While it might be hyperbolic to suggest that vinyl has single-handedly rescued the world’s brick-and-mortar record stores, the resurgence of a format once considered dead has certainly helped. It also hasn’t hurt that physical locations will always offer a personalized experience that cyberspace can’t.
Those realities are just two reasons Vancouver retailers are bullish about a business model that, at the beginning of this century, looked like it might be headed the way of the 8-track tape.
On Saturday (April 22) music fans in Canada, Japan, Italy, America, Ireland, France, Australia, and beyond will celebrate the 10th edition of Record Store Day, which has grown from a small Baltimore initiative to a global event. Vancouver will be in on the festivities as independent record stores continue to carve out a place in a city famous for unaffordable real estate and sky-high property taxes.
Neptoon Records manager Ben Frith says that the key to running a successful store in the era of digital downloads and the rise of Amazon is keeping on top of what people are looking for. Originally located on Fraser Street and now at Main and East 20th Avenue, Neptoon has been around since 1981. Over the years, it’s seen numerous changes in buying habits, with CDs wiping out vinyl in the mid-’80s, Napster torpedoing CD sales in the early ’00s, and vinyl making a roaring comeback over the past half-decade.
“We’ve always tried to diversify,” Frith says in a phone interview. “When vinyl died we did more CDs. When CDs died down we were selling lots of memorabilia—concert posters and stuff like that. Funnily enough, now that that stuff has slowed down, we’re back to vinyl. We still sell a good amount of CDs, partly because I think there’s a lack of options. Even when HMV was around there weren’t a lot of catalogue titles. It was mostly greatest hits.”
As Frith notes, once-powerful chain HMV did indeed recently close up shop in Canada, shuttering 102 music retail stores. But while that’s a sign people aren’t buying CDs like they once did, it doesn’t mean the market has completely dried up. Vancouver’s Sikora’s Classical Records at 432 West Hastings has successfully carved out a niche that’s endured since the store was founded by Dick and Dorothy Sikora and Rod Horsley in 1979.
Owned by Ed Savenye and Roger Scobie since 2001, Sikora’s continues to be a go-to for those looking for the best in classical and jazz recordings. “The majority of what we do is still CDs, but we’re specialists,” says Savenye by phone. “A lot of little independent labels—and the majors—are still producing a lot of CD material, as well as vinyl. I’d have to crunch numbers, but I’d have to say that CDs are still over 75 percent of our revenues.”
What both casual customers and loyalists get when they visit Sikora’s is insight from staff members who not only care deeply about music, but are happy to share their knowledge.
“Our strength or service is that we can be a starting point for anyone who comes in,” Savenye notes. “I have people come in and say, ‘I try to go to Amazon to find opera, but all I get is Charlotte Church and Andrea Bocelli.’ There’s nothing wrong with them, but they don’t represent opera other than singing an aria here or there and doing it tolerably well. But if you want to know about opera, come to the professionals, and we’ll steer you in the right direction. If you know exactly what you’re looking for, then sure, you can find, point, and then click online. But for people who want to learn, who want to experiment and go, ‘Look, I’ve heard Beethoven’s Fifth, what do I do next?’ that’s really hard to do online.”
Neptoon’s Frith echoes that sentiment, arguing that a large part of any record-store experience is interaction, whether it’s physically working through a bin of vinyl records or simply talking to the folks behind the counter.
“If you look at something like Apple Music, a lot of the algorithms that they come up with are pretty stock,” he says. “Look at one of their playlists, and you’ll be like, ‘These are all the most obvious things that you could pick.’ What the online experience is lacking is someone to go ‘You might like this.’ When you go into a store, you might hear something that you might never come across on your own. We sell a lot of stuff where we’ll be playing something and someone will go, ‘Man, who is this? I haven’t heard it before—do you have it?’ ”
Red Cat Records co-owner Dave Gowans says that the sheer number of folks who make brick-and-mortar stores part of their lives has continued to grow since he and business partner Lasse Lutick opened their 4332 Main Street location in 2002. Record Store Day has become a legitimate phenomenon in recent years, the big attraction being in-store performances as well as specialty releases by everyone from Jack White and Radiohead to David Bowie and Metallica. (Red Cat and Neptoon will both feature live bands on Record Store Day. Both will also feature in-store specials, as will Sikora’s and other independent record stores around town.)
Gowans says vinyl is the big seller at Red Cat, which survived some early lean years when music fans suddenly began doing their purchasing—and illegal downloading—online.
“I’m just watching people in the store right now,” says Gowans, who with Lutick last year opened up a second Red Cat at 2447 East Hastings. “People just like touching stuff. Vinyl is a really tangible item. Most of the time people are walking around holding their phones. When they come into Red Cat, you see the expression of older people, and younger people, change. They’ll be like, ‘Look at this one! Is it an old original one, or a reissue?’
“I think the culture of it is what keeps things going,” he continues. “You go and grab a coffee and go to the record store and dig around. We get people pushing strollers who come in and look for records. It’s nice to see that it’s still a thing.”
Record Store Day is this Saturday (April 22).