Monday, June 30, 2008

(Flickr Post): Stormy Weather At The Prog

Storm clouds gather overhead. This photo is emblematic of so many aspects of the 2008 season, it's sickening.
With the 2008 Cleveland Indians continuing to morph into a sick and twisted parody of our fondest hopes and dreams, my reasons for attending baseball games at The Prog instead of doing something a tad less depressing/futile with my free time have less to do with Major League Baseball than simply enjoying a nice summer afternoon in downtown Cleveland with my brother.

Of course, it doesn't help matters if that "nice summer afternoon" turns windswept, gray and rainy while your beloved ball club is being throttled by a pitcher who just threw one of the worst starting pitching performances in the history of major league baseball just 1 week before. Typical.

The season from Hell continues ...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

(Twenty Years) Part 16: Still In The Game

20080316 - Looking Down The Pop/Rock Aisle
In 2001, the fortunes of the newly formed Walrus Music briefly mirrored those of the industry at large, though for very different reasons. Overall, our sales were doing fine, but the enforced removal of our most profitable area of business wound up derailing the year. Luckily, we managed to make up all of our lost momentum the following year and have been trucking ahead at varying speeds ever since. The music industry as a whole, however, was now starting to feel the first real pangs from widespread P2P downloading as yearly sales began to tumble from the stratospheric heights they had reached in 2000.

While there was a lot of worrying going on at the distribution level, the overall tone of discussion back then was still more hypothetical/"what if" than bleak or despairing. Since the real bad times had yet to arrive, a lot of people initially refused to believe that the sky was truly falling, instead maintaining that this drop in sales was some kind of brief contraction or correction, and everything would be dandy again as soon as people stopped sharing mp3s and were somehow forced to buy them instead. It would take the realities of the next three years to kill that line of thinking dead once and for all.

Somehow, while the music business declined over the ensuing years, Record Den's sales not only grew, but flourished. Even now, I'm not sure I can fully explain why this was the case, but I can offer up a few ideas that might solve the equation when added together ...

1. Adults

The fact that we are still open certainly doesn't mean that downloading had no impact on our business: of course it did, but we were, I think, able to trade off clientèles before the damage got out of control. Over the years, kids had noticeably vanished from our customer mix while we started seeing more and more new customers over the age of 30 instead, many of them driving in from the other side of Cleveland or points south to patronize our store. To reflect this shift, we started to alter the store's selection slightly away from an indie-rock intensive mix into something far more classic/progressive leaning in nature, while still seeking to retain the loyalties of the few teenagers who still believed in buying music as an actual physical product rather than simply hoovering it down by the gigabyte from a file sharing service.

20080316 - Midline Bin
2. Catalog

Meanwhile, after years of successfully attempting to smother competition by maintaining a massive inventory of music, the big boxes were beginning to scale back on CD floorspace in favor of DVDs, which were still a red-hot commodity. The once-impressive rows of CDs Best Buy used to boast suddenly started looking rather thin as they were now prioritizing guaranteed hit music over "marginal" catalog or independent releases/reissues. Sure, you could walk down an aisle there and see a truly massive U2 section sporting about 150 CDs, but upon closer inspection you'd realize that 130 of those CDs were copies of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb with a couple copies each of 4 or 5 other titles sprinkled about for appearances sake.

This restructuring of priorities at the big boxes created an opening for us, and we charged straight into it. The Den started attracting people who had grown up with rock music and weren't quite ready to let go just yet. If we were going to keep them coming back, we were going to have to retain far more deep catalog than we ever had before, and we started adjusting our buying accordingly. Luckily, the major labels had started offering substantial discounts on their catalog in order to keep it moving outside of the big boxes, and Greg jumped feet-first into these buying programs, snapping up thousands of older CDs at reduced rates and passing the savings along to stimulate sales. We had always done a pretty good job with keeping some special, hard-to-find titles of local interest handy for whoever asked, but now we were actively cultivating a reputation as the place to get anything you hadn't heard in a quarter century or more.

Once we had the ability to buy direct from two of the biggest music companies in the world, it seemed like this end of the business really started to get rolling for us. I cannot stress enough how being able to buy directly from two of the biggest music distributors has greatly increased our ability to compete with big boxes since the catalog discount programs offered at the distributor level were far better than any one-stop could offer. For a year or so, our sale bins at the front of the store could have been called "The WMG Bins" as product from that distributor overwhelmed all else. When we got Universal opened up a year or so past that, the buying balance shifted again, and we now have what looks like a mini warehouse in the back room jammed solid with CDs from WEA and Universal. These programs, coupled with an explosion in cheaper old import titles, began to transmogrify our store into a kind of classic rock heaven on Earth.

20080316 - Vinyl & VHS
3. Vinyl

Another factor in our longevity has been the completely unexpected re-emergence of vinyl (whether used or new) as a collectible format. Aside from dance and hip-hop 12" singles and the odd Pearl Jam LP, we had been pretty much out of the vinyl market from 1990 through the end of our days in the Great Lakes Mall. We hadn't had any plans to re-enter that market in our new location until a few months after re-opening, when a customer asked us one afternoon if we carried any vinyl records. Greg and I both shook our heads no, and when the customer then asked us why, neither of us could come up with a good answer.

With space to burn (and no better ideas to try out), we started buying and selling used LPs again for the first time in a decade. Initially, almost everything we set out to sell was priced at a dollar, with a few premium pieces going as high as five. Sales were steady, but slow, and as more people got wind of the fact that we'd take their old boxed-up records off their hands, our stock began to outgrow the bins we'd set aside to contain it. For some time, this became a concern, especially as we began stockpiling everyone's grandmother's record collections in boxes piled six feet high in the back room while the vinyl bins overflowed and spilled onto the floor. There were times when it was getting so crowded in the back that we were seriously considering shutting off all vinyl buying in an attempt to keep our stock under control, and that is when we started running into the E-bay people: the guys who earn a living buying crates of stuff at rock-bottom prices from anybody who would sell it to them and then finding people online who would pay them for whatever goodies they might come across.

At first, we were amused (and relieved) when the E-bay people would show up and cart off boxes of moldering records at a time, but it became apparent over time that LPs could become a valuable part of our profit margin, and we started becoming a bit more hands-on in the pricing and buying of used vinyl instead of simply buying everything in at a flat rate and blowing it out the door ASAP. While we still occasionally buy "by the pound" if a customer doesn't feel like going store-to-store looking for a better deal, we now have a pretty decent idea which records are worth paying more for (almost any band or act we've never heard of before) and, more importantly, which ones aren't (pretty much every album released on Columbia between 1973-1987).

These days, used vinyl sits in every open nook and cranny in the store, with the premium titles arranged semi-alphabetically in specially made bins in the back while everything else is boxed up or lined up wherever we can find room. Quite frankly, we need a better way to display our vinyl stock: sales have picked up in intensity to the extent that used LPs now regularly out-sell used CDs on a piece-count and dollar basis,and our used CDs are far easier to browse than our vinyl. Also, the profit we are able to realize from selling used vinyl has been instrumental in keeping us afloat and amending for the relatively thin margin afforded by contemporary CDs, thus we definitely owe it to ourselves to come up with some kind of new solution to displaying the hottest selling items in the store.

Now comes the weirdest part: over the last two years, used vinyl has started to bring back a good chunk of the younger customers we figured had been lost for good to downloading. Somehow, a lot of younger people have glommed onto vinyl being a more immersive, meaningful, and (let's not kid ourselves) hip listening experience than an mp3, and they have embraced the format to a mind-boggling extent, whether used or new. Where we once spent most of our time with visiting sales reps screaming about CD prices and crappy marketing ideas, now we're always pleading with them to get as much classic rock vinyl into the marketplace as quickly as possible, because we sell it faster than we can keep up with it.

20080315 - Overstock Wall 2
For the first time since opening up at our current location, I think we've achieved the kind of store we'd always imagined we could run back in the old days when a slow afternoon could be spent blue-skying a Deak-free existence in the now-museum like expanse of Great Lakes Mall. We are all very proud of what Record Den has become and also hoping we can keep it going at full steam even as the U.S. economy goes to Hell in a hand basket all around us.

While the plan is to keep going as long as we can, the near future remains a bit hazy as I write this: our lease comes up next year, and preliminary negotiations between Greg and our corporate landlords have deadlocked over rent (they want to raise it over time, he wants a constant rate in exchange for a longer lease). For the time being, we're letting the landlords stew for a while as time is presently on our side: the longer we wait, the better idea we'll get of where we're going in a financial sense. Already lagging behind the pace of a flat 2007, we are now facing what could be a brutal summer, what with gas prices at 4 dollars a gallon (and the price of oil continuing to climb, dragging behind it the cost of just about everything else in existence) and the entertainment dollar being stretched tighter than perhaps at any point in the last thirty years. We're working just to keep ourselves respectably close to our target figures, but this has not been a banner year thus far.

What happens this summer (not to mention over the following Christmas) will impact any long range plans Greg comes up with between now and then. It's hard to guess what to expect, but I would be very surprised if Greg opts to stick in a fork in this operation next year, largely because we have an awful lot of inventory to sell, and barring the launch of a full-time internet operation, I can't imagine what the hell we'd do with all of this stuff should our day of reckoning come earlier than expected.

My feeling is that we'll end up renewing our lease on a year-to-year basis and keeping our options open. As long as people remain willing to buy music on a physical format in a retail environment, Greg will want to be open to provide that service. He has said many times in the past that he was playing to be the last man standing at local indie music retail, and you can certainly argue that he got his wish. I hope this doesn't sound like we're gloating, because we both miss the days of friendly competition and being able to visit places like Record Revolution, My Generation, Platterpuss, or Repeat The Beat: discovering cool imports and underground releases we'd never seen or heard before. This was part of the fun of working in this business, and most of it is now long gone. Sure, we're very happy to still have our doors open, but it's kind of a drag on a personal level when the nearest store that even remotely resembles our own is nearly 50 miles away.

While the business side is pretty much up to Greg, there is also a possible decision to be made on my end as well. While being a Den lifer thus far has brought a measure of reassuring stability to my life, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I have stretches of dealing with John Q. Public that make me wonder how much longer I want to keep on doing this, (especially if we do wind up getting a multi-year lease offer to stick). After years of always taking the money instead of some time off, a vacation at last looks like a reality for me, and that might be enough to "reset" and refresh myself for a bit and simply get away from the grind. If it sounds waspish and antisocial to say that I need a break from being around people, then so be it. The status of Sarah's education and job will also weigh in on my decision, particularly if she feels that better opportunities are lying in wait outside of Ohio.

Certainly, there will be much dwelling, discussion and consideration as the end of this year draws close, but the one implacable constant lying at the bottom of all of this is the simple fact that I still love my job and the idea of dropping it on my own accord in lieu of an occupation that I don't love is a rather daunting prospect, to say the least.

20080316 - Back Room

Monday, June 16, 2008

(Flickr Post): Cleveland Indians Win!

At last! We attend a Sunday game that results in a win for the Indians!

At last! I get close-up pix of one of the all-time pitching greats warming up in the visitors bullpen before the game!

At last! Mustard wins the Hot Dog Derby ... while I am waiting in line at one of the concession stands, which means I have no photographic record of my hero's greatest achievement. Gaaahh.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

I, Shutterbug

A love of photography seems to run straight down my dad's side of the family. When I was a toddler, my dad was always taking home movies of drag racing, or family gatherings, or just pudgy little me ambling about the apartment on Super-8. When he was off on business trips, he often covered his international travels with his trusty stereo camera, which produced overlapping shots that had to be framed on white cardboard and then viewed through a kind of battery-powered binocular View Master device to achieve the desired 3-D effect (using that thing was kind of like taking the visual test when you renew your driver's license).

Over the last few years, Dad has been out and about with his new super-modded digital camera (with rocking lens attachments), taking increasingly sophisticated pictures to the extent that for a while you were likely get more hits off of his archived amateur photography than my archived professional writing if you ran a Google search on our common name.

Meanwhile, for as long as I've known him, my uncle Kevin has made his living doing personal or corporate photo shoots, either freelancing back when I was a kid or from his own studio which he's worked out of for the last twenty-five years. In 1985, I spent a summer working alongside him, both at his professional studio and in the cramped, dank darkroom he created in my grandmother's basement. At the time, I found some aspects of photography of interest, but overall I never caught the bug. One reason is I hadn't taken into account the sheer amount of grunt work that went into setting up a professional shoot, which seemed to leech a lot of the glamour out of the job. The technology of the era probably didn't endear me to the job, either: working with darkroom chemicals is stinky and time-consuming and easy for someone as graceless as me to completely screw up. There was also my near-crippling obessesion with music that was a constant distraction for me: I spent far more time diving into the mystique of New Order than, say, studying for school or daydreaming of a career behind the lens. Put it this way: the high points of my brief apprenticeship with my uncle was a trip to a local radio station and the acquisition of my own Sony Walkman with the earnings I had accrued. I think you can see where my priorities were.

I'd messed around off and on with Sarah's old digital camera when she owned one, but it was the acquisition of a far more advanced model of my own back in March that has awakened the genetic-level shutterbug that must have been dormant in me since birth. I've been constantly reaching for the camera (or wishing I had it handy) over the last couple of months, and the volume of images on my hard drive has reached the point where I recently opened a Flickr account to host some of the better shots I've been getting since starting up my new hobby. In the future, I'll be linking from this blog to new photography sets of days out and about, baseball games, local scenery, or even subject themes as they are assembled. Hope you like 'em.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

(Twenty Years) Part 15: Raid

The once-booming market in live bootleg CDs had been in flux for some time in early 2001. In the years following the enforcement of GATT, finding workable sources for these illicit titles was like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole (for us as well as the authorities). Also, as good titles became harder to locate, the packaging standards had started to head down the tubes, both in terms of the once-ornate booklets and cover art as well as the source music, which was occasionally being sourced not from original show tapes but from compressed digital files grabbed right off of the internet.

Granted, these were bootleggers we were dealing with and not, say, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, so there wasn't an awful lot you could say when you got a dozen copies of a Metallica concert burned onto a generic CD-R with paper artwork straight out of a cheap PC printer and the songs all separated by a second or two of silence (since the manufacturers not only used mp3 files, but couldn't even be bothered to burn the stupid shows using Disc-At-Once). It's not like these things were sold on any kind of returnable or guaranteed basis, either: once you bought 'em, they were yours forever. For the first time since we'd started buying them in the late 80s, the problems of carrying bootlegs were starting to outweigh the benefits.

Around the end of 2000, we had found a new and local source for boots, and we'd get our orders from this guy quite literally in pieces: that is, CDs in one box, artwork and jewel cases in another. It wasn't a ton of fun standing there behind the counter and putting these things together for hours on end, but I guess it beat shrink-wrapping stacks of Italian vinyl albums in the silent back room of J.J. Newberry's. It was, of course, right while I was elbow-deep in illicit CD components that a handful of Mentor's finest came barging into the store, demanding to talk to the owner right now, while two belligerent RIAA agents threatened us with immediate shutdown if we didn't comply with their demands. Wheeee.

Over the next three hours, we had to stand by and watched as hundreds of CDs were seized and removed from the premises by the RIAA goons, with the men in blue providing the muscle. The detective in charge of the operation handled the bust as fairly as we could have hoped for, considering we had been caught completely red-handed. The RIAA guys, on the other hand, were a couple of arrogant little woodpeckers who demonstrated an amazing ignorance of what was a bootleg CD and what was not: there were a flashes of contentiousness as we would testily point out to them that such-and-such particular import live release was not, in fact, a bootleg.

In the days and weeks afterward, some friends of ours speculated that Deak must have had something to do with this bust as the timing was just too perfect to ignore. Sure, conspiracy theorists have spun vast, intricate webs of causality out of far less remarkable coincidences, but I'm fairly certain that one had nothing to do with the other in this instance. But talk about a shitty opening week ... in one day, seven grand in inventory that had just been purchased from the previous owner was wiped from the books and is probably still sitting in an evidence storage room somewhere. Ouch. We were also forced to play nice with the RIAA and help them shut down our local boot distributor as a trade-off for avoiding prosecution. When all was said and done a few weeks later, we were given an admonition from the Mentor PD never to traffic in these recordings again and that was that.

While losing a ton of money was not what I had in mind, I'd been secretly wondering for years when we'd finally leave bootlegs behind, end our constant worrying about excess visibility and stop having to play dumb whenever we were asked directly what these discs were and where they were coming from. Financially, this was a nasty blow for an operation just getting started: we're fairly certain that the total loss of that area of business cost us the year as 2001 was the first of only 2 down years we've experienced since we opened in our current location (the other, being last year, was more flat than down). That said, it was a secret relief for me to close out that particular chapter of our existence.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The First Day Of Summer

While it may not not officially have arrived yet going by the calendar, evenings like this one (79 degrees at 11:15 PM) are unmistakably summer nights in the classic sense: the muggy, warm evenings when you can sit out on the front porch in shorts and a t-shirt with a cold drink handy and a ball game on the radio.

Mmmm, I've been waiting for one of these since the end of October.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Ten Cent Beer Night

With this year's baseball season refusing to head outright into the tank (instead, it feels like the next 100 games will be a death march of mediocrity cruelly punctuated with maddening flashes of hope and inspiration), let's take a break from the current malaise and look back at a time when the Cleveland Indians were expected to suck, and ownership was frantically trying to keep people coming to the park anyway.

A friend pointed me at this article that ran on ESPN to mark the 34th anniversary of one of the more notorious moments in Cleveland's history: Ten Cent Beer Night.

Definitely a recommended read for baseball fans and native Clevelanders (though not necessarily in that order).