Only the strong will survive and certain indie retailers are very strong right now. If a store owner is sitting behind the counter, waiting for that front door to open and the customers to line up, they might as well give up now because they aren't looking out the back door.


Criminal Records/A.I.M.S’ Eric Levin Responds to N.Y. Times Story on the Graying of Record Store Customers
Eric Levin, 36, is owner of Criminal Records, a three-store chain in Atlanta, and chief of A.I.M.S. (Alliance of Indpendent Media Stores), representing 30 outlets nationally

This past week has been fun. The phone started ringing early Sunday morning with messages of congratulations about being quoted in the New York Times. VanCleave was the first to call; he must get up very early. To see the original story, click here.

It's very gratifying to know that so many people still read the New York Times. I thought, like the record store, print newspapers were supposed to be dead.

Every time a reporter calls, it's always with bad news, as every article is inevitably about the impending death of the record store, and invariably, the first line always mentions High Fidelity.

(A personal pet peeve that I've mentioned before, High Fidelity is the lazy journalist's touchstone, Empire Records is the most-realistic record store movie, and my own store was inspired by Iona's store Trax in Pretty in Pink. I just love the part where Blaine asks Andy if the Steve Lawrence record is any good, and she says, "It's hot, white hot." But I digress.)

Alex Williams' conceit in the first article wasn't entirely off the mark; certainly our younger customers have new distractions and new ways of discovering the joys of music. Oldsters had to discover their passions on their own, mid-sters hopefully had hip older brothers and sisters to teach them, and the youngest generation has the Internet. I think it's all good, as long as fans are being made and as long as music and culture is important, not disposable.

My first job at 13 was working at the local mom-and-pop record shop, and as I look around Criminal Records right now, we're neck deep in young 'uns. My right-hand man Lillian's little sister, Carol, has been working here all summer, and she's 15. Another summer intern, Ivan, just finished his tenure and asked when he can officially join the team before he returns to high school in the fall. I've been waiting for my first manager Michael's little girl to grow up enough to work the register, she's 12 and already taller than I am, so I think she'll be ready by Christmas. Lillian herself started working for me when she was in junior high and is still working the counter next to me. Hendrika, another one of our teens from way back, just recently rejoined our team.

The one thing that's been consistent since I was a kid was that I was an anomaly, an outcast for being so invested in music and pop culture. It's not like I had a lot of friends my own age visiting me at the old record store; in fact, I was labeled a major geek for having a job and not, I don't know, footballing or something.

Years ago, when downloading first reared its head, and the drumming of the death knell started, I read an article where a class of fifth graders was surveyed about their music purchasing habits. The shocking revelation of the article was that fifth graders don't buy a lot of music. Duh, they never have.

It brings to mind the recent hullabaloo about Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, where it turns out we're all going to sell less of more in the future. It seems to me that I've been experiencing the Long Tail for the entirety of my career. Blockbusters have never had a huge impact on indie retail, and we've always concentrated on depth of selection for a distinct and specialized clientele. In addition, the end result of an Internet-enabled consumer is a well-educated, sophisticated and demanding customer, which is exactly what we indie store owners want.

Eric Howarth from A.I.M.S. member M-Theory Records lead a discussion this week on the AIMS list-serv after we all ingested the NYT article, referencing this interesting article found on the Intel site. Eric used to work for Andrew S. Grove, the author of the "strategic inflection point" theory and whose book on the subject, Only the Paranoid Survive, will be released shortly. The concept fits very well for our businesses.

Andrew explains that "a strategic inflection point is a time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change. That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end."

I'm not just a relentless cheerleader, taking any opportunity when a microphone is placed before me to spin a negative story in a positive direction. I truly believe that indie retail is, to use one of Malcolm Gladwell's buzz-words, at a tipping point. (Perhaps it's a "strategic inflection tipping point" to coin another useless phrase that means what we already know. Maybe I should write a book.)

Only the strong will survive and certain indie retailers are very strong right now. If a store owner is sitting behind the counter, waiting for that front door to open and the customers to line up, they might as well give up now because they aren't looking out the back door.

The back door is not an exit. The back door leads to many opportunities, and that's where the healthy stores are looking. My back door leads to the coffee shops that I purchased this year, but other stores' back doors lead to online sales via Amazon, Django's, eBay and their own websites with the prospect of joining the online digital revolution using their brand names as a portal for their own communities. Some doors have lead to record labels and venues and art galleries and promoting shows, some have even used the back door to enter politics.

And, of course, for others it will lead to new and amazing ideas not yet explored.

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VanCleave on N.Y. Times story:

I was flying back from Portland this past Sunday morning. I had to catch the 5 a.m. shuttle to the airport. Lucky for me, the no-tell motel I was staying in had hot coffee and a free New York Times waiting to start my journey.

I flipped thru the sections and the blaring headline made my stomach instantly convulse. Right there in the fluffy STYLE section it read "The Graying of the Record Store." The typeset was as big as "Pearl Harbor Bombed."

The article details how hard the owner of Norman's Sound and Vision on Cooper Square in Manhattan was having staying open. "I used to make more in a day than I probably make in a week now," quoting the owner. The next paragraph called him the rock and roll version of the "Maytag repairman".

Norman Isaacs, the owner, went on to admit that "diversification" is not an option for him because of space. Now, I am sure Mr. Norman is a good dude and a great music fan. And I am not here to kick a man when he is down. But come on. I am hear to kick one Alex Williams, the writer of the story for taking the easy way out and being just downright lazy about his investigation. Eric Levin from AIMS/Criminal, got a few good punches in, but his big points were dwarfed by the fate of this little store. I am not honoring Alex by giving you a link to the story because he does not deserve it and you most likely already read it.

Earlier last week I started getting emails from some of you who fly Southwest. There is an article in this month's Spirit magazine called "HiFi Nation" that BEAUTIFULLY describes what is happening in the nation's best indie record stores. The tagline reads "Big music retailers may be suffering from the download blues, but the nation's indie record stores continue to totally rock." Unfortunately, this article does not live anywhere on the Internet and I have not gotten Southwest's permission to send out a PDF. Hopefully I can send it to you later this week.

This article, written by Joe Nick Patoski, goes into great detail about what indie stores are doing to not only stay alive, but thrive. The photography, mostly at Good Records in Dallas, is amazing. Tons of kids living in these record stores. Being very proactive about in store events, frequent buyer programs, aggressive lifestyle buying, smart DVD sections, and even more in-store events are the key. Twist and Shout is building a massive beautiful store in Denver from the ground up. EarX-tacy had the best year in their history last year. Park Avenue doubled his store size and wired it out so that Full Sail Recording Academy could plug into the building and record in-stores as class projects. We put those in stores out nationwide.

You should take the time to check out these two articles about Plan 9 in Richmond, VA, and their in-store event with the Drive By Truckers last week that raised $8000 for a local charity. That is exactly what I am talking about when I say that aggressive retailers are not giving up. See the articles here and here.

The NYT article ended with a sad picture of Mr. Isaacs waiting for the ceiling to fall down on his empty store. Less than 40 miles east, Karl Groeger, Jr. and his Looney Tunes staff are on fire. Less than 40 miles west, Rob Roth and his Vintage Vinyl staff are rockin' it. I can assure you that neither of these stores are waiting on the ceiling to cave in. I hope someone will forward this to Alex Williams of the New York Times. Maybe he will get off his ass next time and talk to some people who are trying. Quit going for the easy story Alex. You are supposed to be a journalist for God's sake. No Pulizer for you pal.