Independent Records & Video
Multiple locations, beindependent.com
It's managed to survive competition from big-box stores like Target and Best Buy, the demise of mega-chains like Tower and Sam Goody, the consumer exodus from brick-and-mortar outlets to Amazon online, the rise of a generation raised on MP3s, and the advent of Lady Gaga.
Since its 1978 founding by brothers Lewis and Orville Lambert, the Colorado Springs-based Independent Records & Video chain has probably weathered more sea changes than the pirates of Somalia and the Caribbean combined. And it has no intention of turning back now.
Co-owner Judith Negley, who came on board in 1981, laughingly attributes the company's longevity to "sheer will and inertia."
"We've been really, really lucky in that we've attracted a lot of great people," says Negley. "It's a labor of love for us, and I think a lot of times it's been a matter of just saying we won't fail. And we don't. Not that we haven't come awfully close."
Negley says she's no more worried about the current wave of online music subscription services, like Rhapsody and Spotify, than she has been about past challenges: "We're certainly dealing with different ways of acquiring music, some of which we probably haven't imagined yet, but I still see enough people in here every single day looking through vinyl or whatever."
MJ jackets and fishnet
While Negley is sanguine about the company's ability to survive all manner of technological challenges, she thinks it's unfortunate that armies of MP3 listeners "don't understand what music should sound like."
"I really have a hard time with downloaded music, as far as the sound of it," says Negley. "I've never downloaded a track. I just can't listen to it."
At least some Independent customers feel the same way, and also value the tactile experience of shuffling through bins and patronizing a local business. Plus, they can find non-music merchandise: "We've always carried smoking accessories, we've always carried a lot of T-shirts, gift items, jewelry. In the '80s, we had separate departments called 'The News,' tiny boutique areas within the stores where we sold Michael Jackson jackets and fishnet stockings.
"And we're still selling that kind of stuff. If we could get our hands on Michael Jackson jackets, it'd be great."
And then there's the adult section.
"We sell adult video, but that's pretty much where we cap it off. I mean, we've kind of gone into some other things occasionally, but I don't really buy into that, so it's never been a big push. But adult video, and having an environment that's not judgmental, that's been huge for us."
Even in the best of times, Negley says the retail markup on recorded music has never been huge. "The most we could ever hope for in music was 30 percent, and that's pretty slender when you're thinking about keeping the lights on and paying people and offering a health plan and all that kind of stuff."
Local music and Focus
While typical retail chains tend to centralize and streamline the decision-making process when it comes to determining what products their stores will end up carrying, Negley favors a more interactive, feedback-driven approach.
"I elicit opinions from everyone who works here, especially on new releases," says Negley, who serves as the chain's main buyer. "The stores can also order at their level. I still see it coming across [my desk], but I definitely solicit their input. And we all work the stores at least part of every day, so there's no disconnect at all."
Still, as with any business, there can be perceptions within the community that are difficult to shake.
"No matter how hard we've tried in the past to get in with certain types of music, there's this perception out there: 'Oh, Independent, they sell rap music and heavy metal, and you couldn't sell my stuff there.' Although right now, we have over 700 local artists on consignment. It's a huge part of the health of our business. Those guys — whether they be rappers or rock bands or whatever — have supported us immensely, and we would not be here without them."
Negley says the company maintains an open-door policy when it comes to carrying records by local musicians: "They can call me any time [at 447-0182]. They can also e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and they'll get our consignment person right away. We take anything and everything. We don't say, 'Oh, this sucks, go back and try it again' or anything like that."
With three stores here in town, and an additional three located in Denver, Security and Pueblo, Negley says the company's general trajectory over the course of three decades has been toward steady growth. Even so, a couple stores have closed in the northern part of the city, which is, of course, the stomping ground of Focus on the Family, whose protests the Independent chain has also survived.
"They kind of hassled us at the beginning," says Negley of the evangelical ministry James Dobson brought here in 1991. "Then we actually set up a talk show thing on television and their Minister of Youth, or whatever it was, came and we debated. James was there, too, and afterward we walked out and they both shook my hand. And I never heard from them after that."