You know your business has survived the times when its very name no longer reflects the full scope of what it sells.
When CD Central opened 20 years ago in South Hill Station, compact discs were its lone product. Though viewed by music lovers as a record store, the conventional vinyl album that constituted a record was extinct. In its place was a plastic computer disc that could hold twice the music of a vinyl record and stand up better to the wear of frequent plays. Hence the name of the store Steve Baron opened and eventually moved to South Limestone as the '90s drew to a close.
"That was the heyday of it — the '90s," Baron said. "That's when the industry was just huge. There were other indie stores around Lexington, like Spy Records. There were several urban stores, including G-Town Sounds. Cut Corner was the dominant indie store back in the '90s. They started in '79 on High Street, so they were here almost 20 years. We have just matched their record."
And clearly, selling records and CDs was a competitive business several years ago.
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"Just in the South Limestone area, you wouldn't believe how many stores there were over the years. Back in the '70s, book stores also sold records. The business at that time was like the Wild West. It was cutthroat. Everybody advertised like crazy. There was so much price competition. One would have all records at $3.99. Others would have everything at $3.88 — that kind of stuff."
Then came the crash.
As the 2000s progressed, the once thriving music industry collapsed, CD sales plummeted and the death knell for the neighborhood record store rang louder than any music emanating from it. Listeners, especially younger ones, didn't go to a store to buy music. They downloaded it from computers.
"If you look at who was in business in '95, nobody is still around," Baron said. "Back then, every mall had a record store — you had Musicland (in the now demolished Lexington Mall), you had Camelot Music (in the Fayette Mall). Disc Jockey had a couple of stores (its final location was in Lexington Green).
"If you look at this nationwide, the peak year of CD sales was 2000 and 2001. It's been in steady decline ever since then. The figures I saw for 2014 had CDs selling less than half of what they were."
So how has a store like CD Central survived such a downward market for recorded music to celebrate its 20th anniversary?
The hero, it turns out, is the very vinyl record format that CDs helped eradicate when the store opened.
"The resurgence of vinyl is a topic unto itself," Baron said. "That's brought in a whole new generation. A lot of people are starting on vinyl — kids in high school that have never bought CDs. They'll come in our store just to look at the vinyl. This is a generation that probably, if you were only selling CDs, would never set foot in the store. But because of the vinyl renaissance, that's changed."
Of course, vinyl doesn't sell in the very dominant way that it did in the '70s, when even department stores boasted full sections devoted to records. Baron said recorded music of any kind today is more of a niche market.
But a niche market often translates into a devoted clientele that doesn't necessarily follow commercial trends.
David Ritter, a cattle farmer in Bourbon County, is one of those people.
"I buy vinyl, so it surprises me when I hear people say, 'Gosh, there are no record stores anymore,'" said Ritter, a frequent customer of CD Central. "I know the online business is huge. But I tell everybody I know that's into vinyl, 'Go see Steve at CD Central.' I promote him because he's local.
"When I travel, I always try to see where there's a record store. The ones I find usually don't compare to CD Central. For them to be around 20 years and be so heavily into the vinyl is great."
Customers like Ritter and those who listen to alternative or indie rock help keep CD Central going.
"We'll sell a few copies of Taylor Swift or Miley (Cyrus), stuff like that. We carry it and we'll sell some, but not in big numbers. Most of that audience, if they're going to buy CDs, are generally going to buy them at Walmart or places like that, or just download the music," Baron said.
"The stuff we tend to do the best with is alternative and indie rock. The new Sufjan Stephens will be a big one for us. When My Morning Jacket comes out with their new album later in the spring, that should be a really big release for us. We sell a little bit of everything. But I'd say the bread and butter, if you look at our best sellers, will be dominated by indie rock."
The vindication of vinyl has also led to a yearly celebration called Record Store Day. From a standpoint of commerce, the event is a promotion where artists release limited edition recordings to call attention nationwide to the still-vanishing breed of independent record stores.
But in terms of sheer awareness for such businesses, Record Store Day — which is April 18 — is bigger than Christmas.
"The awareness aspect is awesome," Baron said. "This is the eighth year for Record Store Day. When it started the press surrounding record stores was so negative. It was always 'The Death of Record Stores,' and that kind of hurt. We were like, 'Hey, we're still here. We're still relevant.' There was so much doom and gloom that something had to be done to celebrate the stores and bring that awareness. That was really the whole philosophy and it's definitely taken off.
"Over 1,000 stores participate now, and that's just in the United States. It's a great sales day for us, but it's also cool to have people come into the store just to see what's going on."