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Wait: Local Indie Music Stores Actually Grow

If one-hit wonders the Buggles were to recut their 1979 song "Video Killed the Radio Star" today, it would need a new title — say, "Internet Killed the Music Store."

Twenty-eight years on, CD sales are in the toilet, distributors, outlets, and even major chains like Tower Records are closing all over the country, and anyone who's even thinking about opening an independent, bricks-and-mortar music store could probably do better by answering a Nigerian letter. The indie shops that haven't succumbed to Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Circuit City stand to get whacked by file-sharing and the digital era.

Yet a handful of little local music retailers from Miami to Delray Beach is somehow hanging on. And if that's not quixotic enough, there's this: Fort Lauderdale's Radio-Active Records, formerly known as CD Collector, is expanding.

Last weekend, Radio-Active, in a strip mall near the east end of Sunrise Boulevard, held a daylong, in-store blowout to mark the renovation of its store, which has gone from 997 square feet to 3,000. Local bands performed, and DJs spun sets into the wee hours, celebrating Radio-Active's move from just a vinyl and CD haven to a small concert venue replete with a stage and couches. That's big, not because the shop hopes to cash in on concerts — admission is free — but because it lets Radio-Active's proprietors take a big step back, to the time when record stores were offbeat community centers.

"We took a look around and saw that there aren't any record stores that are throwing really cool in-store events any more in Broward and decided it was time to change that," says Radio-Active's general manager, Mike Ramirez.

"There was a time when record stores always got cool bands to come and play shows and sign autographs, and it helped stores stay in business. I don't know how so many stores got away from that, but we definitely plan to bring it back."

For the past five years, CD Collector was a tiny enclave for some of the best and most obscure music in South Florida. The selection was impeccable, and the feel of a true community record store was there, but the space was a problem. "We had customers that would come in say they couldn't shop because they felt claustrophobic," Ramirez says. "They'd leave because the shop was too small."

Late last year, when the shop's air conditioning went out, workers sent to do the repairs discovered a separate room directly behind the store. So down came the wall. The second space was muggy and filthy, but it also reeked of opportunity.

"Dude, we're in a death zone with our current location," Ramirez says. "In a five-mile radius, we have a Borders, Target, Circuit City, Barnes & Noble, and a Best Buy. We've got all these killer stores right around us — but that doesn't mean that we can't survive. Everyone says these record stores are done, but that's bullshit. We just have to work harder."

Lauren Reskin, owner of Miami's Sweat Records, concurs. The trick is to sharpen the local edge. "Our biggest strategy is community involvement," she says. "It's why Virgin [Megastore] couldn't survive down here: They don't pay attention to what music locals are interested in. I go to the clubs, I see what people are dancing to, and I order that stuff in the store. If you don't pay attention to the local market, you're isolating yourselves, and you're not going to make it."

Sweat has been in business since March 2005. "I've shifted the focus a lot," Reskin says. "We're more of a boutique, a culture outpost, rather than a music store to make money. The majority of our inventory is stuff you can't get anywhere else in Miami — and that's important."

In Delray Beach, Backbone Records will celebrate its two-year anniversary next month. It's operated by former chef Nunzio Esposito, who has a philosophy similar to Reskin's: Focus on the locals and they'll return the love.

"I throw in-store events every Friday and Saturday and have local bands perform," Esposito says. "I got bands that will come up from Miami and play a show in the record store, and when I go to pay them, they tell me to just keep it for the store."

For Backbone, as with Sweat and Radio-Active, survival in the micro music biz hinges, appropriately, on the ability to listen and respond.

"If you're in Best Buy trying to buy something, asking questions or trying to get help is nearly impossible," Esposito says. "They don't know anything about music or what they even have in stock... Really, they can't compete with us."

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Jonathan Cunningham

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