Making a brick and mortar record store work in a time of virtually unfettered digital file-sharing and generally declining revenues in the music industry takes a special kind of brilliance. It’s been five years since giants Coconuts and Tower Records shuttered their doors. One imagines that even Nick Hornby’s fictional Championship Vinyl would be facing deep profit gashes in this market.
Co-owners of Chicago vinyl hotspot and indie label Permanent Records Lance Barresi and Liz Tooley could probably teach a course in the current landscape of music commerce. Their own physical store opened in 2006 in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, and instead of eking out a narrow margin, it has actually managed to flourish. So much so, in fact, that Permanent will be opening a new store this summer in Los Angeles.
Originally meeting in Columbia, Missouri, the two worked their way up in different branches of local music and entertainment chain Slackers, until they were both managers at their respective stores. Barresi and Tooley say that it was an excellent experience, but that they knew they needed to move on and start their own store. Says Barresi, “we wanted to focus on vinyl and they weren’t really into expanding that section of the store.”
The focus on vinyl might be thought of as the first step in the couple’s indie record store guide to success. As is commonly discussed in music culture (even in High Fidelity), vinyl is a physical medium with intrinsic auditory value, which cannot be reproduced by the share-ready MP3. In short, it simply sounds “warmer.”
As Tooley breaks it down: “We have i-Pods too. We load things up to that if we’re going to listen to music on the go. I see how that’s beneficial to people and I understand how that works, but just for our own personal collection, we want to hear it the way that it was recorded and the way that it was meant to be heard.”
Barresi also points to another facet of the vinyl record, as tangible artifact, that I feel is often over-looked as one of its advantages: the artwork. Every unknown band out there struggling to get their first 12” pressed has at least five young graphic artist friends willing to craft an unforgettable piece of cover art just to get people to see their work.
Hold that illustrated cardboard square in your hand. Get lost in its imagery. This is your first key into the as yet undiscovered realms of auditory revery which open as soon as the needle drops into those wax grooves. What is a CD compared to that? Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison probably said it best when he called the CD “a hard, shiny, plastic, unpleasant, unhappy little medium.”
But vinyl isn’t a magic, customer-generating charm. Tooley says that a lot of conventional record stores that tried to expand their vinyl catalogue went about it the wrong way: “they brought in like a back catalogue of Ringo Starr on vinyl, which is in every dollar bin, and that’s the kind of stuff the majors are re-pressing. So they just stuck with whatever their big one-stop (supplier) had.”
Permanent, on the other hand, attracts customers by stocking vinyl that is a little harder to come by. Rare reissues, standards from bands that only Pitchfork readers would be familiar with, and local releases unavailable anywhere else. In choosing what records to sell in their store, Barresi and Tooley buy direct from bands as much as possible, and above all, sell what they like.
This is the other big reason that Permanent Records has met with such success: community. On the record side, Barresi and Tooley actually started their own label, in 2007, because they had too many friends’ bands making excellent music with nowhere to release it.
It all started with one record, Warhammer 48k’s “Ethereal Oracle.” It should be mentioned, first of all, that Warhammer members form one-half of the epic Chicago psych-drone band Cave, including Cooper Crain, who’s solo work as Bitchin Bajas has already been written about on this blog. The couple were friends with Warhammer from Columbia, Missouri and wanted to sell their music at Permanent. But after asking for the vinyl three times only to find that no one was willing to press it, they decided to take the leap and put it out themselves.
Barresi explains, “That’s basically been the justification for all of the releases that we’ve done so far, is that we’ve found it unjust that each particular recording wasn’t on wax.” The record label has grown and added to its catalogue, not only releases from local notables like Heater, Cacaw, and Brain Idea, but reissues for out of print gems like their most recent, “Different Thinking People,” by 80’s art-punk outfit Psyclones. They’ve even forged a connection with Metz, France based punk collective Triple Alliance, releasing LP’s by Cheveu and the Anals.
On the customer side, Permanent Records reflects the only feasible tack of the new music economy, a return to individual connection and community integration. “We like being part of the community, so it’s very important for us to share what we do with other people.” Building this relationship includes sponsoring events around town and organizing in-store performances, which allow under-21’s a place to see innovative music (even, on one occasion, The Meat Puppets).
It also includes social networking: here is a place where Permanent Records has found the internet to be a help, rather than a hindrance to their business. The P-Rex weekly e-letter updates its followers on what new records are in store, and also delivers a short-list of local concert listings, some of which you might not have heard about otherwise (like the Puffy Areola’s show I’m now going to see this weekend, thanks guys!).
The Permanent Records web-store launched in 2009 and already accounts for 25% of their sales. Moreover, by communicating with other music geeks via blogs and forums, Barresi and Tooley mine valuable information on what music to stock for their store.
The couple even use file-sharing to their advantage, noting that customers are much more willing to put down $15 or $20 for a 12” from a band they’ve never heard of before as long as you can link them to a couple tracks to listen to first. As Barresi says, “Everybody has heard of every band thanks to the ease of access.”
Most importantly, however, the store survives, and thrives, because it is a welcoming place to be. Barresi and Tooley’s cat Zaireeka (named after the quadraphonic Flaming Lips release), rubs against the customers’ calves as they thumb through stacks of LP’s. If your curious about a record, you don’t have to bring an empty sleeve to the front and ask to see the actual vinyl, you can just take it directly over to the turntable and give it a spin. If your not sure exactly what you want, just ask one of the owners, as Tooley vouches “I would rather see someone come back to us because we recommended a great record than try to push a bunch of records I know they won’t care about.”
It’s this neighborliness that promises to make Permanent Records a permanent fixture of the Ukrainian Village community and a hit in their new Eagle Rock locale. Again to quote Tooley, “It’s weird to say in a big city, but it helps to have some Mayberry in you.”