Last Year's Model

It might be the last dance for St. Louis' independent record stores.

Last year downloaded tracks from online retailers reached 332.7 million, compared with 134.2 million in 2004 — an increase of 148 percent. Those who weren't downloading were ripping perfectly reproduced copies of their friends' CDs.

"Nobody wants to spend $17 for a record when the record may suck," says Vintage Vinyl clerk Joe Steinman. "They can download their favorite song from the album for nothing. The whole industry used to be geared toward selling albums. Now it's geared towards songs."

Still, says Vintage Vinyl manager Matt Harnish, record stores have always been a musical hub. Youngsters looking to learn about a city's scene, or tourists looking for the rock action, always had a point of entry. "When you go to a new city, the first thing you do is go to the cool record stores," says Harnish. "Where are you going to go when there aren't any more record stores? To a Web site? That's not much fun."

Joe Schwab, owner of Euclid Records, says the early 1990s were the peak of indie stores: "Everyone was replacing their LP collections and buying their CDs twenty at a time."
Jennifer Silverberg
Joe Schwab, owner of Euclid Records, says the early 1990s were the peak of indie stores: "Everyone was replacing their LP collections and buying their CDs twenty at a time."
Euclid Records manager Darren Snow thinks it's futile for small independent stores to offer downloads: "I don't know why somebody would bother going to euclidrecords.com if they could go to 


iTunes.com."
Jennifer Silverberg
Euclid Records manager Darren Snow thinks it's futile for small independent stores to offer downloads: "I don't know why somebody would bother going to euclidrecords.com if they could go to

iTunes.com."

What's more, explains Tom Ray, Web portals and the MP3 revolution have flooded the market. "The ultimate result of the Internet and the digital paradigm is to cheapen music and make music lose its value."

"I think it's cheapened the artifact," clarifies Prince.

Adds Ray, more adamantly: "It's cheapened the music."


Over in Webster Groves, Joe Schwab is sitting in his office at Euclid Records, running through his recent eBay auctions. Duke Ellington is playing on the stereo — not surprising, considering that Schwab knows as much about collectable jazz vinyl as anyone in the nation, and he's harnessed that knowledge to build a small empire.

Schwab was one of Vintage Vinyl's first employees, and he helped run a second record store Prince and Ray owned in the Central West End in 1982. A year later, Schwab bought them out. Over the next twenty years, as Vintage Vinyl expanded from 600 square feet to 6,000, Euclid Records remained a small specialty store on Laclede Avenue. While playing bass for a then-unknown Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy logged many hours at that location as a clerk.

"What differentiates us from most other stores," explains Schwab, "is that we've always been a vinyl store that did CDs, rather than the opposite. Good or bad, vinyl's always been the crux of our business." To survive, preaches Schwab, one has to find a niche and become the best at it.

It's somewhat surprising to discover that, while Vintage Vinyl's fortunes over the past five years have declined, Schwab's house of wax has grown. After all, last year LPs accounted for less than 1 percent of the total sales of all music formats, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Mention vinyl to kids in the core age demographic of music consumers — fifteen to twenty-four — and most will think you're talking about kitchen flooring.

Despite the numbers, a few years ago Schwab, a casual guy with a dash of salt in his peppery black hair, consolidated his Central West End CD store and his Webster Groves LP store into his own 6,000-square-foot emporium on East Lockwood Avenue. Unlike Vintage Vinyl, which generates most of its income from CDs and DVDs, 60 percent of Euclid's sales came from used LPs in 2005, up 20 percent from 2004. "And," Schwab boasts, "that's without a drop-off in retail sales."

Schwab says his clientele are much wealthier, a major reason for the increase. "Eighteen-year-old kids aren't into collecting jazz records. Then they become doctors and lawyers, and they can afford them. It's the perfect age set for people who have always longed for the artifact."

Schwab racked up 50,000 miles on his car last year, scouring the United States for choice collections. He recently bought a noted Chicago collector's lifetime accumulation for $300,000. He holds up a pristine copy of one piece from the bounty, Dizzy Reece's Progress Report LP, which recently sold at auction for $4,260.

"Jazz is a really good market for me," he says. "And thank God for it, because it's something that I know." There's a decent market for classical records, he adds, as well as blues LPs, but nothing compares to the market for jazz. One of his customers, an Italian woman, spends about $2,000 a week on jazz records from Schwab's shop.

"The music's great, the sound quality on a lot of them is terrific, and the packaging is fabulous," Schwab says, then points to a copy of Charlie Mariano's Modern Saxaphone [sic] Stylings. "I mean, come on — look at that cover. That is so awesome. And that's probably a good $600 album. And that's just beautiful. There's just something about it."

Scrolling down the list of recent items on his eBay store, Schwab details the past few weeks of sales: "Let's see: Jackie McLean's Swing, Swang, Swanging went for $1,100. Someone bought Elmo Hope's Meditations for $777. Here's another Jackie McLean that sold for $667, a Donald Byrd [Off to the Races] for $656."


Vintage Vinyl has seen countless music fanatics pass through its doors; everyone's looking for the melodic tonic that will fill the pit of longing in their hearts. Music, it's been said, calms the savage beast — but it also turns otherwise calm beasts into savages.

If the brick-and-mortar stores vanish, a meeting place for a cross-section of humanity will disappear with them. No longer will fans of Japanese avant-metal band Boris rub elbows with Coltrane fanatics. Snooty buffs of Steve Reich's minimalism won't walk into a store and be exposed to the latest German techno on Kompakt records. The quirky record-store geek will go the way of the dinosaur.

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