Fifteen years is the equivalent of 105 dog years — and it probably feels like twice that if you own a record store these days. So why does Todd Robinson seem so happy?
"When I first started, I thought it would be cool to own a record store," the proprietor of the Luna Music stores said. "And I still feel that way. But as I've gotten older and seen how things evolved, I really think it's great — as my friends say in the dance community — to take it back to the raw, simplify and do things that you hold true and that speak to you."
By doing that, he said — by catering to people who love music as much as he does, by sending out an informative weekly e-mail blast that now reaches 6,700 subscribers, by spending time with customers — he's been able to hit a major milestone: 15 years in business. To celebrate, Robinson will present a Dec. 11 concert featuring Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon fame. (See sidebar for details.)
Luna's anniversary is an enormous feat, given the state of the music industry these days. CD sales dropped 25 percent from 2007 to 2008 while digital downloads of albums climbed 34 percent. Music piracy remains a problem, too, costing $12.5 billion a year around the globe, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
But Robinson could be speaking for every independent record store in town — Vibes, Indy CD & Vinyl, World, Naptown — when he says this: "People seek out the retail experiences they want, and I think that goes a long way to combat things like bootlegging or downloading. As great as technology is, I still like the tactile experience. I still like going in someplace where people may know my taste and can turn me on to something new. Our responsibility is to provide the best possible way for them to have a great experience and have the products they can attach to and want to come in and buy."
It's a responsibility Robinson has taken seriously since getting into record retailing 25 years ago. After high school in his hometown near Dayton, Ohio, he didn't think college was his best option. Instead, he got a job at a store called Gem City Records and decided, "I can come in and clock in, or I can dig in and really see exactly how the back end behind the curtain works and how the wizard runs things."
He took in what he learned there and also used a model from Books & Co. in Dayton, which was owned by some friends. They'd taken a small store that catered mostly to professors and built it into one of the country's largest independent booksellers. From them, he learned that he'd be better off with employees who are friendly rather than people who love the product but not the customers. He watched how they treated employees, stocked the store and nurtured relationships with authors. He vowed to run his record store the same way.
Robinson would come to Indianapolis from time to time to visit his older brother, Marc, who ran a lumber company in Frankfort. He'd scour the local record stores and decided "there would be an opening here for the kind of record store I wanted to open." Marc provided seed money and business advice, and Todd opened the first Luna store next to Half Price Books at 86th Street and Ditch Road in December 1994.
Robinson didn't choose the location on a whim; he studied the area down to the traffic patterns. He figured book shoppers would like the convenience of a record store next door. And he had a business plan that called for giving customers an "experience."
"It was never going to be 'Let's stock CDs and have people come in,'" he said.
The early days
In the early days of Luna, the store earned big-time credibility in the indie music scene as the place to find anything related to the band Guided by Voices. Robinson had known lead singer/songwriter/former Dayton-area school teacher Bob Pollard from the Gem City days — "Bob used to come in and order records and buy records from me on Fridays after school" — and they'd become friends.
When Robinson decided to start his own record label, which he called recordhead, he signed Pollard and GBV bandmate Tobin Sprout, as well as local groups like the Impossible Shapes.
"I first met Todd when we were doing one of GBV'S first photo shoots," Sprout said via e-mail. "We were riding around East Dayton in (manager) Pete's (Jamison) brown Caddy, drinking beer and passing a bottle of some brown whiskey. I was thinking, 'We are all going to jail.' But the gods were on our side and all went well. Todd got some great shots and became part of the group from then on. He is a great guy and someone you could depend on. I wish him a happy 15th."
The association with Guided by Voices earned Luna widespread attention too, with The New York Times twice suggesting to readers that Luna was among the top independent shops for difficult-to-find music. "It was a way to market the store, and the store could market the records," Robinson said. "It was a great little bump."
The record label is now basically defunct, other than collecting iTunes royalties — a victim of so much to do and so little time. But there's a possibility Robinson might revive it, however briefly, to do a limited pressing of highlights from the in-store concerts Luna has hosted over the years, such as Ron Sexsmith, Robyn Hitchcock, Sean Lennon, Mark Kozelek and St. Vincent.
His thought about in-stores is this: "With some people's thoughts of music being free or somewhat more disposable because it's so readily available, I want to give people more value for their experience. It's enriching, and that's what we should be about in the shop."
Times were good in the music business when Robinson opened his second store at 431 Massachusetts Ave. in 2001. He had an employee — a "coworker," as he calls everyone who works at Luna — who was ready to branch out. "I knew if I was going to keep him, I probably should find an opening for him."
At the same time, Mass. Ave. was starting to come into its own. Starbucks, Global Gifts and Silver in the City were about to open, and Robinson wanted a neighborhood store.
The neighborhood location worked — so much so that he opened a second one, at 5202 N. College Ave., in April 2006, and closed down the Far-Northside store about a year later.
The tightest ship
You'll find Robinson at the College Avenue store most days, dealing with inventory and other challenges at his desk in front of a huge poster of Miles Davis. Despite the doom that's settled over so much of the music industry, Robinson seems unfazed.
"I don't think anybody, 10 years ago, when things were really big and on the uptick, could have seen how drastically home computing and the ubiquity of having so much technology would change the game," he said. "At first, it was really tough, getting a handle on where things are going to go and how they're going to go. But it's just a new set of challenges, and you just have to keep looking forward as opposed to thinking 'that's how it used to be and I should be entitled to keep it that way.'"
The shop itself is open and clean — cleanliness is huge, as far as Robinson is concerned — with racks of new and used CDs and vinyl records, T-shirts, posters and other ancillary products — anything from music-related books to limited edition urban vinyl figures. These days, vinyl records are increasingly popular, accounting for 30-35 percent of Luna's sales and eclipsing used CDs.
"When you see a Target commercial where a girl's dancing around a turntable with headphones on?" he said. "Yeah, vinyl's starting to come back."
The more vinyl that customers want, the happier Robinson is. He prefers records: likes the size, the feeling of holding an album, reading the liner notes and getting the full experience the artist had in mind.
And for those without a turntable, Robinson sells those too.
The modern anniversary gift for 15 years is glass or a watch, and that seems to speak perfectly to the fragility of the business Robinson is in — and the time it may have remaining.
But not so fast, said Eric Levin, owner of Criminal Records in Atlanta and one of the founders of Record Store Day, an annual celebration of independent record stores. On April 17, 2010, more than 800 shops — including Luna — are scheduled to participate.
"Record stores have the same problems that all independent small businesses have — out of control insurance, taxes, rent," Levin said. "It's not easy to be an entrepreneur in America in 2009, and a record store does sell non-essential items. It's not ammunition and food."
But people still love and want music, Levin said. They want stores like Luna, operated by guys like Robinson.
"He runs one of the tightest ships I've ever seen, not just in cleanliness but in design and curation," Levin said.
What he means is Luna's choice of products to sell. "If we are fighting the masses — the Walmarts, the Targets — and their lack of expertise and selection, then that's what we're celebrating," Levin said. "So I think curating is a good word. You don't go record shopping at Best Buy or Walmart. You might go hits shopping — if they have a compelling price. But geez, if you want some music and you have a cool record store in your area, that's the No. 1 choice, I would think."
That's the way Robinson sees it too.
"We never wanted to be the biggest, biggest, biggest," he said. "We wanted to create an environment where people could come in and shop, have a free exchange of ideas and turn onto things."
Meet Todd Robinson
What's the first record you ever bought? "The Letter" by the Box Tops.
You're on your death bed. You have time to listen to one more record. What would you pick? "I'm Old-Fashioned" off John Coltrane's Blue Train album. "My wife and I got married at home. I had Blue Train playing just as the time came for us to say our vows."
What record came out in the last 15 years that people completely missed and shouldn't have? Midlake's The Trials of Van Occupanther."
What's the best in-store performance you've hosted? "For a number of circumstances, Sean Lennon in 1997 or '98. It was his first in-store, he showed up with a bunch of people. Here's a guy who by all rights doesn't have to do in-stores — doesn't have to do anything — and he was so sweet to everyone. Anything other than his dad's music, he was happy to sign, take photographs, everything. And the music was really great too. And Mark Kozelek's second in-store was completely lethal. That was one of those things where he was playing songs he'd just recently written. There was something in the air that night."
How big is your personal record collection? "I still have some stuff in storage in Ohio. I'll say somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 7,000 vinyl records and 4,000 CDs."
What's the rarest or most valuable record you own? "I own the very first — No. 1 of 500 — Guided by Voices' Propeller, autographed. Bob sold a double-digit copy four or five years ago for $7,000 or $8,000."
The Anniversary Concert
Luna Music will celebrate its 15th anniversary on Dec. 11 with a concert by Mark Kozelek, the singer-songwriter who fronts Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters, at Big Car Gallery, 1043 Virginia Ave.
Only 100 tickets will be available, for $15 each. When you buy a ticket, you'll also get a numbered 19x25 silkscreen poster designed by Indianapolis-based graphic artists Commercial Artisan.
Tickets are available, of course, at both Luna Music stores.