Store Owner interview with Jerry Kranitz of Aural Innovations Mailorder
Jerry Kranitz of Aural Innovations Mail Order
Probably some of you are already familiar with Jerry & Aural Innovations from the years he’s been doing his fantastic zine gone webzine/radio show. For several years he ran a store as well, but those days unfortunately are gone now.
QRD – Why did you start your store?
Jerry – I started Aural Innovations in
1998 as a hard copy reviews/articles/interviews zine. At some point
in those first couple years I started picking up CDs from some bands &
small labels that I really liked & putting for sale ads in the zine.
It was very informal & it was only a handful of titles. After
Aural Innovations went fully web based in 2000 I continued stocking CDs,
& slowly increasing the volume, though probably never beyond a few
dozen titles. The whole idea was that there wasn’t any single source
I was aware of where you could buy obscure space rock & related music.
& I kept coming across bands who I thought were very talented &
had little distribution. So many bands were releasing CDs on their
own & it was difficult for them to get into established mail order
outfits. & incredible labels like Nasoni Records (Germany), Black
Widow (Italy), & Transubstans (Sweden) didn’t have much distribution
in the US.
QRD – How does your store particularly appeal to your city?
Jerry – Being fully online, my demographic was global.
QRD – What’s a mistake you’ve made with your store that you’d warn others against?
Jerry – I didn’t take a hard-nosed BUSINESS view toward what I was doing. I assumed that based on my website’s hit rate, which had grown pretty much exponentially every year since I’d began, that space/psych fans would flock to me in droves. You’ve got to have a business plan & do some kind of market research. Really understand who your target audience is, & where & how they make purchases. It was a business, & ultimately I treated it as just another element of the larger labor-of-love Aural Innovations project.
QRD – What do you think indie record labels could do to best help both themselves & indie stores?
Jerry – Stores (both brick & mortar & mail order outfits) & labels should be collaborators who view each other’s interests being as vital as their own. & if I’d had more business sense than I did, I could detail how the relationships might work.
QRD – How was the representation of indie storeowners & customers in the movie High Fidelity accurate & inaccurate to your experience?
Jerry – Haven’t seen the movie.
QRD – What type of research do you do to decide what to put on the shelves?
Jerry – Because the webzine & radio shows were pretty well established in the space rock community, the titles would just show up in my mailbox as submissions for review & radio play. & the ones that didn’t were generally mentioned by someone on the various internet discussion lists I was on. There were also a few other mail order outfits I kept my eyes on that were primarily psychedelic &/or progressive rock focused, but would always get the odd titles that I may not have known about, but seemed like they would be a good match for my store. In those cases I would contact the bands or labels & solicit promos for radio play & review, & after hearing them if they seemed like good candidates for the mail order I would then approach them about that.
QRD – Is it ever difficult to find the right distributors to get something you want to stock?
Jerry – YES. In the cases where I would find interesting bands on labels I wasn’t familiar with, it was not uncommon for me to struggle to find contact information for them. Lots of time spent Googling & asking questions in some cases. I should also mention that I was going right to the sources, either labels or the bands themselves. In the few instances where I was directed by labels to their distributors it ended up being such a hassle dealing with them I said the hell with it. For example, they would require I take minimum quantities that were well beyond my scale. & in another case, with a label that sends me promos & has titles that would have been perfect for my store, they completely blew me off when I wanted to stock their titles. I much better liked the personal aspect of dealing directly with the labels & bands. (There… further evidence that I’m much more suited to the purely labor-of-love zine & radio shows than trying to be a businessman.)
QRD – What do you wish labels or bands or distributors did more of to work with you?
Jerry – Continuing from the last question, I wish the bigger labels would have taken me more seriously. I may have been small potatoes, & may not have represented much volume, but I had the ultimate target audience for at least some of their titles. Wouldn’t it have been in their interest to work with me & help me grow my business? I’m not saying that’s why I failed. Not at all. But I stocked, intentionally, lots of unknown but incredible bands. & getting some of the more established artists in stock, would have brought in new customers, who would have then potentially taken a shot at some of the bands they had never heard of, especially once they realized I was a niche market store for the kind of music they like.
QRD – What do you think is your store’s all time best seller?
Jerry – Anything by, or offshoots of, The Spacious Mind. The Spacious Mind are from Sweden, have existed since the early 90s, & are one of the most incredible psychedelic bands EVER. I would order more of their titles than any others because they proved themselves over & over to be guaranteed sellers.
QRD – What do you think most leads to a particular record being a good seller in your store?
Jerry – First & foremost, a certain level of popularity in the underground. Second, a band or particular album needs to be heavily discussed on discussion lists. If someone gets a buzz going about an album, others seem to start going for it.
QRD – How does one get an independent release into your store such that it’s recommended to the clientele instead of just sitting on the shelf?
Jerry – I rarely stocked anything that I couldn’t personally recommend to customers. I was very picky about everything I stocked. I was continually having to tell bands or labels that I liked their music, would be happy to help them out with radio play & reviews, but their music wasn’t quite right for my store. Explaining this was sometimes difficult when I had written a good review of an album, but didn’t want to stock it. Aural Innovations the webzine & radio show is fairly open, whereas I was trying to be more tightly focused with the store. Silber Records is a perfect example. I love the stuff you put out. My reviews are genuine & sincere. But when you asked me about stocking your titles in my store I knew they wouldn’t be right for the people who I had established as customers. Perhaps being too focused was my problem.
QRD – How do you feel about so many stores closing & how does it affect you if at all?
Jerry – I’m closed. It was huge last year when The Freak Emporium closed. They were a huge psychedelic mail order outfit in the UK that had been around for years. Some of the labels that valued me as a source for their titles in the US commented that I’m not the only one closing. They’re seeing others.
QRD – What type of competition did you get from the big box stores?
Jerry – Zero, zip, nada, none. You would NEVER find what I stocked in the big box stores.
QRD – With portable MP3 players & iTunes, is the concept of the album (in any form) dying?
Jerry – The concept of the album does indeed seem to be dying, though it is far from dead. The fact that labels like Nasoni & Black Widow are still cranking out several titles a year is encouraging. They release all their titles on both CD & LP. I’m a child of the 70s. So I grew up with ALBUMS. You played side one, & then you turned it over & played side two. You listened to the whole ALBUM. & being into all kinds of prog rock & psychedelic music it was all about albums. & when I say album, I don’t just mean vinyl. Even with a CD, I listened to the whole album. With iTunes you choose individual titles or buy the album. If there’s artwork it’s just jpg’s. My teenage niece is a window into all this for me. She’s a music nut & loads up her iPod with songs she has downloaded. I too am an iPod freak. I LOVE my iPod. But I load albums on it & listen to albums on it.
QRD – How has the downloading scene impacted your sales - do you find that people buy less CDs now because they can download them for less or do you or do you think illegal downloads are more of a culprit?
Jerry – That’s a good question. My
customer base, as far as I could tell, were people more or less in my same
age group. People who grew up in the 70s or earlier, maybe a little
younger. The Hawkwind/Gong/Psychedelic/Krautrock fans. People
who I assumed would still be into the tangible object you could hold in
your hands. The average Aural Innovations Space Rock Radio show gets
many hundreds of hits. Sometimes upwards of a thousand. I haven’t
checked stats in a while so it might be more than that now. But the
sales numbers were such that only a tiny fraction of the number of listeners
were buying anything from the store. Was it because they just wanted
free downloads & didn’t want to buy anything? I’ve not figured
it out. I finally said screw it… I don’t do the shows just to plug
the store. I love doing the shows. So if you want the shows
but don’t want to buy anything, then I’ll close the store.
QRD – Record & CD buyers tend to be of a certain age (21-34), as the upcoming people who will be of that age group are mostly download-buyers, would you like stores to eventually have “iPod filling stations” hooked up to an indie network that stores can be part of?
Jerry – When I backpacked around Europe in the mid-80s I remember going into a record store in Munich, & it had all these listening stations where you could listen to just about any record in the store. It was incredible. So yeah, that’s just good marketing sense. Many people who download illegally claim it’s a way they can sample the music before buying, & that they do buy if they like it. I’m sure a lot of them are telling the truth about that.
QRD – With the increase in digital downloads, low prices in mega-chains, & so many online specialty stores; what is the job of the local indie shop now compared to in the 1990s?
Jerry – To carry independent releases that can’t be found in chains. LOTS of people still like to go to record stores. Living near the Ohio State University we’ve got a few outstanding stores in the campus area that I like to go to. & their prices are competitive with the same material online. So the ones in my area are doing a damn good job. They still carry some vinyl too.
QRD – What are the biggest misconceptions people have of record stores in general & yours in particular?
Jerry – With the exception of the campus area shops I mentioned, the ONLY places to buy CDs around here are the chains. Barnes & Noble, Borders, Best Buy. & none of those are exclusively record stores. I don’t know how other cities are, but I imagine that unless you’ve got the luxury, as I do, of having all these cool university area shops, then there really aren’t any stores for you to have misconceptions about. But if you’re relying on Barnes & Noble or Borders, you’re probably pretty bummed out about buying CDs at all because of their prices. The average price at these places is $16.99-$18.99. That’s just nuts. Best Buy is much better. Target has great prices, but crap selection.
QRD – What is the most frustrating &/or frequent question you get from customers?
Jerry – Asking for titles that I couldn’t get because I had to go through these big distros.
QRD – How do you decide who to hire as an employee & when you need one?
Jerry – It was a one-man operation. I wish I had gotten to the point where that became a problem.
QRD – If you weren’t in the music business, what would you do?
Jerry – Far as I’m concerned I’m still in the music business. It’s not a business. But I’m involved in it to the extent that it’s a significant part of my life.
QRD – How did your schooling & previous work experience prepare (or not prepare) you for your store?
Jerry – It didn’t . As I said before, I wish I had more business sense. That was ultimately my downfall.
QRD – Have you ever refused to sell something purely because you disliked the music, even if it was popular & would sell?
Jerry – Definitely because I disliked the music, or just didn’t feel it was right for my store. I was pretty picky about what I stocked.
QRD – What is your personal “holy grail”? (i.e. the one rarity you’ve been looking for forever.)
Jerry – I live for bands I’ve never heard of before. So I look to the submissions in my mailbox for the latest & greatest holy grail of exciting new music.
QRD – What makes you feel like you had a good day at the store?
Jerry – When the store was in full swing, coming home from my day job & logging into the e-commerce shop to find enough orders to keep me packing throughout the evening.
Official Website - Aural-Innovations.com