Local record shops will need to up their game to weather the substanceless future of music

When local vinyl enthusiast Gene Hopstetter plays me Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, he pulls three pressings from his collection of roughly 700 albums, indicating the differences in each. The changing packaging and track listings chronicle the start of Sinatra’s 1950s disenfranchisement from Capitol Records. He places the needle as if preparing holy communion; “You Make Me Feel So Young” pours from his ’77 Klipsch Cornwalls.

Hopstetter complains the later edition sounds like it’s coming from inside an aquarium. He swaps in the first pressing and the oft-celebrated “warmth” of vinyl rears itself. Sinatra feels so incredibly near.

We soak it up.

Hopstetter respects digital audio, but won’t listen to MP3’s or other common formats. He exclusively uses lossless audio (FLAC) fed through a digital output — no headphone/audio out jacks. While he also likes Pandora and cloud services, he’s committed to vinyl. The problem is, “San Antonio is really not a good city for buying vinyl,” he says, adding that local stores can be counted on for having around 100 copies of Barbara Streisand’s People on inventory, however.

Everything he buys comes from Austin or is purchased online.

It’s no mystery the music industry is hanging record stores over a fire. Piracy remains difficult to track. Cloud services and online vendors indulge customers with speed and low cost. While there is a resurgent interest in vinyl, Side-Line Magazine recently reported that major labels will nearly abandon the CD in 2012, pressing only special editions. We are living through the end of the physical music era. And reports from the home front depress.

“We’re fueled by pride,” says Javier Gutiérrez, part owner of Del Bravo Record Shop on Old Highway 90. “We haven’t been profitable in four or five years.”

Gutiérrez’s father Salomé opened Del Bravo, specializing in Latin music, in 1966. They’ve battled format changes, economic turmoil, and big box providers, with good customer service and fair prices for a mostly new inventory. Salomé also recorded musicians on his own DLB Records out of his house from the early 1960s to 2000. Strangely, the day I speak with Gutiérrez is one where he has just had a difficult breakfast with his parents.

“They’re like, ‘Javier, we’ve weathered storms before,’” he says. “‘But this storm is different. There’s no other media coming.’”

In early October, I interviewed Hogwild Records owner Dave Risher about the state of his shop. Hogwild (on Main near San Antonio College) is the closest thing to an indie shop in town, carrying a variety of new releases on CD, DVD, and vinyl, plus merch and used discs and records. Its reputation is iconic, especially to local musicians who peddle their work there. The shop turns 30 this year.

“We’re struggling a bit, but we’re keeping our doors open,” Risher said.

Around that same time, I spoke with folks at Janie’s Record Shop at Bandera near Woodlawn. Like Del Bravo, Janie’s sells Latin music, but offers more used material. Customer traffic was steady while I was there, and owner Juanita Esparza said she was not worried about closing Janie’s, even though Janie’s moved two years ago to cut down on rent and her daughter/accountant Rebecca DeLeon’s Era Tapes downtown store closed early last decade. Her son/inventory manager Robert Esparza shared anecdotes of international customers visiting and how fast Janie’s hit the 5,000 friend limit on Facebook.

“[Esparza] is trying to survive just like we are,” Gutiérrez insists. “If we don’t have a product, we send [the customer] to her. We try to be each other’s lifeline.”

It’s unclear who is being more honest, but it’s clear that Del Bravo is in twilight. The Gutiérrez family still sells DLB’s back catalog to distributors and collects royalties on around 15,000 song copyrights through their San Antonio Music Publishers. In other words, they have other means.

I ask Gutiérrez about amping their sales (including two warehouses of used vinyl) by selling online. He’s indefinite.

Hopstetter describes a good record store as having the selection and promotion of Waterloo Records and End of an Ear in Austin. He finds as many as 20 items on his purchase radar whenever he visits. Austin stores host in-store shows/appearances and promote sales/deals through social media. According to Corbin Harwell, Waterloo’s indie buyer, the shop averages around four in-store events a week.

End of an Ear uploads record porn to YouTube: videos of lovely hands showing off new arrivals, frequently followed by “hold” requests in the Facebook comments section. Michael Kurtz, co-founder of Record Store Day and president of the Music Monitor Network (the largest indie record store coalition in the U.S. and Canada), adds that an ideal record store provides an online order department.

Hogwild and Alamo Records and Sheet Music don’t have websites. Hogwild promotes deals and events via social media, though their homemade videos make a greater attempt at (bad) comedy than the hawking of wares. Special events happen less than once a week, but they also mention new arrivals, events around town, and share excellent music trivia. Conversely, Del Bravo’s Facebook started in mid-summer and has less than a page of updates. Janie’s spams variations of the same post with video and picture links.

None of these stores offer online ordering, but I wish that was the worst of it.*

“We just opened our doors and got slammed,” Risher said about Hogwild’s Record Store Day 2011 festivities in April. He didn’t book regional/local talent (as Waterloo did) or even give discounts to customers who shotgunned beers (as Austin’s Trailer Space Record Shop has). He just came to work, not bothering to double-down on the publicity provided by the holiday.

Why am I dogging our esteemed, but dying shops? It’s because of Don Hurd, a 50-year-old former English teacher who just opened Imagine Books and Records on Culebra near Timberview. He worked at a variety of record/bookstores in the ’90s, including two years managing the defunct Apple Records (not related to the Beatles’ label of the same name). Hurd’s enthusiasm makes a Spurs cheerleader seem like a pallbearer. He said he sunk his life savings into Imagine because he’s still charmed by “the experience you get from holding something in your hands” and the needle dropping into a groove producing vibrations that become music. Recently, a teen girl thrilled at buying Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in his shop. It felt right. “I have two sons and it’s important to me that they see their parents had dreams in their life and didn’t just... ” His eyes well up.

But Hurd has no illusions about the challenge ahead and is prepared to go whole-hog promoting. New material is endangered, so he’ll sell used. Social media is integral, so he’ll promote. Events bring people, so he’s planning spoken word and songwriter nights. An online department will build capital and may become the crux of his business, so he’s selling and shipping through an AbeBooks account. He can’t afford advertising, so he’s flyer-campaigning his neighborhoods.

Try to imagine Hogwild clerks canvassing neighborhoods. Or Del Bravo converting to an online, primarily used warehouse with a miniature storefront. Or Janie’s studying social media’s best practices. If sales continue to drop, this may be the future of each. Or attempts at change may come too late, and San Antonio will be impoverished by one more store’s closure.

Hurd’s efforts — though they may fail miserably — is a reminder that our stores are not emulating successful strategies effectively, particularly because they are all ignoring online sales but also because they’re not getting the most out of the “new word of mouth”: social media. Nor are they luring in a dedicated base that leaves the city to indulge themselves elsewhere.

In October, Chris Houchens, Kentucky-based marketing speaker and author of Brand Zeitgeist, told me that everyone supports a community record store in theory, but reveal their true colors once they sit in front of a computer.

My question for SA’s store owners and shoppers both present and past: Is he right? •

* Hogwild does, in fact, offer online ordering through both eBay and Discog. We regret the error and thank online commenter DJ Dogbone for bringing it to our attention.