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 Chris 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.
"We wouldn't be here if that wasn't the trend," Ramirez relates, noting that about 80 percent of Radio-Active's sales are generated by vinyl. "That's essentially what keeps our business alive. We would not be here if we just sold CDs. We actually would have closed a long time ago."
As Ramirez knows full well, a vinyl addiction is almost as much about the ritual as the music itself, a series of tactile maneuvers that can't be replicated in the world of digital downloads: flipping through LPs for treasure among the bins; sliding the platter from its sleeve and placing it on the turntable; gingerly cueing the stylus and feeling the needle bite deep into the groove; and savoring the crackling vitality and analog warmth that true believers will tell you can be found only on vinyl.
"As every year goes by, there's less and less of these stores," the wiry Ramirez says, his ink-black hair tucked under a Kangol hat. Talking shop on a quiet weekday afternoon, Ramirez takes a breather on a couch in a corner of the store. "We're still here, but it hasn't been without a struggle. With independent stores, the more of them you have around, the better it is for business. The people who came here probably went to CD Warehouse, and the people who went to CD Warehouse probably came here."
When Ramirez started at the store — an outpost of cool ensconced in the historic Gateway Shopping Center — about a decade ago, it was called CD Collector. As CD sales declined and vinyl sales soared, the shop transformed into Radio-Active Records in 2007. A backroom at least doubled the space and was stocked with bin after bin of vinyl records. A stage was set up as well and has hosted regular performances. The distinctive yellow-and-black logo was born, and Radio-Active's brand went, well, Radio-Active.
Sweat too 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 multitiered 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 Miami public defender) in 2005. When Hurricane Wilma trashed the shop, Reskin salvaged what inventory she could and relocated to the heart of Little Haiti. Sweat's new surroundings now include noise bands, dope fiends, stray dogs, and Churchill's Pub.
Like Ramirez, Reskin has expanded the role of the indie store to include movie screenings, in-store performances, 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, vegan cupcakes, and biscotti.
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.
"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.
"You get a lot of people who don't want to sit in front of their computer all day," Ramirez affirms. "They want to go out, and they want to look at a physical product."
The record jacket's 12-by-12-inch canvas has always been a stronger selling point than a CD jewel-case liner. Whether it's a smoke-enshrouded portrait of John Coltrane, Frank Zappa's grinning mug, 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."
Record Store Day will take place 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday at Radio-Active Records, 1930-B E. Sunrise Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-792-9488, or visit myspace.com/radio_active_records.
Sweatstock will take place 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday at Sweat Records, 5505 NE Second Ave. in Miami. Call 786-693-9309, or visit sweatrecordsmiami.com.