Plaster, a spindly middle-aged man with close-cropped hair, khaki shorts and a white T-shirt, stabs a single key into the front door lock. Behind him, the engine of the Plymouth dies abruptly. Out steps a husky teenager sporting nose and lip hardware. Clusters of colorful tattoos swarm his forearms from the cuffs of his blue T-shirt. He steps forward and greets Plaster warmly.
It’s kids like these that give him hope that he’ll be able to hold on to his dream job a little bit longer.
No one is a stranger to the hardships endured by the record industry in the iTunes era. But we always strain to hear about the stores that manage to survive. So far, a handful of Inland Empire music retailers are doing just that. Whether it’s the expertise of tracking down a rare LP, stocking hard-to-find novelties and posters, or blabbing about music with a customer, the last of the IE’s indie record stores thrive on tokens of culture that can’t be downloaded or bought at Best Buy.
That and the fact that generally, there is no back up plan, no safety net and no desire for a new career path for most who sit behind the counter.
“This is my 20th year, I don’t care what happens. If the store burns down, I’ll be here no matter what,” says Plaster, commonly referred to as “The Doc.” Plaster [who was featured in an IE Weekly cover story, “Dr. Strange (Love),” in August 2007] is just one of many record store owners fighting to keep their doors open. For Plaster, it’s a fight to preserve his right to share his passion with the youths that filter through his doors. But will niche marketing and loyal customers be enough to save them?
Talk to any record store owner, and they’ll ultimately reference the grave cliché of “the writing on the wall.” After the death of retail monolith Tower Records in 2006 and the recent demise of Virgin Megastore, it was pretty hard not to notice. Nielsen SoundScan statistics from 2008 show that the total sales of digital files, CDs and LPs fell 14 percent, the seventh year of decline since 2000. However, digital album sales got a positive 32 percent bump and purchases of digital singles rose 27 percent. But even before the recession and downloading, independent stores struggled.
“Everybody’s got the same story,” says Dennis Callaci, owner of Rhino Records in Claremont and Mad Platter, its sister store, in Riverside. These bigger [chains] came in and with their buying power the labels told us they couldn’t lower the prices.” Combined with CD burning that gave way to file-sharing, the final blow of the lousy economy shuttered many independent record stores in the area.
Funny thing about record store types is that most of them have been doing it too long to know or care about any other profession, should things go awry. And in most respects they certainly have.
“I don’t know where else we would go. Trader Joe’s? I don’t know,” Callaci says laughing. Baptized in the business at 18 years old, most of his resume’ nearing middle age consists solely of record store positions.
Don Watson, owner of Pop’s Music (formerly Sounds Like Music . . .) in Riverside, says the lack of propriety for CDs and LPs translate into owning a store that barely scrapes by month to month. The store opened in 2000, when Watson left a management position at Mad Platter to strike out on his own.
“In the old days, you would see an older brother bring in a younger sister or brother and they’d be showing them their store,” says Watson. He pauses, his pale green eyes, gaunt face and faded mop of long red hair tilting towards the ground. He cracks a half-smile, crooking his skeletal fingers into air quotes.
“Their store,” he repeats. As this coming-of-age phenomenon stopped, Watson saw the ripple effect to distributors and labels return to strangle the product on his shelves.
For a handful of brick-and-mortar stores nationwide, the ability to join other independents to survive under a solitary banner is life-saving. Both of Callaci’s stores are part of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS) founded in 1995. CIMS handles 29 accounts that manage 59 stores across 21 states. All its retailers are equal owners of the coalition, using their weight to command better distribution deals, in-store events and communication with record labels to aid their businesses.
A similar coalition, the Alliance of Independent Music Stores (AIMS), hosts 28 stores in 21 cities nationwide. Another common thread between groups is their ability to procure exclusive and limited-edition vinyl and CDs that can’t be found at Wal-Mart.
But even with coalitions in place, stores are losing profits, many absorbing a 10-15 percent profit loss according to Callaci. Neither coalition issued formal comments for this story.
However, you’d be hard pressed to see the downside of the industry after Record Store Day, an annual sales event held by stores in both coalitions offering live music performances and massive sales which took place on April 18. That afternoon, Rhino hosted a day-long sale featuring a performance by the Eagles of Death Metal, a sweaty, balls-out rock troupe originating from the IE’s scorching Palm Desert.
Ultimately, the dinosaur notion that you can walk in, rummage around and leave with something you didn’t even know you wanted was the real reason to celebrate.
“[Customers] were like ‘I wasn’t gonna buy it, but it looks great. I think I’m gonna pick it up.’ And I think that’s the whole key to what independent record stores do,” says Callaci of shoppers stumbling onto exclusive Jay Retard 7-inches and MC5 LPs.
House of wax
For some record stores, triumphant “we’re in this together” mantras only go so far. Inside Riverside-based Red Planet Records, sales clerks and owner Chris Siebert spend hours breaking down product preparing for a move to a smaller store. Located on Indiana Avenue, the store is one-third the size of their current location on 6192 Magnolia Ave., the future site of a train underpass. It’s a move Siebert wishes he didn’t have to make, especially since his profits increased last year, without help of any coalition.
“It’s terrible because for 15 years now, people from Palm Springs to L.A. know where the location is,” he says. “Now they’re there gonna come here and there’s not going to be anything there.”
The biggest clean-up involves the store’s massive record stock. Recently the retailer has been looking into storage facilities to house the excess.
Articles surrounding the brouhaha over the recent 89 percent increase in vinyl sales last year love to point out that this only accounts for .01 percent of total annual music sales. However small this revival may be, Siebert has no problem fueling it as customers load in regularly, hawking used record collections. According to Siebert, many are just looking for cash to pay their bills.
“We can’t even keep up with the amount of used sales,” he says, mentioning that the store has stacks of records purchased six years ago that are sitting in the back waiting to be priced.
But for the amount of people trying to sell, owners are seeing an abundance of customers willing to buy.
“They look at the vinyl section first . . . then they’ll go to the used CDs then they’ll go to the new CDs,” says Plaster. He also attributes much of his profits to mail-order sales.
Owners also acknowledge that items like DVDs, posters, clothing, buttons, etc. have become their bread and butter. Siebert says that in the past year, sales of assorted, non-music items jumped from 30 percent of his profits to 50 percent. Likewise, Callaci and Plaster agree that they would have a tough time surviving without this stuff.
Another staple of Red Planet has been its stock in the live, local music scene. For years, the store provided a successful, all-ages music venue. As local youth gathered in the building, covered wall to wall with vinyl and CDs, Siebert’s goal for this live venture was to give the kids something unique.
“You’d be in there watching a band or waiting for a band and there would be CDs and records all over the walls and everything just yelling out music,” says Siebert.
Nowadays, there isn’t much time to grieve about stores, sales and music venues lost, only a handful of moments spent hoping that one day they might return. Even at the most crippled stores, there is always some work to be done, even if it doesn’t seem like work.
During an afternoon lull inside Pops, the light guitar of Tal Farlow, one of the jazz world’s greatest and most reluctant icons, filters through some stereo speakers. The calm of the store is interrupted as the front door produces a customer in his thirties with shoulder-length-hair and a faded concert tee. His eyes scan around the store as he prepares to dig. Watson is quick to ask the question that his livelihood ultimately depends on.
“Hey there,” he says. “Whatcha’ looking for?”