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Caitlin Klask/MEDILL

A staff member stocks the shelves at Reckless in Lakeview. All three stores keep a real-time inventory updated online for customers' convenience.

Let’s get physical: Reckless Records targets the new vinyl generation

by Caitlin Klask
Jan 31, 2013


Caitlin Klask/MEDILL

Reckless has remained profitable throughout the past few years despite changes in the music industry.


One of the larger Reckless locations contains an array of colorful vinyl selections. Vinyl is the most popular product sold at Reckless.


A customer browses through the large movie selection at the Lakeview location.

Caitlin Klask/MEDILL

Reckless Records' store in the Loop attracts customers who have a strong passion for the record shopping experience.

A Wicker Park familiar face: Chris Connelly

You’ll often hear Wicker Park residents talking about the glory days of record stores in the 1990s.

“We had a lot more choices for good record stores with huge selections,” said David Durian, a record store regular. “Back then, Reckless was good, but it didn’t really stand out as strongly compared to the competition as people like to think it did now.”

That competition such as Wax Trax Records is no longer a worry. Today, customers say the Wicker Park store, nestled among North Milwaukee Avenue's hip boutiques and frozen yogurt bars, is among the cream of the crop.

“It’s one of the few things in Wicker Park in the '90s that’s still here now,” customer Marc Rodriguez said. “All around it I’ve seen the cool poetry places and cafes bite the dust.”

“Reckless has risen to that level in the last five to seven years,” said Durian, calling the store “among the best in Chicago.”

Chris Connelly, store manager at Wicker Park and a big name in Chicago’s '90s music scene, can attest to the store’s strengths, despite the overall dismal state of the music industry.

“Reckless is very idiosyncratic, very eccentric, and I think this is one of our strengths,” said Connelly, who came to Chicago in after being recruited to sing for the industrial band Revolting Cocks. He also did a stint with cult-phenomenon Ministry. He began working at Reckless “in 1994 when I was at a very strong impasse in my musical career.”

“It made sense – I was broke, and I know music, and no one was buying my records!” Connelly said. Since then, he’s brought an ambiance to Reckless that’s been picked up by the media.

According to the Chicago Reader, highly acclaimed German film director Wim Winders walked into Reckless in 2006 and bought one of Connelly’s releases – not even realizing that the face on the cover belonged to the man behind the counter until after his purchase.

Wax Trax Records signed both Revolting Cocks and Ministry, but it then went into bankruptcy and was bought out in the early ‘90s. That was the time Reckless opened Chicago to a new record shopping experience.

“It’s a fun place to visit, it’s a fun place to browse,” Connelly said. “We sell a lot more new vinyl these days.”

The music fans that gather daily at Reckless Records could easily go online and illegally download the albums they’re paying for at the store.

They’d just rather not.

Why give into the temptation of downloading music illegally on the Internet when you can spend a day – or even just 15 minutes – thumbing through vinyl albums with like-minded people at a local chain of record stores?

Reckless Records, with three outlets in Chicago and another in London, gives music lovers a tangible and connected experience, engaging all five senses. The value of record shopping, from the physical reward of a purchase to the quality of the sound, is something that some Chicagoans say should not be compromised.

“It seems to me that music is just one of those things that people need to be connected to whether they go to a live show or a record store,” said Kip McCabe, the manager of the Reckless store in Lakeview. “I think it helps to bring people into the fold of what they’re experiencing.”

“It’s the process, I think,” adds Anand Dave while shopping at the Reckless Records store in the Loop. “I’m very hands on – having to go through and find something yourself is pretty rewarding.”

Other customers get a similar experience both searching for favorites and finding unexpected classics at Reckless – which opened its doors in Chicago in 1989 on Broadway near Belmont. The original owner, a London native, first tried his luck in San Francisco but lost too much business to Amoeba Music, an independent chain of warehouse-sized California record stores.

Reckless also enjoyed a brief stint as a record label with a few releases from then-popular acts like Brian’s Head and the Bevis Frond. Along with the Loop and Lakeview locations, Reckless has an outlet in Wicker Park. The staff of all three totals 45.

“I know a lot of people who live in other towns who have missed out on record stores that have gone the way of the dodo,” said McCabe, who added that Chicagoans are lucky to experience the culture of a town that embraces record stores.

Music by the numbers

In 2002, 6.5 percent of music sales were online, according to London-based research group Conlumino. By 2012, that number spiked to 73.4 percent. Predictions for 2015 suggest that more than 90 percent of music sales will be digital.

But Reckless Records resists the digital trend with the opposite of a modern experience: big, clunky records. They aren’t very portable, they aren’t miniature, and – although Reckless has several discount bins labeled “cheaps” – they’ll run you up to triple digits for the rarest finds.

Russ Crupnick, a music industry expert and senior analyst at NPD Research Group, said that sales are about one third of what record companies were seeing a decade ago.

“There was a huge decline that we’d been experiencing over the past two years that has actually started to level off,” Crupnick said. An annual music research study by NPD showed that the total number of U.S. physical music buyers rose 2 percent to 78 million overall buyers last year. Reasons for the small spike included a noticeable increase in the value and quality of the music available in 2012.

In addition, unpaid “music acquirement” saw a decline in 2012 – only 13 percent of Internet users illegally downloaded music as a result of serious counter measures taken by the government, music industry and major record labels.

Reckless officials declined to comment on this year’s revenue but said that the chain has been profitable for the last several years. A 2009 Medill Reports article said the company sold 136,000 LPs in 2008 among its three locations and posted sales of $4.2 million – up from $3.8 million in 2007.

The Lakeview store moved down the street in 2009 to a 5,000 square-foot space on Broadway. But since then, the company hasn’t made any plans for expansion—that likely has helped keep them afloat.

“We haven’t deliberately ignored the world, but when the music industry collapsed in flames, we were OK because we have weathered many storms,” said Wicker Park store manager Chris Connelly. “We’ve also never really overextended ourselves – branched out into colognes or running shoes.”


New techniques

Another useful technique for the company is keeping their inventory updated online in real-time.

“I like Reckless because I can search their collection online, find what I’m looking for, call them up, have them set it aside and come in to buy it a week later,” said customer Joe Tansino.

The technique is particularly profitable because customers are often shopping for something specific.

“I buy vinyl almost exclusively, unless there is an album I want that’s not available in LP format,” Tansino said. “About the only way I end up with actual MP3 files is if I buy a record with a download code.”

Reckless has recognized a younger generational pull towards vinyl and capitalized on it; in all three record stores, vinyl bins dominate the space.

“They brought back LPs a few years ago and are bringing in more and more it seems,” said Marc Rodriguez, a Milwaukee resident and Reckless shopper.

Two types of people are browsing: experienced vinyl sifters and bewildered first-times. The first group is more likely to make big purchases while the latter needs a little guidance.

“All of us have been in a record store and have been curious of something,” McCabe said. “We’ll have people who are a bit squeamish about buying something they’ve never heard.”

To further engage customers, Reckless prints “abstracts” on the front of select items. For as long as McCabe can remember, these abstracts have been saving customers the hassle of researching music before or after visiting the store.

“It’s a family tree approach to explain what band members are from what band, what part of the country they hailed from,” McCabe said. “We try our best to write an abstract for every piece of music that’s new – or anything that people feel passionate about or feel needs to be described.”

Similar to a bookstore, Reckless also releases staff lists of recommendations periodically, which offer some guidance. According to McCabe, the recommended titles “tend to sell.”

Reckless has also succeeded in branding by making the rounds of the neighborhood, particularly with Kranky Records, a label that originated in Chicago.

In June 2011, Reckless Records announced on its website that it had “teamed up with Chicago’s much-beloved Kranky to bring you every release that they’ve ever done.”

Kranky, which was founded by Bruce Adams and Joel Leoschke, is home to the Chicago group Disappears – featuring Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley – and ambient bands Grouper and Stars of the Lid. Since the 2011 announcement of their distribution partnership, every Kranky release can be found in all three Reckless stores.

“Joel Leoschke has worked on and off at Reckless,” McCabe said. “He produces a lot of bands that speak to people who are intense about music and music culture.

“You don’t have to know about music – but people who know about music just gravitate toward the Kranky label,” he said.

Kranky has been pleased with Reckless’s professionalism as well as overall sales, Leoschke said.

“Their sales of our releases are excellent,” Leoschke said, adding that he didn’t foresee any issues in a long-term relationship with Reckless. “It is obvious that they’ve done a better job of this to date than any other retail establishment in Chicago.”

But challenges remain. The supply of vintage vinyl is limited and most popular music is never released in vinyl.

“There will come a point where it’s going to be expensive to market music and get it into stores,” warns NPD’s Crupnick said. “It will have to evolve into a specialty item, like box sets.”

Reckless is cautiously confident. “The music store field has narrowed tremendously over the last 10 years or so and we never feel like we are safe as far as that goes,” said Bryan Smith, a Reckless manager. “But so far we have been able to adapt enough to changes to make it a viable enterprise.