The day before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order over the coronavirus, Reckless Records buyer Matt Jencik felt anxious. Over the previous week, Jencik’s chain of three Chicago music stores, which employ about 40 people, had been playing chicken with the inevitable: closing its doors. But Jencik was becoming increasingly worried about his customers and employees. “I would wash my hands every 10 minutes,” he says. “Every time we rang someone up, I would have to say, ‘Go wash your hands.’ It was getting to the point where I was just like, ‘This is just not comfortable for anybody.’”
Although his livelihood depended on the stores staying open, Jencik started hoping the state would intervene and close small businesses so he wouldn’t have to. “If you would have asked me 10 days ago, ‘What would you say if you had to close all of your stores?’ My answer would never have been, ‘That’s what I would want to do,'” he says shortly before the stay-at-home order. “But on Wednesday, I really wanted to close the store.” Pritzker made the decision for him, shutting down all nonessential businesses across the state to promote social distancing, effectively forcing Reckless to quickly conceive a survival plan for the coronavirus era.
The paradox of killing your store to survive has been brutal for small businesses across America, and it has been especially vexing for record shops, many of which were already barely scraping by. More than half a dozen store owners and buyers across the nation tell Rolling Stone that the coronavirus pandemic puts the world of record retail in peril.
For much of the past year, stores have been dealing with a frustrating problem, as major labels shifted their distribution operations to Direct Shot Distributing, a service they say has crippled their business by making it more difficult to get new releases. Many say they had recently pulled themselves back into the black when the pandemic hit, putting their profitability back in jeopardy. Now they’re navigating uncharted waters.
“As long as people need human connection and music and art, [record stores] will be there in some form or another.” — Carrie Colliton, Record Store Day co-founder
The organizers of Record Store Day, music retailers’ most dependable annual payday, have been tracking the status of nearly 250 indie music shops and chains around the country. More than 80 percent of those businesses have closed their doors completely (but may still be offering curbside pickup or local delivery). Because of the pandemic, Record Store Day’s organizers moved the event from April 18th to June 20th.
“[Closing] was a very difficult decision to make,” says Jim Henderson, co-owner of Amoeba Music, which operates three stores in California. “But it suddenly went from feeling like a challenging decision to the only decision. I don’t know if it was the social dynamic that changed or the fact that [closing] just felt inevitable. So it’s better to be on the early side than the late side of that inevitability.”
“I have laid off part-time staff, and we’re helping our full-timers apply for unemployment,” says Doyle Davis, co-owner of the Nashville store Grimey’s New & Preloved Music. “I hope we can come back on the other side of this thing.” (The store later got some assistance from local guardian angel Taylor Swift, whom Doyle says helped spur a huge uptick in online sales of T-shirts alongside her subsidization of employees’ salaries and health care.)
In the weeks leading up to the closures, the stores had each taken measures to meet the CDC’s guidelines for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Each says they had ramped up cleaning, especially in highly trafficked areas. Davis was making customers wash their hands the second they stepped foot inside Grimey’s. (He even called an employee whose shift he’d canceled to come in to clean.) At Amoeba, Henderson’s employees had placed hand-sanitizer dispensers and gloves around the store for customers.
“It’s a crazy time to be a small business person who sells records,” says Carrie Colliton, director of marketing for the Department of Record Stores, a coalition of several indie music shops around the country, and a co-founder of Record Store Day. “But they’ve gone through stuff before. They are fairly resilient people.… As long as people need human connection and music and art, they’ll be there in some form or another.”
Colliton says that record stores will need to change their way of doing business to survive. “They have to A) stay in touch with their customers, and B) almost constantly change the way that they’re doing business,” she says. “Some of the things they’re doing with Instagram or Facebook, like selling directly through there and encouraging the old-fashioned use of the telephone has been great. ‘See something you like on our Instagram page? Call us.’
“The really ironic, interesting thing to me,” she continues, “is that places like record stores, movie theaters, bars, and bookstores — all these places where entertainment, social connection, and human interaction happen — those are the first places that had to go. But social isolation is going to lead to cabin fever and boredom, and a lot of the things record stores offer — music, books, video games, movies — is what people are going to need while they’re holed up at home, looking for stuff to do. I think what record stores are doing is important and a nice ‘social contact’ to have.”
By the end of March, each of the stores Rolling Stone spoke with had closed. Despite years of facing off against the internet, they each had found new life on their websites and the crowdsourced online database and marketplace Discogs. Some of the store owners worried that the allure of streaming services during quarantine would encourage people to drift farther away from physical media, but, more surprising, streaming has been down since the country started shutting down. Although web sales aren’t as profitable as foot traffic, they’re enough to keep the lights on. At least for now.
“We closed the store to the public; that was our decision to do,” says Isaac Slusarenko, owner of Jackpot Records in Portland, Oregon. “The idea was, ‘Look, if we don’t make this decision, I want to be a little bit ahead of it than to be reactive later.’ So I can take this time to prepare things — uploading albums to Discogs and our website — while the store is closed. This gave me a little bit more time to deal with that.”
“People are really wanting to show their support, and it’s just gratifying to see all the online sales.” —Doyle Davis, Grimey’s
“People are really wanting to show their support, and it’s just gratifying to see all the online sales,” Davis says. “A guy down the street bought two collectible records off of Discogs that have been on our wall for two months or more. It’s like he wasn’t even coming in the store, or maybe he just really wanted to help out and he decided to just go browse our store and grab a few things. I don’t know, but we’re going to see what the online-ordering trends are — they’re already different from what we expect from in-person sales.”
Despite the heartening online response, sales of physical product are down around the country, according to Alpha Data, which powers the Rolling Stone Charts. The Weeknd’s After Hours — the Number One album on the Rolling Stone 200 last week — sold roughly half as many copies as Justin Bieber’s Changes did in its first week the previous month. (And After Hours sold only three percent as many physical units at indie retail as Selena Gomez’s Rare, when that came out in January.) Even Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, music retail’s eternal flame, has dimmed considerably, moving roughly 10 percent of the number of copies last week than it had in the first week of March.
April stands to be even more brutal, since many labels have chosen to delay their new releases. Although that decision is uplifting — most labels still recognize the importance of retail and wouldn’t put out an LP when people couldn’t buy it in a store — it’s also frustrating for stores that want to stock new product. Jackpot Records also doubles as a label, with a hotly anticipated Wipers reissue slated for Record Store Day, but Slusarenko says he’s encountered problems with the pressing plant he uses reducing its workforce because of government mandates. His main concern is that stores wouldn’t be open to receive new albums if they were sent out.
And that leads to one of the most important practicalities of running a business: the employees. “Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to pay everybody’s salary; it’s just not tenable,” Henderson says of his nearly 400 employees. “It’s barely tenable being a record store in 2020, much less being able to do the things that we would like to do. We have a very close relationship with the staff — the Amoeba community is tight-knit — so we’ve been able to show our support in different ways, but we’re not able to carry everyone’s salary.”
“This is a big one, but it’s just another challenge for our industry,” says Jarrett Hankinson, the CEO for Zia Record Exchange, which operates eight stores around Arizona and in Las Vegas. “We’ve been facing challenges for decades. We were told years ago that we would be going away because of online music. We’re still around. We’ve got a lot of data to show labels, customers, and people in media that we’re successful. I’m very proud and humbled by our fanbase and my customers.” The chain is shipping albums from its website and offering curbside pickup during the pause.
“We’ve been facing challenges for decades.… We’re still around.” —Jarrett Hankinson, Zia Record Exchange
Despite the ostensibly bleak outlook, some other stores are also holding out hope. “If people can get through this, I think it will change the outlook for a lot of people,” says Jackpot’s Slusarenko, who believes his store will be OK as long as it’s not closed too long. “I think people will probably be more supportive of small, independent businesses and understand the role that record stores, musicians, and art can play right now during people’s lives. If you’re stuck at home, what are you gonna do? You’re hopefully gonna be listening to music or watching TV or reading books. That’s people’s escape.”
“I’d hate for [us] to be done in by the fucking coronavirus,” Matt Gehrung, a buyer for Colorado chain Independent Records, tells Rolling Stone. “If we had to close the doors, that could be the death knell for this business. No one’s getting rich in music retail. But we do it because we love it. And we love the people that shop here.” The chain had to close its stores on March 28th, per governor’s orders. They’ve been able to keep business going online, but Gehrung still has a bleak outlook. “We’re in hopes that we can get back to business as usual sooner than later or there may not be a later,” he says.
But some stores are staying optimistic. “I think the number-one thing that gives me hope is the history of [record stores in trouble],” Zia’s Hankinson says. “Yes, it’s scary, but our business is scary. It’s always volatile. It’s always a challenge. It’s thrilling. It’s exciting. But ultimately, that’s what keeps me going. Our company has survived for 40 years, and we’ve endured quite a bit, and we’ll be able to endure this. It just depends on when.”