The Covid Chronicles… Record Stores
The pandemic is posing a real challenge to Canadian record store owners, but our interviews show they are adapting well and remaining optimistic.
By Jason Schneider
Although the world of music retail has remained volatile over the past several years, there had been some encouraging signs recently. The dramatic rebound of vinyl—despite being dwarfed by streaming subscription revenue—has far outpaced CD sales, and along with Record Store Day becoming a major annual event, it’s helped bring record stores large and small back to their roots as places where music fans can congregate.
And when Canadian record store chain Sunrise announced in early 2019 that it had fully taken over venerable UK music retailer HMV, it seemed a clear sign that a concerted effort was underway to maintain a bricks and mortar presence for music retail in major markets around the world.
At the same time, some stores have not been able to survive, with just one recent example being the closure of Cheapies, a fixture of downtown Hamilton, Ontario since 1980. More boutique retailers are sure to join that list in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, and those determined to survive have had to come up with some creative strategies, from shifting focus to online sales and curbside pickup to—as Toronto store Sonic Boom has done—teaming up with artists for live-streamed performances at their location.
We spoke with representatives of several long-established Canadian record stores to get a sense of the challenges they’re facing, and what the retail landscape might look like when this is all over.
What was your reaction from a business perspective when word came that stores needed to close because of self-isolation?
Will McGuirk, Kops Records (Oshawa ON) / founder Slowcity.ca: The safety and wellbeing of staff are paramount so we shut down operations. We kept on as many staff as possible and furloughed some until such a time as we can do the call back.
Joel Cuthbert, store manager, The Beat Goes On (Guelph ON): Initially, there was so much uncertainty that it was hard to adapt without a clear path forward. When things were in that strange limbo we had to assess how comfortable staff felt interacting with the public, as we gradually put in increasing safety precautions. The most surreal was the final few days; certainly, operations had been reduced to a strange ghost town-like vibe, with a few folks coming in and looking around a bit sheepishly. It was as if they were not sure they were allowed to browse despite the doors being unlocked and the open sign lit. It still felt a bit like we shouldn’t be. Once the final official word came down the pipe we all adapted as best we could. Layoffs were put in place as our head office did everything they could to make sure we knew how to jump through the hoops of government protocol and to ensure that once this was all back up and running we’d all be brought back in. It was immensely stressful for our head office staff to have to react as the information was constantly changing. Each staff member I think reacted differently, some feeling a real fear of being exposed, others felt more confident with the safety measures in place, the rest felt a strange sense that we should close out of respect.
Arthur Fafard, owner, Blackbyrd Myoozik (Edmonton/Calgary): We saw this one coming and closed earlier in the day before the announcement. But of course, the initial reaction is, WTF, how can we survive? Like most small businesses we rely heavily on our week to week cash flow with very little buffer for sudden closures like the one required for covid-19, leaving us in a tough position with payments due and our new arrivals left sitting on the shelves without customers to browse through them.
Mark Logan, owner, Encore Records (Kitchener ON): The closing measures were expected so we’d been coming up with a plan to deal with whatever the restrictions were going to be. We were fortunate in that our inventory is paid for so we could either work off that or re-order selectively if the distributors were open. All that was based on the premise people would use our website. If we didn’t get any orders and I had to pay staff, we’d be good until the end of June but be totally broke. So if there was a way to pay staff with government assistance, that would allow us to drag it out a couple of more months. As it turns out, the staff is off and receiving CERB and the website is very busy, so it’s been good. Very hectic for me, but we should survive and be in an okay position. People across Canada have been very supportive, which I am grateful for!
What have you been doing in order to keep serving your clientele, and what has the response been?
Arthur Fafard: Our first priority was to maintain contact with our clientele and set up new procedures to service their needs. We immediately upped our game on all social media platforms, informing our followers of the changes being made. As well, we increased our listings on Discogs and created a second Discogs account catering more closely to the local market. Although I had to lay off seven people across two locations, I maintained my key buyer/manager here in Edmonton to help establish and implement our new strategies. We immediately reduced our hours from 10-5 p.m., and introduced curbside pick up and delivery options. What became apparent was the amount of effort needed to complete every transaction, each one requiring many more steps to complete between the phone calls, emails, trips to the post office, curbside pickups etc. It quickly realized I would need to hire back one more staff in Edmonton full-time as well as one part-time in Calgary. Essentially it seems that we need to work twice as hard for a fraction of regular sales! However, the response has been quite enthusiastic and gratifying with many of my core customers continuing to purchase a fair amount of releases. The challenge has been to keep the flow of orders from the distributors, with the pandemic causing a large number of delays and interruptions to delivery.
Mark Logan: We’ve been working on our website over the last few years, slowly adding inventory. We are at the point where the vinyl is complete and we have A to Z listings for CDs. People locally have been using it, but I’m finding people across the country are finding it as well. We’ve shipped to every province and territory except NWT this month, so I’d say the response has been really good! So along with our local delivery and pick-ups, we’ve been trying to get things in the mail the same day and bumping people’s shipping up to expedited so there’s tracking. Canada Post is a bit slower but doing a good job.
Joel Cuthbert: We are quite fortunate because the online e-commerce side of our business has been in place for quite some time. There has been the added challenge that things shut down pretty quickly, leaving many orders on hold at stores or somewhere in transit. We beefed up our online offers to include more opportunity for free shipping and encouraged any customers that were waiting for previous orders to arrive to pay for it and get it shipped directly. We also operate as a third-party seller on Amazon so that has also allowed us to continue to get product out to folks and help pay our bills. We have had a handful of our regulars reach out through social media or email and express their desire to support us at this time. They’ve been incredibly encouraging and supportive. There’s a great sense of solidarity in these times, despite the great sense of grief, uncertainty and instability. It is a great comfort to know we’re all in this together.
Will McGuirk: We drilled down into online sales and we’re doing curbside pick-up at our Danforth [Toronto] and Oshawa locations. Orders are taken and paid for online and response has been terrific. We’re still competitive on pricing and we have a pretty great selection, but we’re also trying to use this time to improve operations overall, which includes moving locations. We are on the same streets as before, but on Danforth we are now near the Danforth Music Hall and on Queen opposite the Rivoli. So along with moving, painting and setting up, we’re processing and re-evaluating our inventory. When we do open, lookout, so many records!
Some polls are saying that it may take time for people to feel confident about shopping in person again after restrictions are lifted. What's your opinion on that, and what plans are you perhaps starting to consider to get people back in the store?
Joel Cuthbert: We’ve started to lay more groundwork for what it would look like as we phase back into “normal” business. Most of this currently revolves around the implementation of health and safety practices and sanitation concerns. I’m definitely in the camp that thinks things must move forward differently rather than try and simply return to some unchanged normal. There’s been a lot of talk of the strength of the Canadian economy, people’s desire to support the businesses they care about and that is encouraging. In another way we have to be grateful for the privileged place we are in as a business, in that we sell a product that both provides entertainment and artistic content.
This is a time where there’s a great desire to distract from our isolation and also to find creative and moving ways to help us better understand ourselves in this difficult time. But the reality still exists that we are now entering a season of financial scarcity and uncertainty. It’s a bit naive to think we’ll open the door in the coming weeks or months and expect people to come rushing back in full force. I think we’re continuing to find ways to beef up our online presence and find new ways to get the product people are looking for to them, without relying as heavily on foot traffic as we have in the past.
Arthur Fafard: I definitely think that it will take some time for people to feel comfortable going back into stores, although I also expect there may be a small surge in sales due to pent up demand for those customers who have not gone the delivery/pick up route. We will continue to use social media to inform our clientele of our re-opening and what they can expect concerning any precautions we are taking relating to sanitizing and social distancing. We are excited to reopen soon and share with our clientele all of the cool new releases we’ve been receiving in the last few weeks.
Mark Logan: I expect there will be a segment that will be back in the store instantly. We will follow whatever the guidelines are as far as customer limits, distancing, cleaning etc. There will certainly be a group that will avoid non-essential shopping so we will continue to offer shipping and delivery. The whole idea is to not find ourselves locked down again, so safety will take priority over commerce.
Will McGuirk: It’s okay to be cautious and concerned, which is why the safety of both staff and customers will be the consideration. We have the advantage of designing the new locations now with social distancing in mind. Our Oshawa location is also spacious and airy, with room to move around. Record stores are gathering spaces and we have in-store spaces for performances too so all of that will be something to manage. The art of it is knowing there will be flocking and if you understand and plan for the dance it’s like, how would you manage a murmur of starlings? You give it the space to manage itself.
How do you feel the pandemic will affect the music business in general?
Mark Logan: There will certainly be a new landscape. How many record stores will be able to come back? Bars? Restaurants? How many venues will be able to operate at a significantly reduced capacity? I imagine there will be fewer venues, fewer gigs, and people will tire of live streaming, so for many musicians it’ll be a challenge. A lot of labels are propped up by grants, so I wonder if the money that’s being given out to people at this moment will cut into available grant money? That would likely shutter a bunch of Canadian indies. There’s also the question of Sunrise Records coming back. Will the majors recoup the seed money they provided to prop them up? That would push up the timeline for those that want out of physical distribution. It’s all speculation but it’s likely going to be a struggle for many.
Joel Cuthbert: I’ve had a few socially distant conversations with friends and colleagues about the ways in which statistics will be quite skewed this season. I feel for any artists who were releasing a new album anytime in these months. There’ve been a few people who’ve reached out about getting a physical copy of a new release and the reality is that we are not able to afford to get the new releases, or even have access to it at this time. Larger online retailers are also at a loss with delivery times taking much longer than usual. As someone who supports my share of independent artists, initiatives like Bandcamp’s recent fee-waive on certain days helps the smaller acts get their music sold.
I do think people who value the art want to support the artist, and in some ways are putting in extra effort to make sure the money they spend passes through less hands as it gets into the hands of the artists. I had also recently spoken to someone in the industry about the apparent downturn of streaming in these months. I’ve speculated whether this is due to most folk doing their streaming during a commute they no longer take, or the fact that many more are streaming films and television. It’s going to be a complicated time!
Arthur Fafard: For record stores, I feel this sudden unexpected closure and lockdown has accelerated trends that were already occurring especially in relation to the continuing shift to online shopping. However, although online shopping is dominated by a few dominant players, I do believe that small indie boutique stores like Blackbyrd are well-positioned to offer a more personal, reliable and competitive shopping experience. In addition, I am confident that the interest in “shopping local” will also continue to grow.
The most likely scenario I foresee is somewhat of a combination of in-person and remote shopping, with a larger amount of orders being placed over the phone or online and being picked up later, a trend that had already started in any case. For the music business in general, that remains to be seen. I’m curious to see what effect the closure of venues and cancelled tours will have on all musical artists and every aspect of the music business. There will definitely be challenges, to say the least.
Will McGuirk: Our role is to sell records, so I think how stores will come out this will have a lot to do with location and being a destination for record shopping. On the Danforth and on Queen West, we are smack in the thick of it, so we still want to offer the experience of being able to spend hours digging through what we have if that’s what someone wants to do. In Oshawa, we are at the heart of the local community because of the performance space and our staff. We are the music hub in town and are currently involved in the Oshawa Music Awards, as well as sponsoring the 2020 Music Teacher of the Year award, which was won by opera singer and educator Kristine Dandavino.
And until this shutdown, we had our all-ages space, the Basement Upstairs, which has been building a whole new community around artists such as Punchu, Wooly and Mary + Adelaide, as well as established artists like Lindsay Schoolcraft, Skye Wallace, Chastity, Crownlands, The Standstills, and Dizzy. There are also folks who were in bands back in the ‘60s and ‘70s who often visit, like members of Reign Ghost. So we will get to that again. People will continue to buy online, maybe more so, but there are those who want to hang in a record shop—and not just any record shop, but one with a great vibe, a great community inside, and a great community outside.