Music retailers amp up for Record Store Day

Aisles were teeming with shoppers at Amoeba Music in Hollywood on Friday — “Black Friday,” traditionally the biggest retail day of the year — as the store joined other indie retailers in pulling out the stops to drive up their pre-Christmas business.

Amoeba was participating in a special pre-holiday promotion, mounted for the first time by the organizers of April’s annual Record Store Day, that placed exclusive product (much of it vinyl-only) in indie store racks, hoping to reverse the double-digit downturn in record sales this year.

“There was a real good feel to it,” said Amoeba co-owner Karen Pearson. “It was a really great energy … It sure seemed busier.”

There was a sense of some urgency in this second Record Store Day event of the year. So far, album sales (in all configurations) are down 13% in 2010, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Sales for the last month of the year will determine whether this year’s decline will stop short of last year’s precipitous drop of 13.7%.

Reflective of the grim state of the music biz, Amoeba is the last full-service, deep-catalog specialty record retailer in Los Angeles. Its chain competitors have gone the way of the dinosaur: Hollywood Boulevard’s Virgin Megastore, which folded last year, is now a Hard Rock Cafe, while Tower Records’ historic Sunset Strip location in West Hollywood will soon be a gym and retail complex.

In New York, dozens of record stores participated including Bleecker Street Records and Record Runner.

Customers began lining up outside Amoeba Hollywood at 7 a.m. Friday — three hours before the store’s doors opened — hoping to lay their hands on more than 50 unique titles, available in extremely limited quantities only at some 800 indie shops. Amoeba, which operates three gigantic stores in California, is probably the largest participating outlet.

“People seemed to know about it,” Pearson said. “They came prepared. (Some) were really bummed about the limited allocations … They want what they want, but they don’t want to get up in the morning.”

At one point, Pearson was interrupted by a customer, armed with a list of must-have items in her iPhone, who asked if certain Black Friday titles were still available.

By mid-afternoon Friday, Amoeba had already sold out of coveted Black Friday releases by U2, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Bruce Springsteen, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Grinderman.

Some titles had obviously been snapped up early by profiteers: By Saturday, U2’s live vinyl EP “Wide Awake in Europe” was selling for $75 on eBay.

The Black Friday boost was good news for Amoeba, where overall sales are down 5%-7% so far this year, according to Pearson. She added, “We haven’t hit a day yet where we’re down double digits. You’ll notice I say ‘yet.’ “

She noted that some brand-new titles, like Kanye West’s highly touted “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” released Nov. 22, have been moving for Amoeba, despite initially stiff price competition from online retailers and mass merchants.

Pearson said of the post-Thanksgiving rush, “This helps, although there’s no one big (album) this year. It’s going to give (business) a definite shot in the arm.”

Last year, it took a strong December — marked by the triple-platinum performance of Susan Boyle’s debut album, “I Dreamed a Dream,” and hot sales of Taylor Swift’s sophomore set, “Fearless” — to stem the sales decline.

SoundScan sales figures for last week, announced Wednesday, offered some encouraging evidence of a year-end upswing: For the last sales week tracked by the media measuring firm, ended Nov. 21, nine of the top 10 albums sold more than 100,000 copies. Boyle’s “The Gift” led the way with 335,000 units, showing a rare sales increase in its second week.

The last time that many 100,000-unit-plus albums crowded the chart was in late December 2009, when 16 titles topped that figure.

The current hot titles — by such big-name performers as Boyle, Rihanna, Josh Groban, Kid Rock, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban, plus the already platinum-plus Taylor Swift — will be joined on this week’s chart by highly anticipated new releases by West, Nicki Minaj, My Chemical Romance, Ne-Yo and Ke$ha.

A new Black Eyed Peas album, “The Beginning,” reaches stores Tuesday; “Michael,” the first album of previously unreleased material by the late Michael Jackson, arrives Dec. 14.

At least one big title won’t buoy sales across the board: Teen dream Justin Bieber’s “My Worlds Acoustic,” released on Black Friday, is being sold exclusively at Wal-Mart.

In a world where indie music retailers are being outpriced and outgunned by Wal-Mart and other mass merchants like Target, which marketed exclusive versions of the Swift and Urban albums, special product like that offered at Amoeba on Black Friday is something specialty stores can be thankful for.

Pearson’s verdict on the event: “It was fun.”

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