Vertigo Music's Herm Baker on the upcoming Record Store Day event and the continued relevance of local record stores in our digital culture.
With the advent of the MP3 and digital distribution, CD sales have plummeted and local stores have folded at an alarming rate. However, many local stores are now bouncing back after embracing the new demand for vinyl. Apart from brining customers into local stores, Record Store Day serves to highlight the growing rediscovery of vinyl records in contemporary culture.
On April 21, Grand Rapids’ largest record distributor, Vertigo Music
, celebrates the international Record Store Day
with all-day music festivities. If the holiday sounds unfamiliar, it’s probably due to its recent advent. This year marks the 5th annual occurrence of the celebration, which was organized to observe the importance of the local record store in communities across the world. In the short time that the holiday has existed, it has become a centerpiece of music culture in cities throughout the US. In anticipation of the event, The Rapidian sat down with Vertigo Music’s general manager, Herm Baker, to discuss the changing face of music distribution, the continued relevance of independent music stores in contemporary culture, and the upcoming Record Store day celebrations at Vertigo Music.
The Rapidian: How long has Vertigo been putting on Record Store Day celebrations?
Herm Baker: This is year five… The first year I actually dismissed it, I thought it was kind of hokey. But talking to my employees, they said no, we should be embracing this… I was wrong in that respect. We did it. We made it a party… had bands and pizza and beer and all that. It was a lot of fun. So the next year - year two - we really jumped in it with both feet. We really made it a huge event for us. And it was, it became that.
TR: What is the importance of Record Store Day for Vertigo and for the Grand Rapids community?
HB: For me it’s confirmation that we can exist in this market… It’s validation of who we are. And honestly, it’s the only store of our kind in Grand Rapids … We’re existing and we’re surviving and we’re actually growing now again. It’s all because of vinyl. So Record Store Day is a real validation for us. It feels really good.
We love the fact that it’s an event. We make it a big party. We have six or seven bands. We have DJs. We have a bunch of beverages and pizza and we have a great time… We sell a ton of music that day, but it’s about celebrating the music with our customers.
TR: As you have mentioned, live music is a big part of Vertigo’s record store day celebration. Do you feel that record stores have an imperative to maintain strong relations with local bands and the live music scene?
HB: I would like to have that relationship. I don’t book as many live shows as I would if I was 10 or 15 years younger. I would be a little bit more ambitious with it [then]. Certainly we support the DAAC [Division Avenue Arts Cooperative]. I’m on the DAAC board. We certainly believe in the local scene and we carry a lot of the stuff here on consignment. Yeah, we’re here for them … And they are here for us too.
TR: What do record stores have to offer local communities and musicians that online and big-box commerce can’t provide?
HB: We create a culture here and there’s like minded people meeting up and talking. I’ve had many times where I’ve said “Hey Joe! This guy is a drummer. Do you know who’s looking for a drummer?” “Yeah I know so-and-so is looking for a drummer.” That kind of thing. That happens quite often actually, that kind of interaction. I have seen people that hang out with each other now that met here at Vertigo. So that’s kind of cool to see that.
It’s important that like minded people get together and interact at a place like this. Yeah, you can converse through Facebook all you want. That’s pretty empty at a certain level. I think there’s a pushback. I think there are people that want to be involved and communicating face to face. Why not at a record store?
TR: If the role or significance of record stores is changing, how do you see it as different from in the past?
HB: What were 20,000 record stores 20 years ago now are down to maybe three or four thousand across the country. We’ve seen where CD sales in the last five years have just plummeted. For us our saving grace has been the vinyl. Whereas we used to be 90% CD sales now we are about 60% vinyl sales. So it’s really flipped over.
We are far less a gatekeeper or a tastemaker [than in the past]. But the people that still come to record stores intensely believe in their record stores. We have lost a ton of people. The vital aspect of the record store in their lives is diminished, but there are still many people who value it.
Psychologically, it’s kind of weird when I go to a show and I see all these ex-customers that are no longer buying music. I have to be honest with you, that’s a little rough sometimes. And it’s not my fault; it’s just that the world changed. Technology changed.
There is a core base of customers that support us and always has supported us. We have lost a ton of customers. But … we are a destination store for West Michigan… We have 10,000 new vinyl records in here. There’s no place in West Michigan that does that kind of quantity now… We have customers from Lansing. We have people coming even from Detroit now. So that’s kind of nice to hear that.
TR: If a resurgence in the viability of local record stores has been largely driven by rising vinyl sales, what is motivating this emerging demand for vinyl records? How do you see customer’s appreciation of vinyl changing?
HB: You know, when everyone else graduated high school and bought a car, I sunk my money into a really great stereo system. Records just sound amazing on a good stereo. When people started switching to CDs later, I couldn’t understand it at all. But I think people are starting to realize that records can sound a lot better than digital media.
But beyond that, I can’t tell you how many customers have come in here saying that their MP3 player has become nothing more than an ambient backdrop in their daily activities. It’s easy to lose your appreciation for music when you just have a random playlist running constantly. Records are different. Just the act of slipping the vinyl out of its sleeve or flipping the record over means a lot. People are starting to realize they want to physically interact with their music again.
I coordinate the Music Beat reporting at The Rapidian. When I'm not toiling away at my day-job, I assist Grand Rapids based PVC H.Ex music cooperative with administration, web development, and videography. I also serve on the Board of Directors at Dreamland Theater in Ypsilanti, MI. Most of my free time is wasted untangling patch cables and watching Michael Douglas movies on VHS.
Reports on: Music, art, culture, education