Over the last decade Burbank has seen the music chains Virgin Megastore, Sam Goody and FYE disappear as consumers shifted from buying CDs to downloading their music online. However, two independent record stores started in the ’90s have managed to thrive in the city as a new generation of music fans discovers vinyl records while faithful repeat customers keep coming back.
Atomic Records on West Magnolia Boulevard has found success by sticking to its original game plan of specializing in used vinyl records. “We focus on the things we know and we have not followed various trends, like hip-hop. Instead we focus on jazz, ’50s and ’60s rock ’n’ roll, classic rock and R&B;,” says Rick Alper, the store's co-owner, who opened the store in June 1996.
Backside, on the other hand, has embraced hip-hop and street culture to such an extent that clothing and lifestyle items now account for three-quarters of its sales. Music chips in for the rest, with vinyl attributing to 90 percent and CDs the other 10 percent. Yet manager George Jojo Baghdasarian notes that at least emotionally, “music is first. Putting the needle on the vinyl record keeps us grounded.” Backside carries merchandise from such lifestyle brands as Radyo, Supremacy, Quiet Life, Black Scale, Huf, Odd Future and Obey.
The story of these two stores and their one-time chain competitors represents what's happened across the country, says Joel Oberstein, president of Almighty Music Marketing, which operates a database of music retailers. “Atomic and Backside have been able to thrive in Burbank for so many years because they cater to a community that notoriously loves and supports independent business, and they know what their customers want,” he says.
While both stores cater to different customer bases and have different philosophies, both benefit from their Burbank locations and see the Internet as a plus, rather than a threat to potential sales.
Backside is located on North San Fernando Boulevard, outside of the Burbank Media Center, on a stretch of shops that resembles a miniature version of Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade or Hollywood's Melrose in its heyday. The store benefits from foot traffic from the nearby AMC multiplexes and other retail stores, including Urban Outfitters located across the street. That chain specializes in clothing, but also carries some new vinyl records as well as portable turntables.
Baghdasarian notes that Urban Outfitters has been both a plus and a negative for Backside. That store and other similar corporate chains “watch every step we do and are experts on copying and pasting our every move,” he says.
The store has also hosted in-store appearances by such artists as Linkin Park, Kurupt, Wu-Tang Family and DJ Muggs. Celebs have been known to stop by the store, including Lakers star Metta World Peace, who dropped by in February and left his autograph on a wall inside the store. An Echo Park offshoot opened in March 2011, but recently closed after less than a year in business.
For Atomic, the close proximately to the film and TV studios and some music companies is part of the reason Burbank was chosen for its home base. “The industry people and studio people that work in the area usually have very good and unique record collections,” Alper says. Yet he notes that Atomic doesn't limit its purchases to locals and have had employees travel to Las Vegas and even as far as Chicago to buy a collection. “If it makes sense, we'll travel,” he says.
While some music retailers point to the Internet as their downfall, both Backside and Atomic say that it's been beneficial to their businesses and both have a Web presence. Baghdasarian says Backside “thrives off” the Web, reaching customers online who want its gear but can't make it into the store. The retailer also has a social-media presence on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Atomic has used the Web to reach customers in foreign countries, some who purchase high-priced collectibles.
“It's a fine complement to what we do,” says Alper of the Internet. “There are certain types of rare records that usually don't sell to people that come into the store, but are purchased on the Web by customers in Japan, Europe or Korea, and that certainly contributes to our success. I always found it curious, but that's the case. You'd expect those people to want to see records in person.” The store also sells used CDs and DVDs, T-shirts with the store's logo, as well as an occasional used turntable and speakers they pick up from clients who sell their collections.
Both stores also have noted an uptick in vinyl, which accounts for a small percentage of overall music sales, but is one of the segments of the business that is growing. Billboard reported that in 2012, new vinyl album sales hit 4.6 million, up from 3.9 million the previous year, and that 67 percent of vinyl sales occurred in independent stores. Backside carries new vinyl, but Atomic is purely used. While no one is tracking used vinyl sales, Alper says Atomic's business has remained steady over the years, even during the economic downturn. Even in 2008 and 2009 people were coming in to get away from the bad news everywhere else, he says, and finding solace in the music.
What: Atomic Records
Where: 3812 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505
More info: (818) 848-7090, atomicrecordsla.com
What: Backside Where: 139 North San Fernando Blvd., Burbank, CA 91502
More info: (818) 559-7573, backsideonline.com www.backsideonline.com
CRAIG ROSEN is a music journalist and previous contributor to Marquee.