High (and Dry) Fidelity

Local music retailers are facing tough times and coming up with new ways to combat slumping sales across the industry -- if they don't file for bankruptcy, that is

Relying on music fans with addictive personalities isn't the only way stores such as Euclid Records stave off extinction. Mail-order and online business has been a crucial part of Euclid Records for the past eight years, so much so that Schwab doesn't think that his store would still be around if it were not for buyers outside of St. Louis.

Similarly, Webster Records depends on online orders to stay out of the red. Sales associate Bill Wondracek estimates that a third of the business comes through the stores' Web site. Webster Records is another niche store, specializing in jazz, blues and classical but more in the Dave Brubeck/Louis Armstrong vein than, say, the Rahsaan Roland Kirk or Sun Ra variety. The store is, by nature, rather exclusive in its stock, so online sales have become a necessity.

Some niche shops, such as Ken Dussold's Revolve Records in the Loop, are fighting increasing rent, traffic problems and the gentrification of the neighborhood. Dealing mostly in dance music, Revolve has been in the Loop for the past ten years but benefits very little from the increased interest in the area. In the next few months, Dussold plans on leaving his current location and relocating to a larger, cheaper storefront at 4946 Southwest Avenue, in South St. Louis.

Euclid Records' Joe Schwab at the Vinyl Shack
Jennifer Silverberg
Euclid Records' Joe Schwab at the Vinyl Shack

But online orders and niche marketing don't change the fact that consumers are buying fewer CDs than a few years ago. Many industry insiders are quick to blame 9/11 for zapping consumer confidence across the board, though sales throughout most of 2001 were also pretty dismal. Explains Pick: "Basically, 9/11 is the line in the sand that you talk about, but that whole year 2001, sales had been going down and were starting to come back, and then 9/11 came, and that's when it totally crashed."

Pick also blames the Recording Industry Association of America for injuring sales by killing file-sharing program Napster, a system he calls "the single greatest exposure of music that happened in my lifetime, that seemed to point the way to an explosion of people buying CDs and prerecorded music."

Not everyone agrees that file-sharing was good for business, but all record stores are finding ways to increase their stock to bring in more clientele. Vintage Vinyl is expanding its DVD selection, carrying independent hard-to-find releases. Streetside Records has begun stocking more pop-culture detritus: bobbleheads, The Osbournes action figures and frightening little creatures called "Living Dead Dolls." It may seem like a last-ditch effort to bring in revenue, but independent stores have to be creative to make up for the loss in CD sales.

No matter how they do it, independent record stores are finding ways to stay afloat through tough times. Time will tell whether Streetside will be able to survive the bankruptcy of its parent company and hold on to the remaining stores. Perhaps Pick best sums up the hopes of St. Louis' record-buying public: "People don't need one record store, they need lots of record stores, because no one store can afford to stock everything. No one record store can give the experience for everybody."

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