Record Connection Feels the Loss of Record Store Day

NILES, Ohio — “It’s the new normal” might be the buzz phrase, but the entertainment business is yearning for the good old days. 

Those who make a living bringing people together for theater, music and comedy are eager to get back to some semblance of the way it was before the COVID-19 shutdown

The Business Journal checked in with five of the more unique, if not iconic, Valley venues and stores to see how they are faring and what they see down the road.

The five – The Youngstown Playhouse, Westside Bowl, The Record Connection, the Funny Farm and Golden Star Theaters – represent different genres of entertainment but all depend on getting people through their doors. Each has its own set of problems and all see a troubled path going forward. 

The people who present Record Store Day underestimated the novel coronavirus. The annual event, for which dozens of top artists issue special album releases, was originally scheduled for April 18, but was rescheduled for June 20.

Now, it looks like Record Store Day might not happen at all in 2020, at least not as a large public event like it usually is. And that’s a problem for independent record stores nationwide, who make a sizable chunk of their annual revenues from the day.

In the Mahoning Valley, the biggest Record Store Day event is always at The Record Connection in Niles.

Jeff Burke, who has owned the shop for 40 years, has a bad feeling about it. Even though it hasn’t been officially canceled or postponed as of April 24, there is a silence within the industry that does not bode well.

“I have a gut feeling it won’t happen,” Burke says. “That’s a problem for me because it is a big event here.”

Last year, The Record Connection drew between 1,200 and 1,400 people to its Pinetree Square Plaza location at 32 Youngstown Warren Road. “It was the biggest day ever here,” Burke says. 

Burke puts up a massive tent in the parking lot, has live bands, vendors and lots of exclusive musical merchandise. 

“We were going to expand it this year,” Burke says. “I was going to put up the big tent and then a second tent just for Record Store Day product. The Labra Brothers were going to play until noon, and then Joe Grushecky from Pittsburgh would play at 1 p.m.” Vendors would include Cockeye Barbecue and Creamery, Redhead Wines, Havana House, artists and more.

Record Store Day accounts for 25% to 30% of his yearly revenue. “It’s a huge day for me,” Burke says. “We’ll sell easily over 1,000 Record Store Day releases alone. Plus people are buying CDs, used albums, record cleaners… everything sells that day.”

The day is like Christmas in April for Burke. There is a second and smaller Record Store Day on Black Friday, which seems safe for now.

The Record Connection has been closed since March 16, due to the state mandate that closed nonessential businesses. To compensate for lost revenue, Burke has been beefing up his online sales on Amazon and Discogs, as well as his trade in used and rare records, which he regularly posts on Facebook.

He also does a fairly brisk trade in special orders. It made up 20% of his sales before the shutdown and that income has remained steady. Overall, The Record Connection’s sales for March were down 43%. “April will be much worse,” Burke says.

Burke hopes that his store is among those that will be permitted to open on May 12. “I saw that in Italy, they are opening the small mom and pop stores first,” he says. “We don’t get big traffic and we need the money more than anyone right now.”

Social distancing will not be a problem, as the store usually has no more than two or three customers in it.

Burke has long had a DJ business on the side, but everything is on hold there as well. “There’s a lot of rescheduling going on right now and some events I know are not going to happen,” he says. “High school proms, for example. I feel bad for the kids. I did Niles McKinley High’s last year, and they never left the dance floor from beginning to end. We had a blast.”

In the past, Burke worked as an event DJ 50 weekends a year, but now he is down to 15 to 20. “That’s all I want,” he says. “But I definitely miss that revenue.”

Burke is the sole employee of his store, which he opened in 1980. With the 40th anniversary this year, Burke foresees throwing a giant birthday party. His confidence in the future stems from his track record of overcoming obstacles.

“When I first bought my store, I returned a bunch of [unsold] 8-track tapes to the distributor only to have them sent back to me with a notice saying ‘no refunds, no returns’ because 8-tracks were on their way out,” he said. “So I was behind the 8-ball right out of the gate.”

He’s had other major setbacks and problems over the years, including a break-in and a case of embezzlement.

“I always came back,” he says. “I’ll get through this one, too. We’ve always created ways to get people to come back. My biggest concern is that all the momentum we built will go away, but I’m hoping customers come back.”

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.