[Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series profiling three record stores in Omaha’s Old Market, exploring how each differentiates itself from its nearby competition and how it remains financially viable while its industry is in flux.]
words and photos by Krystal Sidzyik
Last year, for the first time, Americans spent more money on digital music than on physical copies. Digital music purchases accounted for 50.3 percent of music sales in 2011, according to Nielsen and Billboard.
It’s a difficult time for record stores, which traditionally have made their profits by selling primarily physical goods. Yet in Omaha's Old Market, three independent record stores within a block of one another continue to survive, while competing for the same business.
Homer’s Music & Gifts has been a part of Omaha since 1971 and is now down to one location in the Old Market after having to close its other locations in Omaha, Des Moines and Lincoln. Drastic Plastic, a punk-dominated store, joined the neighborhood in 1982, followed by Antiquarium, a king of used music, in 1988. Antiquarium originally started on Harney Street in the basement of a bookstore.
Of the three, I started at Homer’s, the relatively biggest indie on the block, with its sublime collection of album posters hanging in the front windows and its copious number of CDs, LPs and cassettes lining the aisles inside. I met with the general manager, Mike Fratt, 52, who has been with Homer’s since he was 19 years old. After meeting him at Homer’s, he leads me to a gray, empty hallway behind the store. He’s been a part of the music industry for over 30 years and he’s ready to talk numbers with me, not hearsay.
Homer’s first opened its doors in 1971. Bruce Hoberman founded the store after he decided to branch out on his own from his partner at the time. There was only so much space so Hoberman moved out and opened the first location at south 11th in downtown Omaha, Fratt says.
“He originally sold records out of another store in the Old Market called Jethro’s, and his partners wanted to expand gifts, and he wanted to expand music,” Fratt says.
Over the next 41 years, Homer’s opened five more stores. In 1992 Hoberman sold Homer’s to Tom and Sue Weidner who are still the current owners. In 1994 the Weidners also purchased Pickles and Twisters — two other area indie record store chains.
Fratt says national chains like Sam Goody were expanding during the mid-1990s, which motivated the Weidners to close a number of the Pickles and Twisters stores to increase Homer’s market share in eastern Nebraska.
Fratt says he doesn’t view Drastic Plastic and Antiquarium as competition. Neither does his Eric Ziegler, store manager at Homer's.
“We all do our own thing,” Ziegler says. "Drastic has a lot of gifts and T-shirts. Anti has a lot of local, specialty and used. We all do our own thing, and we all do it pretty relatively well." Ziegler, 36, has been with Homer’s since 1995.
Homer’s main business is selling new and used CDs, vinyl and cassettes, but they also sell T-shirts, posters, new and used DVDs and special novelty items. As the indie store has consolidated down to one store, they’ve seen more success, Fratt says.
In 2011, digital downloads were up 17 percent from 2011, while physical sales dropped by 7.7 percent, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Those numbers don’t seem to bode well for a business known for selling physical music. Fratt sees it differently.
“[The decline of physical music purchases] is an overhyped piece of information,” Fratt says. “SoundScan, which tracks physical, digital and mobile purchases, says 70 percent of the time when a customer wants to buy a full album they are choosing physical.”
Vinyl sales were up 34 percent to $119 million in 2011, according to the RIAA.
Ziegler says a wide variety of people buy LPs from Homer’s.
“You have people rediscovering their youth by coming into our store and saying, ‘Oh, look, that Boston record,’ but then you have [younger] people that are starting out and creating a record collection.”
Justin Grabenschroer, 21, is just starting his collection. He’s an Omaha native, a full-time student at UNO, and is the second oldest out of nine siblings in his family. He got his first record player for Christmas last year after his manager at Urban Outfitters turned him on to collecting vinyl.
“Vinyl is just cooler in all ways,” Grabenschroer says, “because some of them can be limited-edition, there’s different designs and colors and better sound quality you usually wouldn’t hear on a CD or digital download.”
It’s an art, a hobby and something fun to do with his friends, he says. This year’s Record Store Day, April 21, proved to be a success for Grabenschroer. He scored a few new albums including M83 and Regina Spektor to add to his collection. The day is dedicated to independently owned record stores who come together with artists to celebrate the art of music by having a variety of deals on music including limited releases.
Grabenschroer was first in line at the Saddle Creek Shop, where he picked up a limited release of Cursive’s EP, Burst and Bloom. He also stopped at Homer’s where he found a few more gems to add to his collection that already includes 90 LPs. Some of his local favorites include The Mynabirds, Talking Mountain, and his most recent addition that he picked up from Antiquarium on May 29, Lightning Bug.
Fratt says vinyl has become a considerable part of the music retail business. Five million units of new vinyl were sold last year, and that doesn’t include the number of used units that were traded and bought, which could add another 10 million to the mix, he says.
“For 15 years, we heard the pounding of record stores are going away. It’s 2012. We’re still here, so now they have shifted their argument to, ‘Well, there’s something wrong with you if you aren’t downloading,’" Fratt says. “People like fidelity.”
Krystal Sidzyik is an intern at Hear Nebraska. After writing this series, she is considering starting a vinyl collection herself. Reach her at email@example.com.