Digital is dead, but Ann Arbor's independent record stores are keeping vinyl in rotation

Vinyl isn't just "back" anymore. It's become a consistent bright spot in an otherwise tumultuous music industry, and a continuing boon to local businesses like Ann Arbor's four long-running independent record stores.

 

While U.S. album sales are still down overall, 2017 was the 12th straight year of sales growth for vinyl albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan. With more than 14 million albums sold, vinyl was up 9 percent last year over the previous one-year high of 13 million in 2016 and made up 14 percent of all physical album sales, as well as 8.5 percent of all albums sold.

 

With Record Store Day (RSD) bringing its annual slew of exclusive releases to stores this Saturday, April 21, we checked in with Ann Arbor's record shop owners about what's new, how they've adapted, and what keeps their business interesting.

 

Underground Sounds

225 E. Liberty St.

 

If vinyl is experiencing a prolonged bubble period, Matt Bradish doesn't see it popping soon. Bradish owns Underground Sounds, the newest of Ann Arbor's four record stores, which moved to East Liberty Street in 2001 after first launching in Ypsilanti.

 

Other than a flat year during the recession, vinyl hasn't skipped a beat for Underground since it started coming back around 2004. Even in the early '00s, when the music business was figuring out what to do about file sharing and online music sales, Underground's sales steadily grew.

 

"The record industry was going down, and I was going up," Bradish says. "I just don't see it ending. If it were, we'd see a decline by now, but we just don't. It's still on the incline, as far as I can tell."

 

Bradish credits his own modest success – even in lean years – to listening and responding to his customers, many of whom are getting younger and savvier about acquiring and caring for their collections.

 

For example, after years of ranting against cheap, general merchandise-store turntables and their destructive needles and overweight tone arms, Bradish says today's customers already know they're "junk."

 

"You can thank the internet for that," he says.

 

Like other stores in town, Underground has become something of a community hub. Couples come in on dates and to take engagement photos, and high school seniors have taken graduation photos in the shop too.

 

Bradish takes RSD seriously, which often means long hours in the quick lead-up to the event. Participating shops can request limited-edition titles to stock for the day that help drive foot traffic, but it's a tiered ordering system, and there are no guarantees what exactly will come in. Bradish guesses he's even lost money some years by over-ordering or getting the wrong titles in.

 

"It's a lot to coordinate to make sure everything ... isn't damaged, find a place to put it, and get it priced and ready for a sale," he says.

 

It's a lot of work, but making people happy is always fun.

 

"That's the reward, besides being able to listen to music all day. And being your own boss has many rewards," he says, before adding with a laugh, "But one of them is not pay."

 

Wazoo Records

336 S. State St.

 

While an uptick in vinyl sales has also benefited Wazoo Records, owner John Kerr says the format's popularity poses different challenges. For instance, new unsold records can't be returned, whereas a percentage of new CDs can be.

 

"Each purchase has to be carefully considered and the incentive to experiment is discouraged," he says. "Also, finding good-condition, quality used vinyl to sell is getting harder as the years go by."

 

Kerr took over Wazoo more than 20 years ago after having worked there for nearly another 20. The store offers new and used music in most genres on vinyl and CD. Kerr says it's been interesting watching the former continue to gain popularity, even with the prevalence of online music sales and streaming.

 

"It does seem strange to see people seemingly opt for a format that is both less convenient and more expensive, and of which there is a narrower selection," he says. "That speaks to the allure of vinyl, I suppose. Apparently having access to any song ever recorded, more or less for free, was not the musical utopia it was claimed to be."

 

Kerr prefers to sell in-store, but Wazoo also sells online. He says the internet also helps new customers find his shop, which is tucked away on the second floor. The store draws a range of ages, but he has noticed more couples shopping together in recent years.

 

The buildup to Record Store Day can be "a bit anxious," Kerr says, but it also helps bring people through his out-of-the-way store. In addition to whatever RSD titles the store gets in stock, Wazoo will have music-related swag and tickets to give away on Saturday.

 

"It’s a lot of fun and customers express their appreciation for us getting involved," he says. "I’m sure for every store that participates, it is their best business day by far for the entire year."

 

PJ's Used Records

617 S. Packard St.

 

Ten years ago, digital formats – CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays – made up about 80 percent of sales at PJ's Used Records. In 2017, they combined for significantly less than 10 percent.

 

"Sell-through digital has died completely," says the store's co-owner, Jeff Taras.

 

Taras started PJ's with his brother Mark more than 35 years ago. The small, upper-level shop is located just outside downtown above Pastry Peddler bakery, and it's crammed with classic rock, jazz, soul, R&B, and blues LPs. Most are used, but the store also stocks a "few thousand" reissues.

 

The good news is that they've been selling.

 

"There's been enough of a revival of vinyl that we're as solvent as we've ever been," Taras says. "I mean, we've never really made any money. It's sort of a minimum-wage job and a lot of fun."

 

Although PJ's is primarily back in the used record business, it's a different one than it used to be. When the store first opened, Taras says he wanted to serve working-class customers and students who couldn't afford new vinyl. He remembers when wholesale retail records cost about $3.

 

With growing demand and limited output from the handful of existing U.S. pressing plants, he says it's not uncommon to spend more than 10 times that today – before markup.

 

"You can't collect vinyl anymore unless you're very well off," he says.

 

Taras says the shop also found success selling online for a while, making up about a quarter of its business at one point. But he says online feedback from customers could be so "nasty and unpleasant," contrasted with the pleasant interactions he had with customers in-store, that he and his brother pulled the plug on online sales.

 

"We had a team meeting and decided that, even if we have to skip the odd paycheck, we would rather do without it, and we just abandoned it in its entirety," he says. "And no one here has ever regretted for a day that we no longer sell stuff online."

 

PJ's doesn't participate in RSD because Taras doesn't like its ordering system, but he sees the value in it.

 

"It is the most important single day of the year for most new (vinyl) stores," he says. "The day could pay two months' worth of bills if you managed it correctly and you were lucky and they sent the hot titles."

 

Encore Records

417. E. Liberty St.

 

Looking back, Jim Dwyer admits 2011 turned out to be a pretty good year to buy a record store, especially one with the the reputation and history of Encore Records. That's when he and business partner Bill McClelland took over Ann Arbor's largest and longest-running independent music shop from previous owner Peter Dale when he retired.

 

"We came in at the perfect time," Dwyer says. "The vinyl resurgence was just getting underway. Now it's the new normal."

 

It's a romantic cliche to "get lost in a record store," but for years, Encore's layout literally included towering walls of shelved CDs that created a maze-like feel. The store was a music geek's dream, but it could also be intimidating and even frustrating to casual browsers.

 

Dwyer and McClelland have since rearranged the shop – which primarily sells used music – to emphasize less imposing vinyl bins, minimize claustrophobia, and improve visibility and lighting throughout the store.

 

The new setup also better accommodates the store's move into hosting live music, which it's done sporadically since 2011 and which the owners hope to do more often now. The added open space and lines of sight make for better staging.

 

"We wanted to give local musicians an opportunity to flex their muscles," Dwyer says. "It's just an opportunity to play, get some exposure, and we get some exposure from passersby. ... A record store should be connected to its local music community."

 

Weeding out excess inventory has been good for business, too. Dwyer compares selling records to stocking a grocery store.

 

"You buy lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and what you don't sell goes bad," he says. "There are some artists whose careers are like wilted lettuce: you'll never sell them again."

 

So Encore thinned out records that had sat for a decade or more, making room for albums people are looking for today and creating an environment that's easier to find them in.

 

Dwyer worked part-time at Encore for years before taking over and has seen the customer base shift from "30- to 50-year-old white dudes" to include more young people and women.

 

The shop will have a selection of RSD titles available on Saturday, but Dwyer sounds as, if not more, enthused to see what else turns up in the store this time of year.

 

"As we come into the nice weather and people are cleaning out their basements and attics and garages, it's always an exciting time because you never know what's going to come in the door," he says.

 

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

 

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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