'Crooked Beat Records' bucks industry trend with vinyl success

Vinyl albums still rule the day at Crooked Beats in Adams Morgan. Photo: Bonnie Wood/ABC7

Bill Daly may have devilishly chuckled earlier this month when he shared a story from the past. But he knows all too well his isn’t the last laugh – more like upbeat gallows humor. No matter. This was the day after the 15th anniversary of his baby, Crooked Beat Records, and he was nothing if not defiantly content.

“When we decided to go into vinyl years ago,” Daly, 48, says while sorting records at his Adams Morgan shop, “I remember sales reps from distributors saying, ‘You’re crazy – you’re going to be out of business within a year if you do that.”

After all, all the big ones went belly up. Peaches. Tower Records. Tracks. And on and on. Same for the smaller chains and many independently owned shops.

The arrival of the mighty CD changed everything. Billed and hyped as superior in flawless quality sound and user ease, the compact disc aimed to finally finish the job that 8-tracks and cassettes failed to complete – render the album obsolete. But then the Internet happened. Music-sharing happened. Digital downloaded music happened. CDs began losing their grip on the market – but for other reasons, as well.

So says Matt Moffatt, the co-owner of Smash Records and Clothing, also in Adams Morgan.

“A lot of people got duped,” Moffatt, 35, says. “Basically, the record companies phased out vinyl and they told everyone CDs sound better, so people sold off their record collections.

“Well, as it turned out, the shelf life of the CD didn’t turn out to be as long as everyone expected. They were easily damaged and also easily copied.”

Not only that, consider the sentiments of Dave Chrismer, 29, from Baltimore.

“Vinyl really does sound better,” he said before leaving Crooked Beat with a half dozen record purchases. “It’s warmer, deeper. And the liner notes. The artwork on the covers. You’re not going to get that anywhere else.”

Daly, meanwhile, was cognizant of the so-called big-box stores’ influence on CD sales when he founded Crooked Beat Records in 1997. It was then based in Raleigh, N.C. before moving to D.C. in 2004.

“Some of the labels were working out deals with the box stores on the loss-leader concept, where they sell it as a loss but they bring in the traffic. They’d have it for $9.99 there and our cost is $11 or $12, and I couldn’t compete with that.”

So he made the fateful decision. Either go out of business or go against the grain. He chose the latter.

“I said we have an audience that’s interested in vinyl, so we’re going to expand on that, both from used vinyl and new vinyl we were still getting from some distributors, so once I went all in, I started getting it from everywhere – all over the world.”

His business model may have succeeded but scores of his vinyl compatriots did not. One of his distributors told him there were more than 11,000 record stores 15 years ago compared to some 1,300 today.

Take Richmond-based Plan 9, a record store that opened in 1981 and eventually expanded to Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Williamsburg, Roanoke, Lynchburg and Winston-Salem, N.C.

All but the original shop in Richmond and the one in Charlottesville remain, and the company is coming out of bankruptcy protection.

“There’s still a business,” owner James Bland told the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this month. “But it’s not what it used to be. By any means.”

But Crooked Beat’s Bland has established, cultivated and grown a decidedly niche audience. It doesn’t hurt that the ever-changing inventory is available online.

“For example, this one’s going out to Australia today,” he says, holding up a packaged album. “This one’s going to New Zealand, this one’s going to California, this one’s going to Naples, Fla., this one’s going to Germany. I’d say about 30 percent of our business is the Internet stuff.”

And of that 30 percent, “about half” comes from outside the U.S.

While the percentage of digital downloads continues to increase, a revival of vinyl sales has, as well. According to Statista, album sales were relatively flat from 1993 (roughly a third of a million vinyl albums) to 2007 before things began to pick up in 2008, and 3.9 million albums were sold in 2011.

As Oliver Goss of Record Pressing, a San Francisco vinyl factory, told the Economist (which paraphrased his take), “It is a mixture of convenience and beauty. Many vinyl records come with codes for downloading the album from the internet, making them more convenient than CDs. And fans like having something large and heavy to hold in their hands. Some think that half the records sold are not actually played.”

Adds Moffatt of Smash: “With all the files people have downloaded, maybe the feeling of the music gets a little bit lost. We have people coming in wanting physical music – something you can put your hands on and sit down and listen to it. . .Watching a movie is a different experience in a theater is than watching it on TV, and I think it’s the same thing with listening to a record.”

But it remains a tricky buyer landscape for people like Daly, despite his international outreach.

“Let’s face it – records have become a niche, and they aren’t embraced by the masses,” he says. “I work 75 hours a week sometimes trying to get new stuff in from whatever sources. It’s a love and a passion thing really, because I really believe in vinyl.

“It’s like I told somebody else, if I’m going down because of digital or whatever, I’m going down with vinyl. I know for a fact there’s an audience for it. Some people say they just like looking at the album cover, putting the album on, sitting back and dreaming, you know? It’s kind of an escape from the antiseptic way of listening to music.”