Mike Ramirez of Fort Lauderdale's Radio-Active Records fully understands the mania that drives vinyl junkies — he's among their number. The 29-year-old manager and buyer for the store says his Fort Lauderdale home is filled floor-to-ceiling with LPs — gathered since his youth at the Record Bar in Coral Square Mall or Peaches on Sunrise Boulevard, the latter of which is now a Hustler store.
Just west of Radio-Active, the gaudy Hustler storefront provides a reminder of the fragile existence of the once-booming music retail industry. In fact, the street is littered with the bones of such businesses, including the sprawling, shambling All Books and Records and the once-bustling CD Warehouse, neither of which could withstand the digital revolution.
The industry's few bright spots left are indie record shops like Radio-Active and Miami's Sweat Records, both of which are comparatively thriving. On Saturday, the cross-county cousins will take part in a nationwide event, Record Store Day (RSD), specifically devoted to the obsessive music collectors who have kept indie stores afloat — it'll be a day loaded with live music, DJs, and special promotional releases designed specifically for the event.
Sweat's Record Store Day programming is a block party dubbed "Sweatstock" that encompasses the store and the lot next door while also commemorating the store's fifth anniversary. Performers include locals the Jacuzzi Boys, DJ Le Spam, and Raffa & Rainer as well as headlining punk duo No Age from Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Radio-Active will offer sets by area bands the Axe and the Oak, Gray Girls, the Shakers, and Sloane Peterson, each of whom will come armed with an exclusive RSD release. Concert-ticket and turntable giveaways and a four-LPs-for-a-buck sidewalk sale should further entice music lovers to the all-day fiesta. In addition to Radio-Active and Sweat, RSD will be celebrated at Selected Records, Uncle Sam's, and Yesterday and Today in Miami and Music and More in West Palm Beach.
The concept for Record Store Day, which each year takes place on the third Saturday in April, sprang from the mind of Chis Brown, an employee of the indie music chain Bull Moose in Maine and New Hampshire. In 2007, the idea was actualized as a way to celebrate the culture of the record shop on the corner, some 700 of which exist in the U.S., with hundreds more around the globe.
As in years past, a big draw for RSD attendees is an impressive list of exclusive releases not available at large chains. Limited-run albums for 2010 include the Flaming Lips' take on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon on seafoam green vinyl (limited to 5,000 copies), a four-song Fela Kuti ten-inch EP (1,000 copies), and collectable goodies from R.E.M., TV on the Radio, Weezer, the Black Keys, Ani DiFranco, and others to bring out the faithful. (Check out recordstoreday.com/page/836 for a full list.)
While Radio-Active and Sweat sell (and buy) CDs as well as LPs — and appeal to segments of the population beyond hard-core collectors — each owes its continued existence to renewed interest in the sturdy vinyl medium. In recent years, savvy imprints have been issuing new material in the 12-inch format as well as digging into the vaults and reissuing spanking-new vinyl versions of catalog material.
Even Best Buy, as square as its box-store designation implies, has begun stocking vinyl. And the relatively low cost of used records — rare items excepted — continues to entice buyers unwilling to shell out $18 to $25 for a new CD, the contents of which could illegally be downloaded from the Internet for free.
Sweat has reaped the benefits of vinyl's return to hipness. In recent years, Lauren "Lolo" Reskin says she's condensed her CD section and expanded her vinyl offerings. In addition to spending some of a 2009 Knight Art Challenge Grant of $50,000 to bring in No Age for Record Store Day, Reskin has invested in new custom-built racks, most of which will be used for vinyl.
With her fuchsia- and raven-streaked hair and multi-tiered involvement on the local music scene, Reskin, 27, has been South Florida's poster child for the indie record biz. She was featured on a CBS Nightly Business Report segment about the resurgence of vinyl at the business she started with former partner Sara Yousuf (now a public defender for the City of Miami) in 2005. When that shop was trashed by Hurricane Wilma, Reskin salvaged what inventory she could and found new digs. In the heart of funky Little Haiti, Sweat's current location is indie records heaven, abutting Dave Daniels' equally funky Churchill's Pub with its assortment of noise bands, dope fiends, and stray dogs.
Like Ramirez, Reskin recognizes the role of the indie record store as more than just a retail spot. She's screened movies such as the White Stripes documentary, hosted in-store performances by bands such as Default and Inhabit, and even featured standup comedy and yes, origami workshops. As a promoter, she hosts a weekly Friday-night party at the Vagabond and hypes shows at the Fillmore, for which she also serves as a consultant. Reskin's business partner, Jason Jiminez, runs Sweat's café, which serves fresh-brewed espresso and vegan cupcakes, biscotti, and other animal-friendly treats.
Also like Ramirez, Reskin's obsession with collecting began in childhood. Growing up in Miami, she maintained CaseLogic binders full of CDs and scoured thrift stores for vinyl treasure. Her dad, a classical musician, fueled her interest in a wide range of music, often playing Beatles or Steely Dan tapes in the car. (She's also the great niece of legendary DJ Alan Freed, who coined the term "rock 'n' roll.")
"I remember buying my first cassettes and asking only for Spec's gift cards for my birthday when I was like 10," she recalls. "I was always a music nerd, so it was kind of destiny."
While a generation of consumers has grown accustomed to downloading music, legally and otherwise, the transaction is entirely impersonal. Listeners might not fetishize their record collections to the degree of earlier generations, but there's still a hunger for something more tangible than 1's and 0's.
That's not to say that Radio-Active and Sweat don't sell records online; they do, and to buyers as far away as Finland and Sri Lanka, who pay plenty for premium collector's items. And yet, at a certain point, customers a bit closer to the stores are lured by the analog pleasures of walking into a bricks-and-mortar shop and actually flipping through record bins.
The 12-by-12-inch canvas of the record jacket has always been a strong selling point for vinyl records, one that CD jewel-case liners could never match. Whether it's a smoke-enshrouded portrait of John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk, the grinning mug of a mischievous Frank Zappa, or even the intricate artwork gracing Joanna Newsom's new three-LP box set, the larger format just looks cooler.
"I think people are going back to that, kind of rebelling against the digital thing," Reskin posits. "A lot more people are interested not just in the mainstream but in the indie music scene. People have a lot more appreciation for the artist, for the artwork that goes with the albums, and that gets lost when you're just seeing a little tiny box in your iTunes of what the cover is."