In Grand Rapids, you can walk into any bar and throw a tennis ball (softer than a rock) and it will land squarely in the mouth of someone talking innovation. But often in the corner is a quiet soul who is not only the true representation of innovation's face, but who has the battle wounds of the trial and error that has tested their vision over the years. Theirs is often the knowing smile affirming that life is often cyclical.
If we were to give an award for being most likely not
to succeed in a modern world, it would have to go to the local record store of Any Town, USA. Record stores have endured so many fundamental changes, from format to delivery. (For thought: books didn't experience any real competition since Gutenberg Press until the iPad arrived.)
When I sat down with Herm Baker, store manager of Vertigo Music on S. Division Ave., the staff was busy at work, getting the store ready for the return of International Record Store Day, an annual event where music fans descend upon their local record stores to share their love (and a bit of cash) in celebration of their neighborhood music retailer.
Everyone has had some intersection with a record store, whether it be firsthand, or via any one of the last few generations of films that lovingly portrayed the pleasures of an independent record store -- Pretty In Pink
(1986), Empire Records
(1995), and High Fidelity
(2000), to name a few.
Baker's journey through the ever-changing music industry has also been my journey, as I vividly remember traveling the long miles from my NE residence to his first store in our region, Vinyl Solution on Division and 44th St. (later, the shop would relocate to 28th St.)
"This was a period of time when people were seeking a greater music experience beyond pop music," says Baker, hinting at the advent of local chain Believe in Music’s focus on pop. "But for those in this area wanting something really different, Vinyl Solution filled a niche."
As a result, music fans would go on to provide Baker and his business partner Paul Pastalaniec with record sales as a reward for catering to their music needs. They further expanded to become a multi-level store that would not only post $1.5 million in sales at the height of its success, but also become the darling of the indie music scene as artists would pop in to sign copies of their LPs and posters.
"But in the mid-‘90s, as soon as the big box retailer Best Buy arrived in town, we watched 50 percent of our business migrate just down street," says Baker. "So much for loyalty, right? With our profits ever declining, by 2000 and with a rent that needed to be met at this location, I had to close the business."
It appeared at the start of the new millennium that the local, independent record store was over. Vinyl Solution was no more.
But 15 months later, Jason Bomia and Michael Root came to Baker with an offer that was too good to be true. These two guys wanted to open a record store, but only had one person that they felt could run it. Within weeks of the offer, Baker would be back on the scene, managing a new startup, Vertigo Music, and back on Division Avenue.
Baker's focus would be on serving the immediate needs of the local music customer, but with a focus on our region's musical talent. It was working beautifully. Compact discs were recycled through used bins, as Vertigo happily bought back the discs from customers when they were finished with their new releases. It was a sweet start for a new time in music history.
And then the unthinkable happened again in 2001. Instead of a big box moving in down the street, it moved to your desktop in the form of iTunes. Overnight, music delivery was revolutionized -- again. Again, Baker thought it was the end.
As the record retailer struggled over the next four years to hang on, it became clear that they needed to find a way to deliver a product that others could not, and it had go beyond nostalgia. The owners had faith in Baker's abilities.
Baker began to notice music trends in Europe and Japan, but also closer to home, as area customers began requesting vinyl of their favorite artists. And it was not from the Boomer generation that was most accustomed to the LP, but a brand new audience that was seeking the authentic joy of putting a needle on a record -- an act made popular in every pocket of music culture from electronic dance music, to scratch-rappers, to Beck.
"Once we saw this audience begin to grow, so did the industry as they responded with more and more releases on vinyl. But there was one problem," say Baker. "Big boxes were already feeling the pinch of digital downloads as they had seen their market shares diminish, so they would not be able to make the leap. But also, those virtual storefront spaces (like iTunes and Amazon.com) could not deliver (vinyl) physically or cheaply (the way a) local record store could. The vinyl revival was happening all over the world, and the record store was relative again.”
Today, more than 75 percent of Vertigo Music's sales are devoted to vinyl, both used and new. New vinyl now even comes with a code to download an electronic version of the LP. It is all too ironic how everything has come full circle for Baker.
Celebrate Record Store Day this Saturday, April 20. See G-Sync Events for details.
Today, Baker's biggest competition is other independent record stores, and he's just fine with that. Having them here and each performing their own unique role is welcome competition. (Three of these venues are celebrating Record Store Day this April 20 -- see G-Sync Events.)
So while we all have our different ways of defining success via innovation, I think the best answer I can give is one that is visual, organic, and best experienced live in person at Vertigo Music on Record Store Day. Innovation, in this case, is a long road that takes us back sometimes to what we knew at the start. It spins us around at times, too, just like a record. The success of Vertigo Music is really in the groove. That crackle and pop of the LP -- it's comforting to so many, Baker included.
The Future Needs All of Us
Click here for a host of events
happening in the Greater Grand Rapids area including all the record stores celebrating Record Store Day this year.
Herm Baker reminds us that Saturday, April 20 Vertigo will host Record Store Day
. All are welcome.