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Still, more than a decade into the digital revolution, not everyone wants to listen to music exclusively via Spotify streams, downloaded MP3s and viral videos. While big-box music retail chains like Tower Records reside in the 20th century's dustbin, mom-and-pop record stores are thriving again in many U.S. cities — thanks, ironically enough, to the booming resurgence of vinyl.
"Independent record stores have always been a niche business. [We've] never made [our] money selling hits," says Doyle Davis, co-proprietor of Nashville's own Grimey's New & Preloved Music.
Now an integral part of Nashville's cultural fabric, Davis and co-owner Mike Grimes opened the store in December of 1999, right at the dawn of the Napster era. "From the get-go we've always been competing against digital music," says Davis.
Grimey's didn't have to learn to adapt to the digital revolution. Instead, the fledgling store was forced to build its brick-and-mortar business model around it. It may have seemed an uphill battle at the time, but while the greater music industry continued to sink like a stone, Grimey's mostly stayed buoyant. Business did better and better each year, to the point where the store was even able to provide health insurance to full-time employees, many of whom are also full-time musicians. Then sales hit a plateau.
"I feel like we'd really reached a point a couple years ago where we'd figured our market out pretty well," Davis says. "We were this niche thing; we sell the 'indie' music, the music that's not available at the big-box retailers."
But as the lumbering competitors started to close down, their customers were disenfranchised. They had one place left to turn — and suddenly Grimey's was infused with new blood.
"Now we run out of Incubus the day it comes out," Davis says.
Last April, on Record Store Day — the retail industry's ingenious annual Hallmark holiday for limited exclusive releases, mostly vinyl — Grimey's celebrated the biggest single sales day in its 12-year history, beating its previous record by a staggering 72 percent. And the previous record was set on Record Store Day the year before.
"It's totally reinvigorated record stores," Davis says. "It's become bigger than Christmas for a lot of us."
That boom is mostly thanks to a growing trade in vinyl, whose sound and aesthetic qualities can't be replicated digitally. According to Nielsen SoundScan data, there were 2.8 million pieces of new vinyl sold in 2010, currently making it the recording industry's fastest-growing musical format.
And since it's now an almost standard formality for every new piece of vinyl to include a digital download card, the CD is almost obsolete. Almost. As Davis tells the Scene, used CD sales are also strong, since a $6 used CD is cheaper than a $10 album download on iTunes. "People can really do the math," he says.
So rapid is vinyl's expanding popularity, Davis says, that when putting in stock orders, "It's getting harder and harder to figure out what the right number is for vinyl, because it continues to pick up in sales." For many artists, he says, it has overtaken CD sales. The CD to vinyl ratio used to be 2 to 1. Now, for titles like the latest Decemberists album, that ratio has flipped, with the vinyl not only outpacing the CD in sales, but selling out completely within a week of release.
And in niche indie-genres such as garage-revival, like the releases on Memphis' Goner Records, that ratio is 10 to one. Davis says even big releases by CD-era artists like Wilco and My Morning Jacket are starting to even up. Many of those units sell to people who buy record players at the store and quickly become regular customers.
"To some degree, we're the last man standing," Davis says of Grimey's and independent stores of their ilk. And with social media platforms like Twitter — where the store has 10,000-plus followers — the digital revolution helps keep the store full on release days and for in-store events like concerts.
"One of the things the resurgence of vinyl has done for me, psychologically, is it makes me realize we can sustain," Davis says. "It's not a faddish, trendy thing. No matter what new gizmo they come out with, or new way of distributing music digitally, or streaming, or cloud this, or download that, I feel like I can run a store in Nashville, Tennessee, selling people music, with a robust, viable format.
"So, to me, the future looks fairly good."
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