It’s only fitting that a businessman whose merchandise is played on turntables says his product line has come full circle after four decades.
Ian Boyd has been selling records in Ottawa with his brother James since 1978. The longtime entrepreneurs now own a pair of Compact Music stores on Bank Street – one in the Glebe and another farther north in Centretown.
The brothers Boyd started out hawking vinyl records at an outdoor stand near the long-gone Saucy Noodle restaurant on Somerset Street between Bank and Kent. The 40th anniversary of the day they made the deal to set up shop on the restaurant’s property just passed.
“I think my first day I sold like seven records. ‘I’m gonna get rich,’ I thought,” Ian says with a hearty laugh during an interview at his Glebe location.
Vinyl was king in ’78, a year when albums such as Billy Joel’s the Stranger, Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and the Rolling Stones classic Some Girls were hot commodities.
Over time, the Boyds have witnessed recording technologies rise and fall, including the brief heyday of the 8-track, which was supplanted by the smaller cassette tape and then, by the early 1990s, the compact disc.
In the past decade, digital technology has cut into album sales, with subscription streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music adding millions of new customers each year.
Yet an interesting thing has happened, Ian says: audiophiles are rediscovering the joys of vinyl in ever-growing numbers.
From the time Ian opened the Glebe store in 1991 until the beginning of 2008, he didn’t have a single vinyl record in stock. But then a buddy convinced him to give the old, seemingly archaic format another try.
He made a deal with a former employee who ran a music supply company in Montreal and bought 400 copies of various albums on vinyl. To his delight, they sold.
Ten years later, vinyl albums now account for more than two-thirds of his total revenues – in part because they’re significantly pricier than CDs but are also more coveted by music lovers.
“We started with a six-foot section (devoted to vinyl), and now it’s more than half the store. And it’s gonna get bigger,” says Ian, whose first record purchase as a boy was a 45 of Petula Clark’s Don’t Sleep in the Subway.
“The nice thing about vinyl is shelf life is a lot longer. I can sell City and Colour’s first record on vinyl, but I can’t sell it on CD, for instance. And that’s 12 years old.
“I think Thomas Edison (the inventor of the phonograph) had it right, man. Vinyl does something to the brain that simply doesn’t happen with CDs or digital in general.”
The 60-year-old music retailer might be on to something.
According to Neilsen Music Canada, just over 800,000 vinyl albums were sold in this country in 2017, an increase of more than 20 per cent from 2016 and the seventh consecutive year that sales of the format grew.
Still, total sales of physical albums, including CDs, continued to fall, while streaming rose more than 70 per cent as the digital revolution takes hold. Former music retailing giant HMV shut down its Canadian operations in 2017, a decade after another powerhouse brand of the past, Sam the Record Man, closed nearly all of its stores.
It’s no secret music retailers aren’t exactly thriving these days. But Ian and James say they have no intention of abandoning the only career they’ve ever known.
“Record stores have been not quite forgotten about, but certainly not as important in the culture of music as they once were,” Ian concedes.
"But we do have broad tastes and I think a burning desire to sell music to people. That’s pretty important. I think in this business, you need to have a mix between entrepreneurial spirit and a creative energy to survive."
“We try to remain relevant simply by continuing to focus solely on music as an art form. We want to appeal to the 20 per cent of people who value listening to music at home. Every store has their way. Ours is pretty old school, I’ll be the first to admit. We’re not doing anything new; we’re not reinventing the wheel. But we do have broad tastes and I think a burning desire to sell music to people. That’s pretty important. I think in this business, you need to have a mix between entrepreneurial spirit and a creative energy to survive.”
They run a lean operation – one full-time employee splits his shifts between the two stores, while two part-timers put in about four or five hours each a week. But that suits the Boyds just fine.
“It’s not work,” Ian says. “I like to say I retired years ago, I just hang out here.”
James, 58, who spends most of his time running the Centretown store, couldn’t agree more.
“As long as the companies keep manufacturing, we’ll keep on selling,” he says. “There’s not much else we can do.”
After 40 years, the brothers have witnessed a lot of changes in the music business – including new formats, radical technological upheavals and ever-evolving customer tastes.
But at least one thing, Ian says, has remained the same. The band many call the greatest of all time continues to captivate listeners nearly 50 years after it recorded its final album.
“There probably hasn’t been a week gone by in the 40 years that I haven’t sold something from the Beatles,” he says with a smile. “That’s the only artist I can say that (about). Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, definitely a month hasn’t gone by that I haven’t sold something from them, but not a week. But the Beatles, I can say that. It’s amazing.”
That kind of staying power is something Ian and James Boyd can appreciate.