* * *
Downloads and digital music haven't stopped record stores from thriving.
iTunes, Amazon and Napster were supposed to have killed the record store.
Napster kicked off the digital music boom by letting people download songs and whole albums for free. Apple's iTunes — and later Amazon and others — came along with low prices and made digital music legitimate.
Why go to a brick-and-mortar record store when you can hop on your computer and have it in your hands in minutes? Plenty of people have an emphatic answer to that question.
In fact, while the Omaha and Lincoln area has fewer record stores that in the past, observers say it still has more than other similarly-sized cities. Within a half-block in Omaha, Homer's Music, Drastic Plastic and Antiquarium Records all do business selling CDs, records and T-shirts. And an official from Homer's, the area's largest store, says sales are healthy.
Kevin Hinrichs of Omaha likes record stores because of helpful staffers who recommend music and better music quality on CDs compared to mp3s.
"I still go out on release day and buy actual discs," Hinrichs said. "And record stores have better selection, not just what's popular."
Omahan Melissa Kucirek loves the variety, too, especially that "someone with a Henry Rollins or Sex Pistols T-shirt might be standing next to someone looking for a WHAM! or Yanni CD."
You also can give credit to vinyl, a once-abandoned format that is gaining in popularity year over year, for the staying power of record stores. Some stores have responded with increased shelf space for vinyl. Others, open for decades, have always been devoted to vinyl and are seeing fans come back to it.
"I'm still seeing all these guys from California that freak out when they see 2,000 feet of vinyl because they're not used to seeing that many records in one place," said Stuart Kolnick of Lincoln's Recycled Sounds.
On Saturday, independent record stores — including Kolnick's — will celebrate Record Store Day. The nationwide event includes hundreds of limited-edition vinyl releases and attracts lots of customers.
Even though music megastores such as Tower Records no longer exist and big-box stores such as Best Buy are scaling back their music sections, local independent record stores are thriving.
In 2011, 223.5 million CDs and 3.9 million vinyl albums were sold nationwide. Of those, more than 87 percent were bought in physical stores. More than 23.7 million of them were bought in independent stores such as Omaha's Homer's Music or Recycled Sounds.
While Web-based services sell a lot of music, the vast majority of those sales are individual songs. When people buy full albums, most of them (more than 67 percent) buy physical CDs or LPs, according to Nielsen Soundscan, which tracks music sales.
(And that's only new copies. When someone buys a used record or CD, a big part of business for indie stores and the only thing available at places like Antiquarium Records, it doesn't count toward those numbers.)
The best example of people choosing physical over digital music is Adele, the current queen of the pop charts. Her smash hit, the Grammy-winning album, "21," sold more than 5.8 million copies last year. More than 4 million were physical copies, not downloads.
"There's still a huge desire for physical product," said Mike Fratt, general manager at Homer's Music.
Fratt, who has worked for Homer's since 1979 and worked for other record stores before that, has seen the music business through ups and downs, through eight-track, vinyl and the CD era, and now to people moving back to vinyl.
"Change has been an ongoing part of this business," he said. "We've had 12 years of people telling us that record stores are going away and, statistically, if people want to buy an album, they're still choosing physical."
For years, so-called "big box" stores such as Target, Wal-Mart and Best Buy threatened the stand-alone record stores. These mass merchants could offer large selections and, since they buy large quantities of albums for all their stores, offer lower prices.
Now some have moved away from music and most have drastically lowered their inventories.
"Now that mass merchants are the getting out of it, we're our biggest competition," Fratt said. "Can we be good enough that when people walk in the door, we have what they want and give them quality customer service?"
Independent stores also try to be diverse. Drastic Plastic carries a lot of rock and pop culture T-shirts made by Impact Merchandising, its parent company. Recycled Sounds has a huge selection of rock posters, which Kolnick said appeal to married guys "creating themselves a man cave."
At Homer's, Fratt said, having both new and used music is very important, and DVDs have been also been a brisk seller. Fratt wants to expand his store's gift items, and even cassettes and eight-track tapes have been popular.
Both Homer's and Recycled Sounds also sell turntables and Homer's sells speakers, amps and CD players.
The fact remains, however, that fewer record stores dot the landscape than in years past.
Homer's had as many as 15 stores in three cities, including Omaha, Lincoln and Des Moines, though some of them were purchased to absorb competition and were soon closed. Now Homer's — the metro area's largest store — is down to one outlet in the Old Market, where sales have been up.
Still, Omaha and Lincoln appear to have even more stores than larger cities. Delta's "Sky" magazine did a feature on Homer's last year and American Airlines' "American Way" asked, "Why are three record — actual vinyl record — stores here, within a block of each other, in downtown Omaha?"
Affordable commercial real estate is one reason, but the selection in the stores — all of which are decades old — also contributes because it attracts customers. Antiquarium has loads of vinyl you could get lost in and Homer's wants to rebuild its shelves to expand selection.
At Recycled Sounds in Lincoln, Kolnick said he knows what brings people in.
"It's the variety," Kolnick said. "I'm always looking for odd things and anything I don't have."
Great music also helps. With something as good as Adele, people will come out to buy. And many — such as Omahan Bronson Sweet — want something they can touch.
"I like having a tangible item and I get to listen to the album on the way home, (and) I also like drilling through a bunch of CDs," he said.
Contact the writer:
View Record Store Day Omaha in a larger map
View Record Store Day Lincoln in a larger map