Strictly Discs in Wisconsin, in a Pandemic: New COVID-19 Closures Are 'Getting Closer'

Strictly Discs
Courtesy of Strictly Discs

Strictly Discs

In an "eventful week," store owner Angie Roloff deals with a family tragedy, exploding coronavirus cases and the threat of new closures.

In October 1988, Angie Roloff and her husband Ron opened Strictly Discs in Madison, Wisconsin, after Ron left a career in the biomedical research field to pursue his love of music full time. Nearly 31 years later, the couple made the difficult decision to shutter in-store operations due to COVID-19, roughly a week before Gov. Tony Evers forced a mandatory shutdown of all non-essential businesses. Now that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has overturned Evers' stay-at-home order -- ruling it "unlawful" and "unenforceable" -- the Roloffs and their employees have reopened the store.

As part of Billboard’s efforts to best cover the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on the music industry, we will be speaking with Roloff regularly to chronicle her experience throughout the crisis. (Read the previous installment here and see the full series here.)

How's your family?

My mom's married, and her husband has three daughters and one of them fainted and fell very hard and hit her head. It'll take a little while to play out, but they took her off life support Sunday. A good reminder of how fragile life is.

I'm so sorry about that.

Yeah, me too. That was last Wednesday, so it at least has sunk in, but it's still, naturally, tragic and terrible and every negative thing you can think of. I'm sorry for my mom and her husband, naturally, and her sisters. It wasn't someone that I was super close with, but still, certainly someone I care for. She's got kids and a husband all those things. Your heart bleeds for them.

Did she have a history of fainting?

Well, she just hadn’t been feeling well. When they took her in, she had real low sodium, and so they thought that might have been the cause. But most of the time when someone faints, they don’t hurt themselves like that. You know, it’s just one of those crazy unfortunate circumstances. So it's been an eventful week. And of course we had the election in there as well. At least that was a positive. I'm sure it was crazy where you were, but it was certainly crazy on our street. We're kind of in a dense neighborhood, and so people [are] honking and driving around and dancing and yelling and screaming and all that sort of thing. So that was certainly positive.

What's changed for you at the store since we last spoke?

Everything in Wisconsin and even in our county is trending really poorly as far as COVID, so that's a top concern. I know our governor is holding a press conference this evening to address COVID, and I think everybody is wondering if there will be increased mandates or measures that might be coming.

Is that something you anticipate?

Well, we still are a very divided political state, so even when he has passed some executive orders, they've been overturned. So I don't know how likely it is, especially given that outside of our county most of the regulations are much looser, unless a county has enacted something that's more extreme than what the state has. We're a little bit of a bubble, but you can easily go outside of our area to go places that aren't as strictly enforced.

[Ed. note: In a Nov. 10 speech, Gov. Tony Evers said he had issued an executive order recommending Wisconsinites stay home, limit the number of customers allowed in businesses and wear masks but did not institute new mandates.]

The final Record Store Day drop happened since we last spoke. How did that go?

It went really smoothly. All three of the dates, when combined, especially with our ability to sell more things online than we typically do, stacked really well against a full 2019 date. If you'd asked me that early on, I don't know if I would have believed that that was possible.

Billboard recently ran a piece reporting that in an average Record Store Day drop week this year, CD and vinyl album sales grew 72% at indie stores, and that vinyl LP sales in an average drop week for indie stores doubled. Also, indie store vinyl album sales now stand at 7.3 million in 2020, up 24.9% from the same point a year ago. Have you felt that kind of an increase at Strictly Discs?

We have. [With] the three drop dates, versus the single date in 2019, we were up to 3.21% for dollars. I know we've talked a lot about the fact that records and CDs are a fairly inexpensive item and something that many people can justify [spending money on]. I also think it's almost part of this concept that we're seeing come out of this pandemic of a comfort economy or a homebody economy, the fact that people are focusing on things that make them happy at home. I think independent record stores nationwide are benefiting from that trend and that feeling amongst consumers.

Would you like to see the three Record Store Day drop dates continue even beyond COVID?

Yes, I think a lot of us in the industry would welcome the smaller dates if there was a bit more time in between them. Because the frequency of having it every month, there's not a lot of downtime between one date and then starting to gear back up to prep for the following date. So a few months in between would be something that I would certainly welcome.

We do have some good news this week on the vaccine front. Are you feeling more hopeful since that news came out?

The news was definitely hopeful, and it certainly felt like things, at least in that regard, are moving in the right direction. I still feel like we have a long ways to go before that impacts what's happening on a day to day basis here. Those [coronavirus] numbers seem to be growing [so] exponentially in the wrong direction that it's a little scary. I just feel like businesses being closed as a result of COVID is getting closer and closer every week.

I've said this before, but you guys have seem to have weathered this pretty well so far. Do you still feel good about how everything's going with the store?

I do, and I think we learned a lot in March and April. And I feel like those are lessons that we can implement at any point if things change and we need to pivot how our business model is working. With experience comes confidence, and that's how we feel right now.

Is there anything else that you wanted to bring up?

We're talking about how we can stay healthy as a group [of employees] and minimize the risk of one of us getting any of the rest of the group ill. That's something that we're thinking about as the number of people [we] know that come in direct contact with this virus increases. We're cognizant of our orbit and protecting it. So we're doing what we can and we hope that it will be enough.

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As a business owner, you really have to have a lot of trust in your employees, right? And it sounds like you do generally trust them.

I do. In fact, as a group, we've actually held off on hiring some people because of that. We have a good comfort level as a group and so you don't want to kind of change that dynamic unnecessarily.

So you would potentially be hiring more people right now if COVID were not ticking up there?


What roles are you looking to hire for?

We kind of have two main functions: We have the upstairs front counter person and they deal with all of the new inventory as well as the used inventory, and then we have the staff downstairs that price and clean and sell used records. I could actually use someone in both of those positions right now. So we're running lean, but everybody's working a little extra, and we're making it work.

As you do.

Mmmhmm. The alternative is not good.