Faced with competition, record shops look for fresh ways to rock

Keywords Real Estate / Retailers

These are the times that try a record-store owner's soul. CD sales are falling–down 8 percent in 2005 compared with the previous year–while digital downloading of music jumped 163 percent during the same period.

And nearly one-third of the nation's record stores have closed in the past three years, felled by competition from big-box stores, online retailers and illegal file sharing, among other factors.

Even so, Indianapolis record-store owners say they've been reasonably successful adapting to a changing marketplace. They're stressing customer service, appealing to niche music audiences, concentrating on specialty products like vinyl records, and even holding in-store concerts.

Todd Robinson opened his third Luna Music store this year, at 52nd Street and College Avenue, and is headed for his most successful year yet.

"Our biggest seller has always been customer service," Robinson says. "I don't think there'll ever be a time where somebody doesn't want great customer service or human interaction."

His customers know if they want a particular CD immediately, he'll get it for them. He orders new product daily, and, "I'm going to have it before Amazon and you're not going to pay shipping charges and you're not going to pay a different price."

Luna opened in 1994 on West 86th Street, and Robinson added a second store on Massachusetts Avenue five years ago.

"I'm not going to make a million dollars doing this," he said, "but I love get ting up every morning and coming into the shop and turning people on to new music."

Occasionally, young acts coming through town perform at Luna–Mojave Three and My Brightest Diamond each played at the College Avenue store in October–attracting fans and prospective customers. Indy CD and Vinyl, which opened three years ago at 806 Broad Ripple Ave., also opens its doors to up-and-coming groups.

A little more love

Indy CD Assistant Manager Kyle Hodges, who used to own the Karma Records store in Greenwood but closed it a year and a half ago after seeing sales fall 50 percent in four years, said independent stores do best when they devote 75 percent of their business to niche audiences and 25 percent to perennial sellers. Indy CD and Vinyl does a lot of business in bluegrass, reggae and jazz, he said.

Independent stores also "are getting a little bit more love" these days from some CD distributors, record labels and even bands, he said, as they recognize that shops run by music fans can generate buzz for artists they support.

The rock group Pearl Jam just released a seven-song CD called "Live at Easy Street" on behalf of "Think Indie," a consortium of independent record retailers "determined to bring true music lovers back to the stores that make a difference."

Ironically, the disc also is available online.

"I don't see retail stores going down anytime soon," Hodges said. "They're thinned out enough, and the ones that are surviving are the ones actually doing something different."

Alan Berry isn't so sure that will always be enough. Berry has owned record stores in Indianapolis for more than 15 years, and his latest, Naptown Music, 4240 N. Franklin Road, has experienced "nothing but growth" since it opened 2-1/2 years ago.

"If you find the right niche," said Berry, whose store specializes in hip-hop, "you can still make money selling music."

That said, Berry is pessimistic about the future. Within 10 years, he thinks, everyone will get their music the way many do now–via computer.

"I definitely believe it's a horse-and-buggy business," he said. "You'll see more music retailers going out of business and you'll see Best Buy and places like that taking their floor space and putting other products there. With downloading, you don't need a CD to listen to music."

Survival of the fittest

Keith Reinart takes a somewhat longer view.

His World Record Shoppe, 5218 Keystone Court, has been in business 26 years. He said independent-store owners need to understand business cycles and not fear downturns. They shouldn't try to compete with prices at big-box stores–"You can't compete with people who can have endless debt," he said–nor can they gear their business entirely to niche audiences.

Reinart always has tried to appeal to music enthusiasts who enjoy shopping. But the secret to his store's longevity has been what he calls "normal business practice"–good selection, consistency, variety–"anything that makes any business successful."

Other independent stores in Indianapolis, including Vibes in Castleton and Missing Link in Broad Ripple, also are making do. But the city has seen its share of record shops close-from national chains such as Sam Goody to local stores like Tracks and several Karma locations.

Other Peoples Music used to be a store at 7004 N. Keystone Ave.; now, it's run from the owner's home and online.

Same with Evolving Records in Beech Grove. The 5-year-old store, which sold only vinyl records and catered to club deejays looking for electronic and dance music, now operates out of owner Seth Nichols' basement.

"The store was only getting by; it wasn't really gaining," Nichols said. "Without the overhead, it has more chance to grow."

But the most notable store to close recently was Rockin Billy's. The evening of Oct. 23, or maybe the morning of Oct. 24, someone threw a brick through the store window, loaded up more than $30,000 worth of DVDs, CDs, vinyl albums and used CDs, and took off.

"It's something you don't recover from," said owner Mike Verloop, who shut down the shop at 4435 N. Keystone Ave. after 21 years. "It was a good run and we enjoyed it, but it sours you on wanting to continue."

Rockin Billy's specialized in hip-hop and urban music. But business was declining. Verloop said Rockin Billy's had been losing 10 percent a year since the late 1990s due to changing tastes and technologies.

That's what's happening everywhere, said Joel Oberstein, president of Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a Southern California-based market-research firm. For the 2,700 record stores remaining nationwide, it's survival-of-the-fittest time, he said. But he thinks there will be survivors.

"I sort of look at them like the plight of vinyl," Oberstein said. "Obviously, it went through a dark period–after CDs, nobody cared about it anymore. Then the underground latched on and slowly discovered vinyl. I really see some indie stores becoming uber-hip again–a social hotbed, a place to hang out and talk with other people about music."

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