This plan -- to focus on the most profitable part of the business -- was born out of the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders that followed, sending more music fans online to shop and scour for collectibles. Online music resale marketplace Discogs reports its vinyl sales grew more than 25% and estimates that vinyl and merch sales were up 35% in 2020 -- a trend Johnson thinks is fueled by boredom, stimulus checks and the desire to have something tangible in one's hands. Vinyl is now physical music’s most popular format, on Discogs, making up nearly 12 million copies of the 16 million units sold in 2020. As for new vinyl, RIAA's 2021 mid-year report found vinyl sales were up 94% year over year to $467 million, outpacing CD sales for the second year in a row and turning a 30-year-long trend on its head.
Johnson says he done's with CDs too, noting "we're doing better than ever because all of the costs are down, our heads are down and we're focused on finding great stuff and not wasting time on CDs -- we don't bother with them," he says.
And it's not just high-end vinyl that's in demand -- fans want tour posters, limited edition lithographs, handbills, vintage merchandise and autographs. They also want items connected to bands of the '80s, '90s and '00s. In February, an obscure LP from 2008 called Choose Your Weapon from UK breakbeat DJ Scaramanga Silk sold for $41,095 on Discogs. That broke the record for the most money ever paid for an album on the site, beating out a copy of Prince's Black Album, which sold for $27,500 in 2018.
Johnson believes much of the collectibles and rare vinyl market is skewing younger, driven mostly by two ascendent demographics: Gen Xers and millennials, who are mostly interested in bands like Black Flag, Joy Division, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys and Jane's Addiction.
Being located in Los Angeles gives Johnson access to big collections and the types of people who have most of this desirable stuff: music industry executives, label bosses, studio engineers, disc jockeys and promoters who were given thousands of free promotional items over the years and never threw them away.
While he used to consider the massive Amoeba Music shop in Hollywood to be his main competitor, today he finds himself bumping up against large auction houses. His focus, solely on rock 'n' roll, gives him an advantage because "we know way more than all the major auction houses do. I could show you any major auction catalog and say, 'This is phony' or 'This item listed for $500 is available here for 50 bucks,'" Johnson says.
Johnson is confident in his ability to correctly price items to market, such as an early '90s Nirvana shirt that he's trying to move for $1,000. Most people would struggle to pick the shirt out of a lineup of newer Nirvana tees, and if needed, Johnson employs experts to help verify an item’s authenticity. For this particular shirt, Johnson examines the fabric, verifies that the tag of the shirt matches the tag of other shirts from the early '90s and examines the ink from the silkscreen print to get a sense of how long ago it was applied. The shirt is authentic, he concludes, and it's rare, in good condition and from one of the biggest bands of its era. Those four things make it a $1,000 vintage Nirvana shirt.
That's the secret sauce, says Johnson: being able to see things that aren't obvious to others, piecing together clues that tell a broader story. It's something he's done his whole life -- but not even he expected that it would take a pandemic for him to see an opportunity to do what he loves, on his own terms. Now that he’s solidified his plans for the future, he can focus full time on chasing down hidden gems and rare finds just waiting to be discovered.