Indie record stores thrive locally despite pirates and slow sales
A sweet, flowery scent permeates Music Millennium's 3158 E. Burnside St. outlet. The smell, which evokes a mix of patchouli, pears and cotton candy, recalls the days when Zeppelin ruled and fans paid for music.
It smells the way a record store should.
'People would always come in and say, 'I want to buy that (smell),' ' says Music Millennium owner Terry Currier. 'It's really an accumulation of 40 different kinds of incense.'
The multi-sourced scent also represents the smell of endurance, a bouquet common to the nearly 30 independent record and compact disc stores in Portland that have remained amazingly resilient through recent tough economic times.
For example, Ozone Records, which closed its West Burnside location in January because of rent pressures, reopened Wednesday as a combination record store-coffeehouse at 801 E. Burnside St.
And Jackpot Records owner Isaac Slusarenko reported Wednesday that he'll open a second store next month, at 203 S.W. Ninth Ave.
The resiliency probably stems from a sense of mission, which usually includes a determination to 'have fun' whether the money follows or not. It's the definitive labor-of-love business.
Yet many locals in the industry got undeniably lucky by sticking to their knitting and resisting the urge to enter the e-business arena. One that gave in to that urge, Django's, recently filed for bankruptcy protection.
'Django's used to be one of the great used-record stores in this town,' Currier says. 'Now, it's a fallen giant.'
The 2002 Portland Guide to Independent Record and CD Stores, compiled by Q is for Choir owner Michael Ismerio, offers listings for 27 record stores.
In contrast, a similar guide for Seattle, with a population roughly twice the size of Portland's, lists just 20 such stores.
One up on Seattle
'Portland supports its artists really well, and it trickles down to our stores,' says Jackpot's Slusarenko. 'People here go to shows and support local bands more.'
Which translates into more rabid music fans, or the type most likely to open enterprises that almost certainly won't make them rich. Most profits are poured back into the store. With new CDs costing $12 and selling for $15 or $16, the margins are just adequate at best.
As a result, most record stores began carrying non-music items to help pad the bottom line.
'Over the years, hair dye, piercings and pipes made our payroll,' says Ozone Records O3 owner Bruce Greif. 'If it wasn't for that, we would have had to raise our CD prices.'
Independent stores also offer far more used products than their chain counterparts do. Used CDs cost resellers about one-quarter of the original retail cost and sell for at least three times more.
Profit margins from used vinyl albums are harder to gauge Ñ but come in markedly higher than those for new products.
Vinyl records, nonetheless, remain a Portland music-retailing signature. Stores such as Discourage Records, 1737 S.E. Morrison St., offer a vinyl subniche: The store specializes in records from the late 1970s and early '80s.
Then there's Crossroads Music, 3130-B S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., which, with its consignment/antique mall-like setup, is a vinyl Mecca.
'Crossroads is a particularly good place to pick through the vinyl,' says David Ryner, a London record store owner who scoured Crossroads' racks before a recent music convention. 'Lots of different styles, lots of stuff in mint condition.'
Portland also wins raves for its knowledgeable record store workers. The town's best independents employ workers who engage customers in conversations about their musical tastes and recommend further listening choices.
'Our staff doesn't have major turnover like, say, Tower,' says Ozone's Greif. 'Our customers know them, and they form relationships that larger stores don't.'
Such tactics have generally helped Portland's independents do better than their national counterparts, who rang up fewer sales in 2000 than in 1999. All told, 49 percent of all music retailers posted higher music sales in 2000 than the year before, compared with 80 percent in 1999, according to the National Association of Recording Merchandisers.
Industry observers say the association's numbers for 2001, if anything, will be worse, the result of poor major label sales and the inroads of pirated music. Entire albums are now being streamed through the Internet, hammering retail sales and replacing home taping as the object of retailers' collective ire.
'It's the issue most prominent in people's minds now because (2000) music sales were down for the first time,' says Jim Donio, executive director of the merchandisers' association. 'Everyone Ñ small retailers, large retailers, the artists Ñ will have to come together to solve it.'
Then there's the relatively new strategy in which major record labels supply larger customers such as Best Buy with exclusive CD versions containing bonus tracks and other extras. In theory, an artist's fans will purchase the otherwise unavailable extras from the big retailer, thereby shunning all other sellers.
'It's like if you're a John
Grisham fan and you knew Borders was selling a Grisham book that had two more chapters than anyone else,' says Scott Register, marketing director for the Birmingham, Ala.-based Coalition of Independent Music Stores. 'Would that be fair? Obviously not.'
If nothing else, the tilted merchandising arrangement forces independents to further spotlight their service-based competitive strategies. The approach, Currier says, is the key to making his Millennium ride last.
Well, that and his love of music.
'We come to work every day because of our passion for the music,' he says. 'We'd be crazy to do it for the money.'
Music Millennium's passion is obvious to Register of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores:
'They're definitely a destination point for music lovers who go to Portland and shop. When I first went there, I walked in the front door and said, 'This smells like a record store.' '
It also smells like a survivor.