Back on vinyl: How two Fort Wayne record stores are staying relevant in the digital age

As the saying goes, everything old is new again. Two Fort Wayne record stores have benefitted from the resurgence of vinyl—a once-dying format—and have found other ways to stay relevant and “tuned in” to their customer base.

Morrison Agen, owner of Neat Neat Neat Records just south of downtown, is among 1,500 business owners across the country betting on an analog business in the digital world.

Morrison Agen owns Neat Neat Neat Records at 1836 S. Calhoun St.

A vinyl enthusiast himself, Agen opened the independent record store at 1836 S. Calhoun St. in February 2011. He caters to vinyl enthusiasts with discerning tastes, often carrying obscure or limited edition titles.

Agen says he moves inventory through both his brick-and-mortar location and via e-commerce sites, like Amazon and Discogs. From the outset, he primarily focused on the sale of physical media, but it became clear that there was another viable market, too.

“If you sell records, you've got to sell something to play them on,” he says. “While there's a segment of people who just buy records to collect them, for the most part, people have to have something to play it on, and they might as well come to me."

Neat Neat Neat caters to vinyl enthusiasts with discerning tastes, often carrying obscure or limited edition titles.

Agen has dedicated half his life to honing his knowledge of audio equipment and "things like that," he says.

"It gives us a natural glide path to be a one-stop-shop," he explains. "We sell everything from little suitcases turntables to full audio systems that we install in people's homes.”

From the outset, Agen primarily focused on the sale of physical media.

And people who enjoy recorded music often seek out the live performance variety—another way, in which, Agen is piquing interest.

One side of his building serves as a performance venue, which allows him to host live music acts on site. He says it’s a treat to introduce new, or previously unknown artists passing through while on tour, to the local music community. (Not to mention the fact that Agen's daughter, Addison Agen, is a rising musician on the national stage herself after a second-place finish on ABC's The Voice in 2017.)

In addition to selling records, Neat Neat Neat also hosts live performances.

Agen says show-goers at Neat Neat Neat tend to be customers—audiophiles who look to him as the curator and the gatekeeper of the obscure in indie music. The majority of his regulars are between 18- and 34-years-old, and the demographic is fairly evenly split between men and women, Agen says.

“We've had punk and metal bands, rockabilly bands, folks, nouveau-hillbilly bands, and other genres,” he says. "Thus far, we've been relatively lucky. The majority of our shows have had really good attendance, and people really liked the experience.”

Vinyl is popular among music listeners ages 18 to 34.

While the genres played at Neat Neat Neat run the gamut, one thing they all have in common is a rabid affinity for this analog format, and it's part of an ongoing national trend.

According to a January 2019 article in Forbes, vinyl accounted for an estimated 9.7 million album sales in 2018.

“That’s up roughly 12 percent from 8.6 million in 2017," the article states. On top of that, vinyl album sales accounted for 13.7 percent of all physical sales, up from 10 percent in 2017 and 8 percent in 2016.

Agen sells records and audio equipment at his shop.

So the market for record stores is still growing, and Fort Wayne is on track with these numbers, according to Bob Roets, who owns the local chain of Wooden Nickel Music stores.

Roets says vinyl has been hot for the last several years. In a way, it’s a return to the early days of the modern music industry. He opened Wooden Nickel in 1982, as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 20-something. Since then, he’s seen the landscape evolve over the years, especially in terms of technology and the format by which people engage in listening to music.

Bob Roets owns the local chain of Wooden Nickel Music stores.

“Vinyl sales have been up a minimum of 12 to 14 percent now for over a decade,” Roets says. “So, as long as that keeps happening, I think we will be just fine, and we're adjusting our stores’ inventory because 15 years ago, there were no albums in here. We had completely gotten rid of them because CDs were so dominant. But our albums are taking the entire center of the store again, so we've had to change our product mix quite a bit.”

In addition to records, the Wooden Nickel also sells CDs and other media.

In addition to moving titles, Roet says he’s found success in selling supplemental items, like T-shirts. And like Agen, events have been a boon to his business, as well. One event, in particular, stands out—though Roets discusses it with an air of humility.

He had the foresight to bring Record Store Day—an annual and international event that celebrates the unique culture of independent record stores—to Fort Wayne in 2008. 

How and why he got involved with this global movement is a story in and of itself.

Wooden Nickel has been opened since 1982.

Roets is a member of The Coalition Of Independent Music Stores (CIMS). One day, he got a call from fellow CIMS member and Criminal Records founder Eric Levin. Levin wanted to bring Roets into the fold in planning what would become Record Store Day. Little did Roets know, but Levin’s invitation would re-energize his business, too. 

“I was one of the original planners of the first Record Store Day events, and one of my ideas was to have live entertainment in the stores,” Roets explains. “It caught on; This year, we had 17 bands play, and we had music all day long over at the North Anthony store.”

The Wooden Nickel was instrumental in bringing Record Store Day to Fort Wayne.

The increased foot traffic also drove sales, and Roet says it was the beginning of the wave he and Agen are still riding today. 

“The first year we had around 30 vinyl releases come out, and Metallica was the biggest one," he recalls. "We sold out of that it. It was a big deal because it was the first time we had sold out of something on vinyl in a long time.”

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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