David Guetta set up shop on a Miami rooftop and blasted party music while neighbors danced on balconies or joined in via Zoom. Donations went to organizations including WHO, Feeding America, and Fondation Hopitaux de Paris. (May 28)

AP Entertainment

Some independent record stores across the US have been barely hanging on in recent years, thanks to a rise in online streaming and the dominance of mega-retailers such as Amazon.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, making matters even worse.

Brick-and-mortar stores shut their doors more than two months ago and, in many parts of the country, are still closed. Those that have reopened have had to make extensive and costly modifications to how they do business, such as adding plexiglass shields at registers and buying hand sanitizer in bulk.

Record Store Day, an annual event designed to bring in business for indie record shops, had to be retooled, as well. Now, instead of one day, it’ll be split into three to help reduce crowds and allow for social distancing: Aug. 29, Sept. 26 and Oct. 24.

Sales of physical albums have dropped every year since 2004, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. During the pandemic, some musical genres saw double-digit dips compared to the same period last year. Christian/gospel albums, for example, plummeted 53%. Rock fell 20%. Country was 16% lower. 

The pandemic prompted a number of record stores to get creative so they could stay afloat. In Nashville, Grimey’s New and Pre-Loved Music started selling hundreds of records online — something it hadn’t focused on before. In Austin, Texas, Waterloo Records & Video offered curbside pickup and started posting LPs for sale on Instagram. And in Portland, Oregon, customers jumped at the chance to buy gift certificates for future purchases at Jackpot Records, leading to a much-needed infusion of cash.

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Pushing online sales for the first time

Grimey’s co-owner Doyle Davis has seen a lot in the 20 years he’s been in business, but he says the coronavirus pandemic is “certainly the most challenging situation I’ve ever faced.”

The store, which closed March 23 after Nashville Mayor John Cooper issued a “Safer At Home” order, recently reopened. Employees were furloughed and Davis says he is just now in a position to start bringing some back on the payroll.

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Online sales — something Grimey’s hadn’t focused on in the past — helped keep the shop going while the store was closed. Singer Taylor Swift pitched in to help keep workers’ heath insurance intact. A Paycheck Protection Program loan helped too.

“We’re still here. We’ve been able to generate enough revenue to pay rent for now,” Davis said. “The near-view future looks pretty good.”

Davis says he plans to continue to beef up his e-commerce efforts after seeing how quickly things took off. Over half of the orders Grimey’s has received so far have been from out of state.

“I’m getting demand for records I’ve never sold before,” he said. “There’s a lot of goodwill out there, a lot of people who want to buy from a locally owned business and not Amazon. I’m really glad we’ve been around long enough to engender that kind of support.”

While waiting for the physical store to reopen, Davis worked to get it coronavirus-ready. There’s a shield at the front counter, he bought extra cleaning supplies and there are Xs on the floor to show shoppers where to stand so they can keep 6 feet apart. Masks are required of both shoppers and employees. Meet-and-greets and concerts are on hold.

Record sales happen by curbside pickup, home delivery

In Seattle, an early coronavirus hot spot in the US, Easy Street Records has had to whittle its staff down from 32 employees to just seven.

In addition to curbside pickup, owner Matt Vaughan has been in his car, making door-to-door deliveries. Some regulars have been placing multiple orders in a single week, he says.

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Sales are down 50% compared to last year, but that’s an improvement from early on in the coronavirus shutdown when they were down by 70%. Vaughan says the past few months have been “a real kick in the a–.”

“We didn’t expect (online) to be as strong as it has been,” he said. “We’re just trying to save the world one record at a time.”

Another Seattle record store, Bop Street, recently announced it would close at the end of the month. Vaughan says that, unfortunately, he expects to see more of that in the future.

“This put us all on notice,” he said.

Artists have done their part to try to help Easy Street and others by donating albums and autographing merchandise, among other things.

“We’ve seen an outpouring of support from artists globally imploring their fans to go support record stores in a way we haven’t seen since the initial launch of Record Store Day so, ironically, COVID-19 made record stores extremely relevant again,” says event co-founder Michael Kurtz. 

Under Seattle city rules, Vaughan could’ve reopened in early June, but he says he doesn’t feel confident enough to do that just yet. So, for now, he’s sticking with curbside and door-to-door deliveries while watching how things go for other businesses that did decide to reopen.

“Things are never going to be as normal as we remember them,” he said. “We have to realize that.”

Vinyl reissues on hold while stores are closed

Isaac Slusarenko, president of Portland’s Jackpot Records, says the coronavirus shutdown was an “unexpected curveball” that’s unlike anything the store and record label have seen in 30-plus years in business.

“I’m used to seeing and discussing music on a daily basis,” he said. “Record stores are a retail and community experience, which is something you can’t replicate online.” 

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Slusarenko is currently sitting on five vinyl reissues that had been ready to ship before most of the country went into lockdown. Now, their release has been pushed back to August at the earliest.

Recently reopened, the store’s hours are limited, there’s an occupancy limit and hand sanitizer stations are in place, among other precautions. Customers, he says, are ecstatic.

“During our closure, a lot of folks taped notes on our door to let us know they missed us,” Slusarenko said. “That was something that really helped retain our hope and sanity.

“I’ve had numerous conversations this week that Jackpot Records has been some customers’ first store outing except for groceries. Just finally being able to see customers in person has meant a lot.”

Follow Gary Dinges on Twitter @gdinges


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