Vinyl Resurgence Helps N.B. Indie Record Stores Thrive

Backstreet Records’ Saint John store front

Given the vast technological advances the world has seen since rock ‘n’ roll first hit radio’s airwaves last century more than half a century past, change has naturally been a constant in the way people consume music.

From vinyl records through eight-track cartridges, cassettes, compact discs and mini-discs to the age of the Internet when file-sharing services, the MP3 and digital service providers like Spotify and Apple Music reign supreme, these changes have both bolstered the business while also leaving a fair share of casualties along the way.

Among the first Canadian music retailer to wave the white flag in the Internet age was Sam The Record Man, which entered bankruptcy in late 2001. Six years later, it was Music World’s turn, a move that left HMV as the country’s largest music chain operator, an arguably tenuous position it would hold until this past January when the chain was forced into receivership.

If a consumer were to rely solely on headlines surrounding HMV’s closure and the music retailing business in general, you wouldn’t have been able to fault them for believing end of days would soon be upon us and they would have to resort to ordering their physical product via online retailers such as Amazon.

While chaos has seemingly been the order of the day for national music stores that have dominated the country’s landscape over the last few decades, independent music retailers throughout New Brunswick have not only been surviving, they have been thriving.

A collection of vinyl and CDs await customers at Moncton’s Spin-It Records

Independent retailers have a distinct advantage over their larger, national counterparts in that they are more readily able to adapt to market conditions.

Another key factor in the ongoing prevalence of indie music retailers in the province is the passion and knowledge of their respective local markets.

“Passion is absolutely essential to sustaining a meaningful business presence and building on customer relationships and establishing that trust,” Spin-It Records and Video owner Pat Parisé says.

When he first opened his store in downtown Moncton in November 2001, Parisé focused almost exclusively on the compact disc and vinyl formats, nestling his cozy shop on the block directly across the street from the Residence Inn. Before long, the store’s offerings expanded to include video rentals, books and more.

Approximately five years ago, bolstered by the demand for an ever-expanding range of products, Parisé packed up his store and moved approximately two blocks down Main Street, occupying part of a building that used to serve as a car dealership.

While Spin-It’s video rental business occupies the front half of the store’s space and continues to significantly contribute to the store’s bottom line, music remains an integral part of Parisé’s bread and butter, as evidenced by a wall of compact discs and a collection of vinyl that numbers in the thousands.

Somewhat ironically, given the highly publicized death knell that was sounded for vinyl once upon a time, it is that format driving the bulk of music sales today at stores like Spin-It and Backstreet Records in Saint John.

Backstreet owner Gordie Tufts says despite the fact the format was pronounced dead in the early 90s following the arrival of the compact disc, vinyl never went out of style at his shop.

“A lot of the national chains stopped selling vinyl when CDs hit the market, but we’ve always been a record store. There has been people supporting the format all along, before it came back in vogue over these last few years,”Tufts says.

While patrons of all ages are showing an appreciation for vinyl, what Tufts finds most encouraging is the way that teens have taken to the medium over the convenience of digital downloads or streaming services.

“There is a whole new demographic coming into the shop looking for vinyl. You have to remember that for someone that is 20 to 25 years old, they probably never really got into buying CDs, as many of them have naturally been the product of the digital and iTunes generation.”

Marty LeBlanc, owner of Moncton store Live Wire, estimates that 90 per cent of his store’s sales stem from people purchasing new and used vinyl.

“When I first opened the store in 2006, I would say sales were equally divided between CDs and vinyl, but sales are being totally dominated by vinyl now,”he offers.

The continued relevance of stores like Spin-It, Backstreet Records and Live Wire, in addition to SecondSpin in Saint John and Fredericton along with others throughout the province is not driven by trends, however. These stores have made – and continue to make – their marks based on an acute knowledge of music that goes far beyond a sales transaction.

Frequent your local neighbourhood record store enough and, before long, you’ll have staff members telling you about a record that might tickle your fancy. Not sure what album might complement that informal dinner party on Friday night? Simply float the question out there, but don’t be surprised when you are flooded with the possibilities you receive in return.

A selection of jazz, blues and folk CDs at Frank’s Music, Moncton

It is that personalized level of service that has helped keep Frank’s Music in Moncton ticking since the late 70s when Frank Barter and his family relocated from their hometown of Sydney, N.S. to Moncton following the purchase of a Sam The Record Man franchise in the city. Following that chain’s aforementioned bankruptcy, the store re-christened itself for its owner, maintaining its core group of customers while also introducing new faces in the store’s aisles.

[Editor’s Note: The story’s author was employed by Sam The Record Man / Frank’s Music between 1998 and 2001.]

“It’s the passion the staff has for music that has kept us afloat all these years,”says Karl Barter, manager of Frank’s Music. “Everybody knows a little bit about everything, which we can use to serve our customers. I can’t tell you how many times over the years we heard how Future Shop or A&A or HMV were going to steal our business. We never concerned ourselves with the competition. We stayed humble, put our heads down, and went about running the business. We’ve been fortunate enough to build up a good reputation with our clientele and collectors that appreciate stores like ours offering a deep catalogue of music.”

Like Barter, Spin-It’s Parisé wants people to indulge in the record store experience. Although the convenience of buying a new single or album on iTunes is arguably tough to beat, Parisé says a good music store has much in common with a library.

“I think it’s so important to create those experiences and show people what they could be missing,” he says. “Sure, it’s all well and good to listen to music or watch a movie on your phone, but you also have to consider if that’s what the artist had in mind when they created this piece of work. Are you really going to appreciate a poor quality download of a movie or album instead of seeing or hearing that piece of work like the artist intended?”

It is Parisé’s way of thinking that is driving the current expansion plans of Sunrise Records. Founded in 1977, Sunrise was originally a small-scale, Ontario-based chain. Approximately one month after news broke of HMV’s impending bankruptcy, the company announced it had signed a deal to take over 70 of HMV’s locations. Among those locations set tentatively set to open at the end of April are former HMV stores in CF Champlain, Moncton/Dieppe, McAllister Place, Saint John, and Regent Mall, Fredericton.

While some might question such ambitious expansion plans, Sunrise Records’ President Doug Putnam is confident of the continued viability of record stores.

“There’s no question that the Internet has taken a bite out of the business, but I don’t see it as though it’s the only game in town,” he says. “People still enjoy getting out to stores and indulging in the experience of looking for music. Are we taking a risk? Absolutely, but I also feel confident that the Canadian market can support the market for physical product. There are still a lot of collectors out there that want to hold the finished product in their hands.”

Putnam’s assessment on the continued demand for product is something that Alan Cross, broadcaster and founder of syndicated radio program The Ongoing History of New Music, believes will hold true for many years to come.

“A national record chain is an important part of the Canadian music ecosystem,”Cross says.“There will always be those who want to own music. Streaming gives access, but you’re essentially just renting the music. Owning music, whether on CD or vinyl, means not only is it yours, it also fulfils that elusive tactile relationship. Sometimes you want hold and display the music you purchased. That’s still an important aspect to a lot of people.”