"People want something tangible, something they can hold, something of substance. This is one of vinyl's greatest strengths."
And for today’s interview, we’re turning the focus from the artist to the places that spin, share and host their music: record stores. With vinyl record sales increasing for the eleventh consecutive year in 2016, and growing to a $1 billion industry, local record stores continue to act as hubs for music community and discussion.
But how does a local band get their new music stocked on shelves alongside best-sellers like Thriller and Rumours? And why do record stores matter when streaming is still the flavor of the day? We spoke with some of West Virginia's favorite record stores (including Charleston's Sullivan’s Records, Princeton’s Cheap Thrills and Shepherdstown’s Admiral Analog’s Audio Assortment) to tell us what’s up with vinyl and why record stores are an asset to the West Virginia music scene.
How do locally-owned record stores get started?
“This was a dream of mine since I was around 14 years old,” says Andrew Barton, owner of Admiral Analog’s Audio Assortment. “I found myself in a place in my life where I was 35 and it really seemed like “do or die” time. I had never been happy with my work/different jobs, I had a little money saved, and every possible little detail and circumstance fell exactly into line in exactly the right way in early 2014. I knew I had to have a go of it and at least try to make my dream a reality.
“I went to college near Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1990’s, and there was a store there called Repo Records that sold new and used CDs,” says Wyatt Lilly, owner of Cheap Thrills in Princeton. “At the time, the idea of new and used inventory was new, and I thought that a store like that would do well in West Virginia and would be relatively inexpensive to start.
For Sam Lowe of Sullivan’s Records, opening a record store of his own was a leap forward from his college job, record store manager. “I loved it so much that I could see any reason to quit after I graduated. Eventually I decided to stick with it permanently and open my own store. I thought that Charleston would be a great fit for a vinyl-centered store, and the East End was the perfect place to call home.”
What's so special about a local record store compared to a major retailer?
Lowe argues that the differences between a local store and a major retailer are in personal relationships that form with customers. “When customers start coming in regularly I tend to get to know them pretty well. I’m on a first-name basis with many of my customers and am always on the lookout for certain pieces for different people. Another major benefit that indies offer is that you can pretty much count on finding people there who are just as passionate about music as you are.”
Barton agrees and adds that as far as record stores go, independent shops are all that is out there. “That there really aren't any major retailer record stores. There are a few corporate chain stores that have a small record section, but if you want a store of purely records/CDs/tapes/music, this is the current reality. Indie-only. And I think that's great. I'm very proud that independent business has cornered this market. So, record stores, true record stores, are unique and important and special just in and of themselves. Each one is an independently-crafted labor of love. Each indie record store is a one-of-a-kind experience, tailored by the proprietor,” Barton says.
Barton also argues that while digital downloads are convenient, they’re also of little value. “They're often the worst-sounding format of music currently available,” Barton says, “People want something tangible, something they can hold, something of substance. This is one of vinyl's greatest strengths. But really, even the look of a CD or a cassette beats out downloads in that department. Obviously, downloads are devoid of aesthetics. I'm not the only person that feels this way; I've built a business out of this outlook. And it's not an exclusively grouchy, old-and-in-the-way outlook either. I get plenty of customers half my age or younger who would agree with the above. Now I feel like I should find something positive to say about them. How about this: they are the most convenient format. I own an iPod.”
Lowe adds, “As much as we all love our vinyl, the one thing it certainly isn’t is portable. That’s why downloads are almost always included with new vinyl releases at this point, so that when you pick up a new album you can have the best of both worlds. So to that extent, I think that they’re great, and I’d hate to do without them. But if it is the only way that you’re listening to music, you are seriously missing out on the bigger picture.”
What's a typical record store fan? And has that changed in recent years given vinyl's resurgence in popularity?
A common thread amongst Admiral Analog’s, Cheap Thrills, and Sullivan’s is the diverse customer base. “There are a lot more people interested in vinyl than there were a few years ago,” says Lilly. “And we have noticed that these customers really cherish the music and listen harder than the average customer. They are really into it.”
“The public has always harbored a deep love for records,” says Barton. “I hear about it over and over. It's been on a massive upswing over the past 10 years; every year results in a significant increase in manufacturing and sales. I'd say my customer base starts around 14 years of age and goes up to people in their 60’s. There's no “typical” customer. I feel busier here with every year that passes, so I'd say there's definitely been increases across the board.”
Lowe adds to the topic, “I’d say that the majority of my customers are definitely young people who did not grow up going to record stores, and it is unquestionably the vinyl that is bringing them in. Ten years ago, we never would have seen this coming, but we certainly do welcome it. For many of these younger people coming in, they’ve only recently been introduced to music on physical media, and it’s a real pleasure see how excited they are to explore it for the first time.”
As for what records get stocked in the stores, the consensus is simple: listen to your customers. “I mean really listen and pay attention,” says Barton. “If I don't have something someone is looking for, I'll track it down, I'll offer to order it in (quickly), and I'll make follow up phone calls/emails/texts. Basically, I'll do what's needed to make the sale. I take pride in being able to find something that someone has been looking for a long time, and I'd like to think I've built somewhat of a reputation on being successful at that. So, yes, people will ask for what they want to see, and I then order it in. But that only applies to new records and new releases. As far as my used inventory goes, I have less say in that. Used inventory depends more on what people bring in to me to sell.”
Every record store has at least a few titles they can’t keep on the shelve. For Sullivan’s, it’s Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. For Admiral Analog’s, it’s a title like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And for Cheap Thrills, “bands like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Nirvana are still drawing folks… even decades after they break up.”
What advice do you have for someone who wants to open a record store? Or even a local act who wants their music in the store?
Lilly does have some words for someone interested in running their own record store. “It will be harder than you think, but it will probably be worth it. Remember that it is a business, not a charity or just a hangout. Oh, and Princeton and Beckley already have a nice record store, so don’t open one there!”
Lowe adds, “Concentrate on what is going to make your store unique. No two indie stores are the same, and that is part of the joy people get from shopping at them. I’d recommend looking at other stores in your area and figuring out if there is a niche missing that you could fill.”
But don’t let this discourage you. “[West Virginia]'s a great state to do it in! There's currently only 10 stores in the entire state that are registered on Recordstoreday.com. Among states, West Virginia is an underdog, and I always favor the underdogs.”
And if you’re a local act wanting to sell your records alongside Thriller and Rumours, just know each of these record stores are here to help. “We’re always happy to put local music in the store on consignment. Artists usually just show up with a small box of albums, and we get them in the store right then. I personally consider it to be the local record store’s duty to stock local music,” says Lowe.
Lilly agreed but added, “But honestly, local music only sells if the group performs locally so that folks can see them and will build a following.”
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