From bluegrass to Black Sabbath, Koenig brings music to Summit
April 19, 2009
Editor’s Note: This is the seventh of a weekly story we’ll bring readers about how businesses, families, individuals and organizations in Summit County are making it through these rocky economic times. If you have an idea for the “Making It” series, please e-mail us at email@example.com.
DILLON ” When Gary Koenig opened Affordable Music back in 1991, he had no idea what was coming down the pike. The Internet, with its digital music applications, was about to change the record-store scene forever.
“I was having a midlife crisis and I was at a friend’s house, whining about how I had to find something to do with my life,” Koenig said. “He said, ‘As much as you love music, you should open a record store.’ I spent the next few months researching, going to independent record stores,” Koenig said recently, stroking his silver beard behind the counter of his cozy music emporium in Dillon.
The stereo ” no digital here ” is playing some Robert Cray, and there’s a faint incense aroma about the place, now located at 104 Village Place in Dillon (below Pug Ryans).
That’s just the way a lot of his customers like it.
“It’s not just grab-and-go. It’s a social meeting place,” Koening said. “I still need customers to walk in and say, ‘Hey! This smells like an old head shop.'”
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The midlife crisis came after Koenig had spent 16 years working as an electrician at the Henderson Mine. But it was probably inevitable that he would end up in the music business.
Koenig was born in Cleveland, home to the Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame (www.rock
hall.com/) and grew up listening to the Motown sounds favored by his older siblings. His musical horizons quickly grew to encompass everything from Black Sabbath to bluegrass, and his eyes light up when he mentions Neil Young.
“I started listening to Harvest,” he said, referring to one of Young’s all-time classics. “My friends made fun of me, saying, ‘That’s country,’ but it made me realize there’s no bad music.”
During its heyday at the original Silverthorne location in the former City Market shopping center, Affordable Music employed as many as five people. Koenig thinks of that crew more as musical colleagues than as employees.
“It was hard to let them go,” he said, explaining that all but one left by attrition as his business shrank in the face of competition from bigger retailers and the digital onslaught.
Big-box stores like Borders and Target were starting to be a factor, Koening said without bitterness. Even now, he says Borders sometimes sends customers his way, and he does the same if it helps someone get the music they want.
But the digital revolution, which gave people the ability to completely bypass music retailers, was the biggest blow, and caused Koenig to shift his emphasis toward selling guitars, strings, microphones and other musical accessories.
“I kept asking myself, what am I doing,” he said, recognizing that diversification would be the key to survival.
In the meantime, Koenig has noticed a new trend that might breathe some life back into the independent music store scene. Locally and nationally, vinyl is making a modest comeback.
Musicians like Elvis Costello, Bjork and Van Morrison are all helping to push record sales by promoting their vinyl releases. In some regions, sales of vinyl records are growing at 20 percent annually, and Koenig said he’s seeing the trend locally, as well.
Sound quality may be one factor, along with the graphical element you can get with an album cover, he said. Beyond that, there’s also the aspect of laying a needle down into the groove of a record, a tangible, physical element of listening to music that’s absent when you just click on your computer’s play button.
Competition from big-box retailers and the digital music industry meant that Koenig adapted to a challenging business climate long before the latest economic downturn started to decimate retail sales.
As an immediate impact, Koenig said he noticed a dip in CD sales, but said that sales of guitars and strings grew as the economy went into a tailspin.
“All the things that people have been saying, like turn your thermostat down to 68 … I’ve been doing that for a while. I have to laugh. I say, why should I turn my thermostat up to 68, from 62, where I have it set,” he said with a laugh. “I had a jumpstart on this, with what my industry has been going through.”
“I’m trying to scale back as much as I can without affecting my business,” Koenig said, explaining that he’s ordering less and trying to maintain just as much inventory as he needs to cover demand.
“For the next 18 months, I’ll be cutting back as much as I can. The slow season is always a tough time to get through. I’m wondering how slow it’s going to be.”
He’s also trying to be responsive to his customers’ interests by carrying the items they’re looking for right now, including instruments and musical accessories.
“The bad economy may be helpful to me. Instead of going on vacations, maybe people will stay home and listen and play music,” he said. “Music is your best friend. It will never let you down. It’ll help you through bad times and elevate the good times.”