.Streetlight Records Copes by Turning to Online Sales

Long before COVID-19, the friendly neighborhood independent record store had already had a lot of practice in dealing with seismic shifts in the marketplace, and even in facing an existential crisis or two. Still, the pandemic has dealt a swift, potentially crippling blow to indie record retailers like Streetlight Records, which has had to close its two stores in San Jose and Santa Cruz. We had the opportunity to visit with Paige Brodsky, who manages the San Jose shop and is also Streetlight’s marketing manager.

First off, what’s the status of the stores? How are you dealing with the crisis?

Well, it’s challenging, for sure. Our business has certainly seen its share of challenges over the years. But we try to be nimble and try to be able to catch those curveballs. We’re in a situation where probably about half of the total Streetlight staff has been fully furloughed. And little less than a half is working from five to 15 hours a week to fill online orders, and get more of our products listed on various online sites, just to try to get us through and keep the bills paid until we can open again.

How big is your staff in normal times?

It hovers between 25 and 30 altogether for both stores, including the administrative staff. And half of those are on furlough and eligible for unemployment. We’ve walked them through the process of how to apply and make that as easy as possible. As far as we can tell, everybody has applied for their unemployment benefits and should be receiving them soon. And we’re also keeping an eye out to make sure everybody’s got adequate food and shelter. We’re a big family. We’re not going to let anybody go hungry or be without a place to live.

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The record-store industry has faced some huge challenges dealing with the tides of music technology and commerce. Is this a catastrophe for your business, or more of a bump in the road?

It’s scary, for sure. I feel optimistic because we’ve weathered all those challenges in the last 10 or 20 years. Part of it is being a small business, having that agility to respond to market circumstances. In this case, the pandemic is much bigger and is affecting all industries and not just ours. But I feel like we’re in a better position than some larger corporate businesses to weather the storm just because we can be creative. Also, both our stores have a lot of community support, so when we reach out to our customers, they respond. I don’t see it as a death knell or a catastrophe for our business. Of course, I’m looking too at the bigger picture: What’s our society going to look like on the other side of this? How are our social norms going to change? 

Have you been talking to other record stores and retailers? How are they faring?

Yes, constantly. One of the first things I did was call the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz [Casey Coonerty Protti], and that was so helpful to talk with her. She had this game plan ready, and I asked her, ‘Can I copy your game plan? And can I share it with other record stores across the country?’

We are part of a coalition of independent record stores, which is 40 to 45 different record stores across the country. We’ve been communicating with each other, and that has been extremely helpful—even in terms of, say, one of the stores applies for an SBA loan, another applies for the federal disaster assistance loan. They are able to walk the rest of the stores through the process. Being able to network and share that knowledge is just incredibly valuable. It’s not necessarily comparing apples to apples when we talk to these other stores, because shelter-in-place orders are different for each community. On an emotional level, it’s great to know that we’re not alone and to be able to commiserate with other record stores. 

Do you think your customer base looks at Streetlight as not just an outlet to get their music, but as a business that they feel obligated to support?

I think that’s absolutely true. Particularly in Santa Cruz, the importance of supporting local independent businesses, even in non-pandemic times, seems to be in the forefront on the minds of the Santa Cruz population. But beyond that, we recognize that the record store serves as a cultural community center and a place where people appreciate movies and art and music, and want to discuss and learn about all of those things with fellow music, art, movie fans. I know that our customers are really missing that right now. They are being supportive and buying gift cards from us and our products online so we can be there on the other end. It’s like a social consciousness. To our supporters, we are an essential business to them. I don’t want to detract from those who truly are what the government has deemed essential businesses for health and safety. But some of us need music, too.

Your particular business is fascinating in that the actual material product that you’re selling has rapidly changed in recent years.

Yes, it’s all about the LP right now. New LPs and used LPs. It still amazes me. We still have a lot of new and used CDs. But a lot of young people are really into vinyl. And the new vinyl, some of it is kind of expensive. That’s beyond our control. The prices are set by the record companies. Our margins are not real huge. But a 16-year-old girl comes in and is totally willing to spend $30 on a new LP, but that same person is not willing to spend $3 on a used CD.

That has been the overriding thing that has carried us over this last five, six, seven years. It’s a beautiful thing to see because I am a fan of the LP. It is so great to see it have the resurgence it so richly deserves.

How is music important for all of us right now, stuck in our homes, looking for comfort and escape?

You sit and listen to a record in your living room while sheltering in place, and you completely connect with the music. It livens up your world. It moves you in a way that nothing else can.

But beyond that, that feeling you have when you’re listening to that record, it’s only matched by discussing the feeling you have listening to that record with someone else who feels just as strongly about that record, or even another record.

To me, music is a way of connecting people to people, through this other connection that happens first, the person and the record. To me, even above and beyond the comfort you get hearing a certain chord progression or hearing the voice of one of your favorite singers or songwriters, you get that affirmation of life.

What have you been listening to? What’s your shelter-in-place soundtrack?

I’ve been using this time to catch up on some promotional CDs that I haven’t listened to yet, and records that I’ve bought and haven’t listened to yet. But looking around the living room, I see Bob Dylan’s Desire on vinyl. I just finished listening to a Cyril Neville album. That was interesting—New Orleans second-line stuff with also some rap and hip-hop. I’m a big Steve Winwood fan. Two or three years ago, he released a double-live CD that’s gotten a couple extra plays. I tend to go for classical music in the morning, jazz at night. The Coltrane release that came out last year Blue World, that’s gotten a lot of play.

You’re taking online orders these days. Do you have a sense what your customer base wants right now?

We also sell new and used DVDs and Blu-rays. They have been selling really well. Not everybody has Netflix or the online streaming services. Also in times of financial stress, sometimes your cable bill is one of the first things to go. We carry all these different used titles, TV show seasons, for low prices. A lot of people have been practicing the buy-now-shop-later mentality to support us. Gift cards are probably our number one seller right now. 

To support Streetlight Records or to search their catalogue, go to streetlightrecords.com.

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