There’s beer in the sink and an album on deck. The people squeezed into this Hard Rock suite will be some of the first in the world to hear The Terror, the latest opus by The Flaming Lips. The public release won’t happen till April, but frontman Wayne Coyne is about to hit play.
It’s afterhours at the annual convention of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, and capping live performances by The John Corbett Band, Dawes and Baroness, Coyne’s listening party is the coup de grâce. The music nerds are giddy. I ask Coyne why he’s here among them, and the man known for rocking out inside a giant bubble and shooting lasers from his hands looks deep in my eyes. He says he’s one of them. “If they’re music nerds,” he reflects, “the world should be full of music nerds.”
They’re owners and key staff from indie stores across the country, plus a handful of reps for labels and distributors ranging from big dogs like Warner Music Group to CIMS’ distribution arm ThinkIndie, which puts out everything from side projects by the guys in Pearl Jam to the debut of dubstep violinist Lindsey Stirling.
I’m a tourist. I don’t own any vinyl. My first concert was Michael Bolton, and my first cassette was Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl. I haven’t bought physical music in years. Yet I’ve been welcomed by these “survivalists,” as one member calls the CIMS flock, representing 43 shops in 21 states and sporting fewer gray ponytails than you might imagine. Having fought their way back from the brink against big-box stores, the digital onslaught and a global culture hell-bent on mass-producing itself into oblivion, they figured they could handle my questions about Incubus.
The CIMS convention is dedicated to handling whatever comes in the brave new world of music, with idea sharing about store layouts and vinyl-buying strategies, monetizing in-store performances and forging community partnerships. Executive Director Michael Bunnell says the “collective consciousness” has been vital to members weathering so much upheaval.
“Everybody’s just got open notebooks and are willing to help their brother and sister stores every year. … They’re all passionate and smart, and they’re survivors,” says Bunnell, who opened the Record Exchange in Boise, Idaho, in 1977. I bought my very first CD there in 1992, and when I visit home I usually stop by for a dose of RX's one-of-a-kind character. “These are important places, and they represent a real cultural touchstone for many of these communities, and we don’t want to lose them," Bunnell says. "Indie stores need support, and I think everybody’s sort of waking up to that reality. If we don’t change the way we use these cultural icons ... they may all go away, and this country’s going to be much poorer for it. Have you gone to Walmart lately? It’s not a real rewarding experience.”
But Walmart, Best Buy and their ilk don’t cast nearly the shadow of the Internet marketplace. The 2011 Music Industry Report from Nielsen and Billboard showed that for the first time, digital sales beat physical sales, accounting for just over 50 percent of the total pie. In the 2012 report, CDs were down another 13.5 percent. Vinyl, however, was up almost 20 percent. One of the original members of CIMS, Alayna Alderman of Record Archive in Rochester, New York, says her vinyl sales over the same year exploded 400 percent.
“Nobody realizes that there are new record stores popping up every year,” Alderman says. “The media would prefer the doom and gloom of the industry.”
We’re on the suite’s plush bed, having just absorbed The Terror in its sprawling, haunting, wonderfully dissonant entirety. She recalls Wayne Coyne playing an in-store at Record Archive more than a decade ago. It’s been open since 1975, and Alderman has been part of its nervous system for 28 years, helping break bands, build culture and keep the business nimble.
“When I first started we were all vinyl and we had a little itty-bitty section of CDs. As time went on we had to flip. Now here we are, 2013, I have a 10,000-square-foot store and probably a quarter of a million pieces of vinyl,” she says, further suggesting that while the game changes, the soul never does. “And the amount of in-stores—we had the Ramones and The Replacements and R.E.M. The in-stores that we have today are still the bands that you’re gonna want to see tomorrow.”
A lot of those bands remember the record stores that had their backs. They’re doing exclusive in-stores while on tour and special releases for Record Store Day, a national “celebration of the unique culture surrounding over 700 independently owned record stores” in the U.S. held on the third Saturday of April since 2008.
“Record Store Day helped reestablish vinyl as a serious medium of carrying music. … You’re focused on listening to something if you go through the ritual of putting vinyl on a turntable; you’re serious about sitting down to hear something,” Bunnell says. “So I think it made a lot of people refocus on music and bring it back to the forefront instead of it just becoming this soundtrack in the background.”
Created and jointly overseen by the three indie associations—CIMS, Music Monitor Network and the Alliance of Independent Media Stores—Record Store Day can bring in weeks of business in a single day. Buyers are looking for unreleased Bob Dylan tracks and numbered vinyl hits by Gorillaz or Abba. They’re hungry for the experience of buying music. Even millennials, who grew up with iTunes, are craving the “ownership” Alderman felt when she bought her very first record at Woolworth’s—a 45 of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.”
Leaned against the sink/bar in the suite’s bathroom, Ron Roloff, founder of Strictly Discs in Madison, Wisconsin, asks if I’ve heard the one about Bruce Willis: “He was creating a will, and he had this massive iTunes collection and wanted to will that to his children. No go. Read the fine print, punk—non-transferable. If you have $10 or $110,000 worth of digital music on your computer and then all of a sudden you lose that for some reason, you’re not insured. There’s no ownership.”
Like many who’ve risen to veteran status in the industry, Roloff loved music and knew nothing about selling it when he started. His career was supposed to be in medicine. With degrees in both cardiac physiology and neuropsychology, he was working in biotech at a Fortune 500 company right out of college in the mid-’80s. But his heart wasn’t in it, and with just enough knowledge to ensure that he “wouldn’t be dangerous,” Roloff opened Strictly Discs in 1988. He’d never used a cash register, and his all-CD model bucked trends at the time.
“Compact discs represented 9 percent of the industry when we started. Cassettes were still outselling CDs,” says Roloff, laughing about the eight-track in his ’71 Super Beetle that helped him dodge the cassette era. He appreciates the elegance of digital advancements and believes they’ve solidified the identity of physical music. “We never thought of it as physical music before digital. … The new industry put us into a perspective that we hadn’t been put into before. It’s made all of us sharper.”
Silver linings aside, Roloff compares downloading music to getting it on with a blowup doll: “It’s a means to an end, but it’s not satisfying over the long haul.” And he likens indie music stores selling CDs and records to Community Supported Agriculture selling wholesome produce in a society that’s settling for empty calories from the drive-thru.
I feel like my face is tattooed with Taylor Swift riding a Carl’s Jr. bun, but Roloff doesn’t really judge. He’s just happy that I enjoy music. Chad Dryden, a seasoned music writer and marketing director for Bunnell’s Record Exchange, may chuckle to himself at the legions gobbling up mediocre pop on vinyl, but he insists that Jack Black’s iconic asshole clerk from High Fidelity is not the norm.
“There’s definitely that archetype of the grumpy, underappreciated, snobbish record store clerk. But in this new era of independent record stores having challenges with bringing people in the door and retaining customers and remaining viable, there’s a heightened level of customer service,” Dryden says, “where that passion comes into play and we want to turn on people to a band that’s either 40 years old and never got their due or they’re brand new and we’re just totally feeling it. We want customers to know it and love it and interact with it, and it becomes a conversation. … It’s a form of communion to come into a record store.”
On another night of the CIMS convention, the Culinary Dropout stage is taken by three members of
Baroness, an underground metal band from Georgia with its own story of survival. While on tour in England last year, their bus lost its brakes and hurtled down a 30-foot chasm. Ruined bodies and bus parts were everywhere, but miraculously, everyone lived.
Frontman John Baizley’s left leg was snapped and his left arm completely crushed. In a stirring blog about the ordeal, Baizley wrote: While I cannot lift a glass of water to my lips to drink with my left arm and hand, I am still able to play music with it. Another miracle. The room is dead-quiet as his guitar laces with another, then drums, voices. The sound is full and plaintive, almost unrecognizable from studio tracks by Baroness. The set gets a standing ovation, and Baizley thanks the audience for doing what they do, for supporting the art.
The CIMS convention is about more than support; it’s an affirmation. Whether attending workshops or intimate shows, toasting the future with grappa shots at Ferraro’s or performing spontaneous weddings in the Hard Rock Hotel foyer, members come together to share successes and war stories and bask in what Bunnell calls a “love fest.” If you ask Coyne, that’s why independent music stores will always survive.
“When you do things with love, it just perseveres. And that’s the truth,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we’re the smartest people; it doesn’t mean we know sh*t about business. But what can we say? We love music.”