MONTREAL — Over the past decade, major Canadian CD retailers such as Sam the Record Man and Music World have shut their doors. Even HMV’s parent company has been struggling, with sales dropping and profits shrinking. Yet independent record stores are surviving despite the prophecies of major labels, which cite declining sales and rampant piracy as signs of an impending musical cataclysm, as if BitTorrent had become the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.
In Montreal, that may be because independent retailers are focusing on a clientele that continues to appreciate the tactile experience of owning music. And that means focusing less on CDs, and more on vinyl.
“The CD format is definitely dead,” says Pierre Markotanyos, of Aux 33 Tours on Mont Royal Ave. E. “There’s not much left.” When Markotanyos opened his store five years ago, sales were split evenly between CDs and vinyl. But things have changed. “In the last two years, it’s gone from 50-50 to . . . 90-10.”
“Vinyl is the one format that has always been consistent,” says Shawn Ellingham, primary owner of Sound Central on Coloniale Ave. “Maybe it’s had a lull, but . . . the underground and the DJ circuit kept vinyl alive.”
Ellingham says vinyl has survived because it helps create a physical connection with the music — something absent in the digital format. “(Customers) appreciate the idea that it’s something tangible, not just zeros and ones that sort of float in your head space. . . You can look at the sunset through your Google screen, but you know when you’re really in Hawaii.”
Vinyl’s continued popularity gives indie record stores an advantage over major retailers, since, unlike CDs, unsold records can’t be sent back for a credit. “Chain stores are more hesitant to order vinyl, because they can’t return it,” says Guy Lavoie, co-manager of downtown’s Cheap Thrills. Indie stores, on the other hand, are more adventurous. “Most indie record stores aren’t in it just for the money,” he explains. “They have a certain interest and passion for music, and they’re willing to (risk) it.”
But although declining CD sales and downloading may not have crippled independent record stores, auction sites such as eBay have had an effect. “Ten years ago, people used to sell you records (in bulk)” says Nick Catalano of Beatnick, on St. Denis St. “They’d go to garage sales and flea markets, pick up boxes of records, keep the ones they wanted and (sell you) the rest.” The Internet, Catalano says, has changed all that. “Now, they’re . . . selling them on the Internet. I constantly have people walking in with records that are worth $3 and asking $20 because some moron is selling them for $50 (online).”
But since most online sales are made to the United States, the strong Canadian dollar is bringing pickers back to the shops. “Now, with the exchange rate . . . exporting to the U.S. is not even worth it. You might as well sell it locally,” Markotanyos says.
And what’s bought and sold depends entirely on the neighbourhood. Although it once focused on punk and metal because of its proximity to downtown concert venues, Sound Central moved to its current location about five years ago and had to alter its selection. “We’re in the heart of the Plateau. It’s a little more indie. It’s more a central art vibe,” Ellingham says. “We’re getting into more of the folk, more of the old school acid rock and more the new weird punk.”
Sound Central’s new neighbourhood features a remarkably dense collection of independent record stores, which might suggest cutthroat competition. Not so, says Ellingham. Instead, it draws more customers. “You’ll notice that there’s always a Burger King next to the McDonald’s next to the KFC next to the Harvey’s,” he explains. “That’s because it brings more people to the general area.”
Still, with so many other record stores, differentiation is key. Getting the right product in the store is critical — particularly when dealing with fans of underground and independent music. “I like to say that if you haven’t ever heard of (a release), we have it,” laughs Brian Millward, co-manager of Cheap Thrills.
But he’s quick to note that Cheap Thrills, which has been open for 40 years — 25 at their current downtown location — doesn’t focus exclusively on the kinds of releases so deliberately obscure they’re pressed in negative quantities. “We try to be general. We try to be a place where you can find a Monkees LP and a John Zorn (record),” Millward says.
Some stores, such as Atom Heart on Sherbrooke St. E., have taken a different approach. In a small, clean space that looks like the inside of an iPod, Atom Heart focuses primarily on new electronic music released on independent labels. The inspiration was simple. “(We) were not finding the records that we liked in Montreal, so we opened a store that would sell them,” co-owner Raymond Trudel says.
And it’s working. Despite the mainstream industry’s tribulations, Trudel is seeing sales increase. “It’s been an excellent year so far. It’s way better this year than last year.” With about 500 square feet of space, Trudel is able to keep costs down while attracting customers with his employees’ encyclopedic knowledge of specific sub-genres.
Manuel Paul, who opened Paul’s Boutique 10 years ago with only 100 records, thinks that in order to survive, record stores will have to increasingly diversify their product. Many stores also sell used books and movies, but Paul goes a step further. “I invest all the cash I make in (putting out) music,” Paul says. Since 2005, he’s released or reissued 12 records featuring Montreal acts such as Bloodshot Bill and the Nils.
Others diversify by offering tickets for local concerts at smaller venues. Cheap Thrills, for example, has a bulletin board listing the availability for what seems like every non-Bell Centre show in the city. “(Tickets are) a big draw,” says Millward. “It took a couple of years, but it’s really expanded our customer base.”
Offering more than just records, Catalano says, is critical. “You have to make it a place where people want to be. Whether they’re there for the books, the magazines, the T-shirts, the local bands playing, the autograph signings.”
Ellingham has come to a similar conclusion. He has an in-store cafe and holds listening parties, screenings and vernissages to reach out to the local artistic community. “(We’re) trying to appeal to all the different arts and entertainments,” he says. “We’re trying to make this more of a pop culture emporium.”
To Ellingham, it’s all about getting customers through the door. “Get people in (your) environment longer than five to 10 minutes, and they’re bound to discover something,” he explains.
As for the future of the industry, all agree it will be tough to predict how the market will evolve. But no matter what happens, they see music existing in some physical form for quite some time — even if that doesn’t translate to huge returns for independent retailers. “No one’s going to become Donald Trump selling Cat Stevens (records),” Catalano says. “You have to do this because you love it.”
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