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Coronavirus Won’t Kill Independent Record Stores

Independent retailers have battled streaming services, Amazon, and now a pandemic. Record store owners told VICE what they're doing to survive the crisis.
August 10, 2020, 4:39pm

A week after Grimey's New and Preloved Music, a longstanding Nashville record store, closed its doors in late March due to Mayor John Cooper's Safer at Home orders, co-owner Doyle Davis received a call from Taylor Swift's publicist. The pop superstar and Tennessee native offered to cover three months of his employees' health insurance cost and give each staff member a check for $1000 to weather the lockdowns. "Psychologically, it was unbelievable to have her help," said Davis. "I was at my worst at the time. I was wondering if we would ever come back from this and survive. To have her swoop in was amazing." The money allowed Davis to take his time to safely reopen, apply for a Paycheck Protection Program Loan, and make sure his employees could receive unemployment benefits for the shutdowns.

Four months later, Grimey's is open and dealing as best they can with the pandemic as an independent record store. Like many retailers nationwide, they've bolstered their website, shifted to curbside pickup and online sales, and implemented strict social-distancing guidelines and masking requirements in their brick-and-mortar store. While things are optimistic, they don't have any CDs of Taylor Swift's folklore in-stock. "Universal set them to be received on the street-date but there was an issue with the shipment and I won't have them in time," said Davis. "I love Taylor Swift. She was really generous to us. I want to stock her record now more than ever." Stocking new releases—even from the most popular musician in the world—is one of the many common problems independent music retailers face as they try to weather the storm.

Even before the pandemic, independent record stores were facing a wealth of challenges, competing with digital streaming services, Amazon, and widespread issues with shipping delays. Distributors like Direct Shot Distribution, which ships everything from Sony, Universal,  and Warner Brothers, have long been unable to fulfill orders from labels and record stores in a timely manner. "The industry itself has had a lot of difficulty in recent years and the systems of distribution have been greatly compromised," said Jason Woodbury, the marketing director for Arizona and Nevada indie chain Zia Records. "Those problems were almost a teaser of how difficult it would be to get stuff in the store during a pandemic. The story of the year is to just roll with the punches."

But now, while indie retailers have tweaked their business models to survive shutdowns and pandemic-related restrictions, these delays and strains on delivery services like USPS, FedEx, and UPS have been even worse. The increased demand on the USPS plus the Trump administration's attempt to defund and shake up its leadership will lead to even more snags in the supply chain. "My biggest thing is just trying to get the records," said Adam Rosen, owner of Chicago's Shuga Records. "What used to be a two to three days ship service is now an 18-day average ship service." This has forced stores to become more deliberate about what they choose to stock in their stores, if they're even buying new products at all. "This has been a lesson in managing your business in ways that you might never have been forced to before," said Davis. "When the shutdowns happened, we immediately stopped buying records. When the mail-order sales did well, we started spending money again and buying new releases and restocking things that were sold out. But we have never gone full bore back to the way we used to do it."

For other stores, like Chicago's Dusty Groove, which has yet to reopen its brick-and-mortar store, pivoting almost entirely to online sales and leaving a socially distant pick-up window, the shutdowns meant leaning on trusted labels and distributors. "Titles that would have been lackluster for us were selling through the roof because they were the only ones coming our way," said Dusty Groove co-founder Rick Wojcik. "We are only as good as the records we sell. Record stores are just a conduit. That's why the labels and distributors are so important to us. We really want to make sure that they succeed so we can keep doing what we do." Record store owners worry that in the coming months there will be a shortage of quality new vinyl if these delays persist and that the scarcity could mean LPs become priced up at certain stores.

Another challenge facing independent record stores comes in the revamped Record Store Day, which was originally postponed from its April 18 date for three drops on August 29, September 26, and October 24. Though the switch was ostensibly to reduce crowds, owners worry people will line up anyway. "What they say they don't want to do is create an event but what they've done is they've created three events," Wojcik said. Where a normal Record Store Day meant long lines, in-store sessions, and parties, independent retailers are being forced to manage potential crowds and lines when social distancing is required. "There's no way you're not going to get record nerds that want to wait all night for a limited run of a rare record," said Rosen. "How can you do that without crowds? There's no way to socially distance a Record Store Day."

The potential for crowds is a source of anxiety for many store owners, so much so that some plan to completely shift the way they participate in Record Store Day. "Unless I hire a security guard here to chase everybody away, how do I stop people from lining up?" Davis said. "We're talking about just doing appointment-only. We're also seriously considering being closed that day and waiting until noon, which is when RSD will allow us to sell these titles online." Record Store Day organizers could have let independent retailers gradually sell RSD-titles that they had already bought before the original April 18 date week after week to avoid potential crowds and let stores recoup the money they used for the product. "We are razor-focused on creating a non-event," said Wojcik. "We're going to do it exactly the same way we've been doing everything else: safely. Letting people hand in a picking slip at one window and then walk around to another door and pick up their order."

Despite the obstacles ahead, many independent record stores have been scrappy, able to manage and even excel at what 2020 has wrought. Stores like Shuga Records and Dusty Groove relied on their already strong online stores to cover the costs of their closed brick-and-mortars, and Shuga added curbside pickup and local delivery; Zia Records and Grimey's shored up their websites and instituted plexiglass dividers, added cleaning supplies, and Xs on the floor so shoppers can maintain proper distancing. "The story has definitely changed and we've seen in some ways unprecedented demand since we reopened," said Davis, noting that while he hopes in-store sessions can eventually resume when it's safe, the average sale is up and that the store revenues are close to normal pre-pandemic levels. "I would never have guessed that record stores would be the type of retail business that might be resilient to these challenges."

Owning a record store isn't a high-profit business, it's a labor of love that requires hard work and a lot of scrappiness. Independent retailers have weathered a lot of change from the death of CDs and the decline of physical music sales every year since 2004, despite vinyl booms. As many shift to online sales, curbside pickup, and safer in-store protocols, many will survive and even thrive in this new economy. But that's only if their communities continue to rally around them. "I hope that this year reminds people that they can't take for granted the places that exist in their town that contribute to the culture of their town, from music venues to record stores," said Woodbury.