Thriving in the Digital Age
Independent record Stores
June 1, 2017
There was a time in the 1970s and 80s that a teenager with some disposable income could spend it happily at any number of record stores. There were plenty to be found, even in a relatively small market like Fort Wayne.
One of those stores, Slatewood Records, brought one of its best employees to manage its Fort Wayne store. When Bob Roets first arrived in town, there were no fewer than nine record stores in the city, and it would have been hard to imagine that gravy train coming to an end.
Roets is now the owner of Wooden Nickel, a business he began in 1982. At one time Wooden Nickel had six stores in the area, covering all corners of the city. Now with three very successful stores to his credit, he has seen the business grow, shrink and rebound and has found ways to stay on course. His family - including wife Cindy and son Christopher - have been key to his success, and a few years ago Christopher decided to strike out on his own, proving that there was room for more record stores in Fort Wayne.
"He had worked here at Wooden Nickel since he was 14," says Bob Roets. "He wanted to do something non-Wooden Nickel and told me he was going into the [Glenbrook Square] mall. I was a little unsure because no one had really made it in the mall."
Using pieces and inventory from their closed Southgate store, the Roets family helped Christopher set up shop at the lower level of Glenbrook Square, a space set near the food court. To Bob's surprise, the store, Entourage, began doing a nice business and was attracting people who might not otherwise visit the mall.
"He was making a living, doing pretty well," says Bob. "He was only able to sign a one-year lease and then had to keep renewing it. The malls don't like to do locals any favors because they'd rather have the bigger name stores in there, but he was doing well in that location. Then he received a notice that a national chain was coming in, and Christopher would have to leave."
Eventually it was discovered that F.Y.E., a business which had closed at Glenbrook about 10 years ago, was returning, a surprise to many who didn't realize the business was still around.
"When it closed, at that time F.Y.E. had declared bankruptcy selling CDs, DVDs, that kind of thing," says Bob. "When it came back it was selling drones, toys, pop dolls - it was really more like Spencer Gifts. It really wasn't a record store anymore, but I guess they didn't want the competition of Entourage, so Christopher had to leave."
The backlash was immediate. A flyer was printed and quickly went viral, with many local music fans incensed by the treatment Christopher and Entourage received at the hands of Glenbrook Square. But for the Roets family, it became a chance to formulate a new plan, one that puts Christopher in line to assume the family business when his parents retire. Until then he is managing the Wooden Nickel on West Jefferson and has put his own personal stamp on it.
"He brought in a lot of the things he was doing in Entourage," says Bob. "He had bins with T-shirts and buttons, pins, stickers, those kinds of accessories. He also has some guitar strings and accessories and some drum sticks. So he's made the store his own."
That record stores can still make it at all is a remarkable story in perseverance, and no one exemplifies that can-do spirit more than Bob Roets. He saw Wooden Nickel through the dark years when Napster and iTunes threatened to undermine the music business entirely, leaving slim hopes for the future for CDs much less vinyl.
"Even though the music on NAPSTER was suppressed and didn't have the same quality as a CD, which has terrific quality, kids responded to being able to download music for free. They were able to bypass the record stores completely. And then iTunes came along. My wife has a big family and when we'd get together for the holidays I'd always give out Wooden Nickel gift certificates, but I started seeing people giving iTunes gift cards and knew then that we might have a problem here."
Those problems continued into the early 2000s when digital music made CDs, if not obsolete, definitely not a screaming success anymore. But about halfway into the decade, Bob got a call that signaled the dawn of a new era - even if he didn't realize it at the time.
"I still get chills when I talk about this," he says. "I got a call from someone who was getting in touch with record store owners. They were looking to do something for record stores like Comic Book Day. This guy was calling around and called me because Wooden Nickel had been around so long and asked me what I thought might work for something like that. We'd been doing in-store performances for years. Now we're bringing in 30-35 bands a year which back then was kind of unusual so I offered that as a suggestion."
The group organizing this special day for record stores also brought in some heavy artillery in the form of Metallica, a group that knew a thing or two about the scourge of NAPSTER. Metallica helped kick things off with a store appearance in Los Angeles and some merch to distribute. A little thing called Record Store Day had been born, and Roets and Wooden Nickel were there from the start. Roets found it difficult 10 years ago to muster much interest from the media, but for Record Store Day 2016, that had all changed.
"This past year I did 11 interviews, and I only had to contact two of them myself. The others all came to me. Now Record Store Day is a big day on the calendar, and there's instant media buzz when it comes around."
Roets also credits his involvement with CIMS, the Coalition of Independent Music Stores which formed in 1995, with his ability to compete with not only the big stores like Walmart but with online juggernaut Amazon. Given the opportunity to not only promote special events but have some fun swag as giveaways (a recent midnight release of the new Metallica album is a good example), something that is unique to Wooden Nickel and helps generate fan excitement.
Another side benefit to Record Store Day has been the stoking of interest in vinyl, a format which was thought dead by the dawn of the new millennium. As more new vinyl releases and special editions came to record stores, the new generation - one which may never have even owned physical media before - began to get excited about vinyl again. Interest in Fort Wayne alone is so high that there's another record store in the city, one positioned downtown on Calhoun. Neat Neat Neat opened its doors in 2011, and owner Morrison Agen says his decision to open it wasn't just some random boyhood dream fulfilled.
"I actually came to it from a pretty pragmatic perspective," says Agen. "I'd worked in the music industry and professional audio for 20 years. That's where my entire livelihood came from, and I started to see all the new vinyl coming out in the wake of Record Store Day and saw an opening there."
Filling a niche somewhat different from Wooden Nickel, Agen said business was humming along pretty nicely until last year when new releases began coming to stores on Fridays instead of Tuesdays, which has presented a problem for retailers like him.
"It used to be if a new release came out on Tuesday, and I had only ordered five or six for my stock, and it sold out quickly, then I could order more and have them for the weekend. Now if a release comes out on Friday, and I sell out, I won't get more for my stock until Tuesday, which means I don't have it available for the weekend when I do most of my business. It's really all about the new releases."
Roets also says that keeping up with new releases is crucial because initial interest is what draws people into the stores. But Wooden Nickel has also diversified, and while stocking turntables - suddenly a hot commodity for people getting into vinyl again - and other music and entertainment products, Roets' stores are finding ways to remain successful. He's even considering moving into a downtown location as the business side of downtown continues to evolve.
But in recent summers, a new relationship for Wooden Nickel came in the form of promoter Peter Kernan, who has been responsible for the explosion of concerts at the Foellinger Theatre in the last three years. Wooden Nickel, as one of the concert sponsors, gains free publicity each time a commercial for the concerts run. And that involvement has taken the form of something far more concrete.
"We're selling tickets to all of those concerts now that Pete is promoting, and that's been a big windfall for us. We get two dollars for every ticket sold. It gets a little crazy around here when those tickets go on sale. The Ringo show sold out in a couple of hours, and when the Heart tickets went on sale the following week, they sold out in six hours. So those are some crazy days here, but it's been just great for us."
As Roets looks ahead to 2017 - when he can celebrate not only 10 years of Record Store Day but Wooden Nickel's 35th anniversary - he remains boyishly excited about the future of Wooden Nickel and of independent record stores in general.
"All of these promotions and being involved with CIMS has really helped us take the business to the next level. And people know that when they come to us, we have more than 100 years of experience in the business. I've been doing this since 1977, my wife Cindy has been working here since 1982, Tim Hogan at the North Anthony store has been working at record stores since 1971 and Christopher has been working here since he was 14. So our history and experience have made it possible for us to keep doing this."