seen the independent store sector become healthier over the last couple of years.”

“We weren’t always in the spotlight and suffered some negative press from people who thought digital was the ultimate experience,” Bunnell said, adding that now, “seeing the independent stores get a lot of attention is a real rush.”

RSD has become important to stores internationally. The success of Black Friday events is added encouragement to RSD organizers, who have already begun planning for this November’s releases. “We’re very happy that this event has become so popular without detracting from the enormous success of Record Store Day,” Bunnell said.

There is a lot of star power behind RSD, as numerous artists are vocal about their support of independent record stores, and the role they played in their own lives.

Jack White of the White Stripes, who owns not only his own record store, but also his own record label, is the Official Ambassador of RSD. Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Billy Bragg, Paul McCartney, Calexico and a host of others contribute quotes and video clips to the RSD website, which increases attention to the event and the role of independent stores.

“We’re lucky in that Pensacola has a number of good record stores,” said Jones who is “kind of surprised sometimes that my store is doing as well as it is, because of the customer base, not being a big city.”

Vasser also has reason to be optimistic about the future of local record stores and retailers across the board in Pensacola, as he sees “a very, very good allegiance to locally owned businesses.” This allegiance is due in no small part, Vasser believes, to the, “really high level of arts and music in this town,” and the fact that “a local business specializes in what local people want.”

Despite its support of independents, Vasser has seen, “Pensacola is the perfect sized town for failing for local businesses. We’re so small we have got to depend on each other, and if we don’t have each other, we close.”

Enter:  customers willing to shop local.

Independent Record Stores and You
The independent record store holds a special place in the hearts of music fans and indeed, many communities.

Independent retailers have the autonomy to set their own policies, unlike corporate retail outlets, and Mom-and-Pops are usually where customers can find better service, and even better deals.

“Obviously, you’ve got the chains, big box retailers:  those are a fact of life,” said Jones “[But] just because you’re small doesn’t mean you can’t be competitive.”

As independent retailers own their own merchandise, they can cut deals with customers or even gift items, which each owner did during the course of their interviews for this story.

Independents are also able to develop more unique inventories, unlike corporate stores. “Big boxes don’t carry things that are 15 or 20 years old,” Vasser pointed out. But instead, “take the top 20 of every genre and sell it at a loss so you have to walk by their TVs and their diapers, the things they make a profit on.”

Keeping the music alive and circulating, Music Box and Revolver both buy and trade collections, which adds to the breadth of their inventories. “We’re in the business of recycling,” said McGaugh of independents. “Our inventory is as old or new, special and unique as somebody’s collection—there are stories, life there.”

“You can’t take your music collection to Wal-Mart when you need to pay your water bill,” said Vasser, pointing out another way by which independents participate in their communities:  supporting customers who support them.

For McGaugh, inherent in Record Store Day is an enhanced opportunity for her favorite intangible perk of owning a store. “When someone walks in and they want something and you’re able to provide that to them, that’s the joy,” she said.

To share the joy, shop local year round and get to know your local storeowners.  Those relationships will help if you are hoping to land special releases or certain items throughout the year, as the owners can tailor what they order. You will likely learn a few things and meet some interesting folks in the process.

For a complete list of RSD releases, visit recordstoreday.com

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Know Your Store: Music Box

Location: 3960 W. Navy Blvd.
Hours of Operation: Monday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Opening at 10 a.m. this Saturday for RSD)
Who’s Behind the Counter: Jim Vasser and Jennifer McGaugh

What’s For Sale: Vinyl, CDs, DVDs, Cassettes, Vintage Stereo Equipment, Box Sets, Memorabilia

Background: Music Box celebrated its 26th anniversary in December 2012. Owner-operators Vasser and McGaugh purchased the store, which was originally located at the corner of E and Main streets, in January 2008. In January 2011, they relocated the Music Box to West Navy Boulevard after purchasing Tom’s Records, CDs, and Tapes, another multi-decades old music store.

RSD Releases They’re Most Crossing Fingers For: Grateful Dead, “Rare Cuts & Oddities 1966” 2x 12” LP; White Stripes, “Elephant (10th Anniversary)” 2x 12” LP; The Notorious B.I.G., “Ready to Die” 2x 12” LP (white vinyl); Shuggie Otis, “Introducing Shuggie Otis” 12” LP; RSD T-shirts

Fun Fact: Occasionally a Poodle named Sterling, a.k.a. “Shopdog” and/or “Dude” roams the store.

Know Your Store: Revolver Records

Location: 9 E. Gregory St.
Hours of Operation: Monday-Saturday, 12 p.m.-6:30 p.m. (Opening at 11 a.m. this Saturday for RSD)
Who’s Behind the Counter: Eric Jones

What’s For Sale: Vinyl, CDs, Cassettes, Box Sets, Books, Concert Tickets

Background:  Revolver Records opened downtown in late 2010. Revolver is the second store for Eric Jones, who previously owned and operated East Hill CD from 1996 through 2007. Between owning his own record stores and working at other independent shops prior to that, Jones has worked in locally owned businesses in Pensacola for over 25 years.

RSD Releases They’re Most Crossing Fingers For: Fitz & the Tantrums, “Out of My League” 10” Single (Clear vinyl); Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, “Album” 12” (yellow vinyl), Surfer Blood, “Demon Dance” 7” single (tri-colored vinyl); Pink Floyd, “See Emily Play b/w Scarecrow” 7” single; Tegan and Sara, “Closer” Remixed 12” LP

Fun Fact: As a one-man shop, Jones jokes: “the boss is always in.”

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RSD Related Stories:
Vinyl Rising
Digging for Gold
Staff Wish Lists
Put The Needle On The Record

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