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

May 7, 2003 at 4:00 am
As with everything else, change is a constant in music. Tastes change, styles evolve -- even the way we listen to music continues to become more precise, more streamlined, more perfect. The one thing that's remained relatively stable is the institution of the record store. For the faithful, the record store remains a religious center, a site of devotion, veneration and, too often, lust and gluttony. And although online businesses and Internet downloading have altered the way many of us find new music, most true music hounds prefer the familiarity of the record store.

The institution of the record store may still be intact in St. Louis, but the way people buy music from independent retailers has been changing since the beginning of the year. National chains have gone under, local retailers have been shutting down stores and familiar storefronts will be changing locations.

At the end of this month, Euclid Records will relocate from its Central West End location to 601 East Lockwood Avenue in Webster Groves, in the building that used to house the Alpine Shop. The new Euclid Records will combine both the flagship Central West End CD store and the newer Vinyl Shack, also located in Webster. Owner Joe Schwab promises that the new store will offer something for every music-obsessive, even though the new location is outside the city limits.

"We're a destination store; we're a music-lovers' store more than anything," he says. "I think there's a certain amount of convenience for people in the West End for our store, and I think the same thing will happen in Webster. But regardless, if someone's a music fanatic in Chesterfield, or even in Columbia, Missouri, or even in Tokyo, Japan, they're gonna come seek us out."

Although business is solid for Schwab and Euclid Records, recent years have been less than kind to other local and national stores. In January, national chain Wherehouse Music filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and has recently closed many of its stores throughout the St. Louis area.

Nobody seems to be shedding too many tears for the loss of Wherehouse Music; unfortunately, enough stores (Camelot, Sam Goody, et al) still offer an embarrassingly limited selection at an outrageous cost. In truth, where else can you find a copy of Revolver for $17.99? Still, the effects of industry-wide low sales have been felt closer to home.

Last May, the locally owned Streetside Records merged with New Jersey company CD World in an effort to save the franchise [René Spencer Saller, "Radar Station," June 5, 2002]. But, according to sources at Streetside who asked to remain anonymous, the honchos at CD World didn't hold up their end of the bargain, and pre-merger promises were left unfulfilled. Like Wherehouse, CD World has filed for Chapter 11. This year saw the closing of two Streetside Records locations in St. Louis, on South Grand Boulevard and in Creve Coeur.

"Of the fourteen stores [in New Jersey and Missouri] that we kept," explains David Lang, CEO of CD World, "we plan to devote our resources to those stores, to cater more to the changing consumer demand. Wherever the consumer demand is, that's where the store is going to be."

Although there are no plans to close any more stores in St. Louis, several changes have taken place in the corporation's upper management. On April 25, former Streetside president Randy Davis resigned from his position as district manager for CD World. Al Karniski, manager of the West Florissant Streetside, will step in as his replacement.

Steve Pick, financial manager for Vintage Vinyl (as well as a longtime RFT music writer), expresses regret for Streetside's business troubles -- surprising, in light of the fact that Streetside would appear to be Vintage Vinyl's main competitor. "I'm sad," he says. "Streetside was the first record store that blew my mind away." Pick also noted that the Delmar Streetside's proximity to the Delmar Vintage Vinyl (Vintage Vinyl also has a branch in Granite City) has actually been better for business: "One of the things that always made Vintage Vinyl on Delmar strong was the fact that people came here and shopped at both stores. I hope that [the Delmar Streetside] stays open."

Schwab sees the setbacks as an immutable part of the industry: "It's sad for me to see Streetside cutting back because I used to work there when I was a kid, and it's a locally owned thing, and I have a lot of respect for the people who originally put those together. I know a lot of the people who were bigwigs in the company, and they're good people -- I hate to see them get shoved out after so many years of service. But that's the nature of the business, whether it's record business or whether it's insurance."

It may be part of the game, but how can independent stores such as Euclid Records and Vintage Vinyl compete with large-scale retailers such as Best Buy and Target, companies whose artificially low prices, predicated on their ability to sell below cost, continue to harm smaller outlets?

Schwab relies on niche business, on the customers who frequent Euclid Records for its vinyl selection. Schwab calls his fanatics "vinyl junkies," those faithful few who keep business afloat through depressions and national crises. "We're in good shape," Schwab explains. "We're selling to junkies -- they won't eat for a week as long as they can get their original James Brown on King."

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.

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."