Treehouse Records turns 10

With his sporty-hipster attire, scraggly beard and boyish face, Dan Cote appears to be a young man. But make no mistake — he’s a hardened veteran of the rough-and-tumble record store industry.

Cote has been a manager at Treehouse Records since the store’s inception on April 1, 2001, meaning this April Fool’s Day marked a decade in business for the iconic record store on the corner of 26th & Lyndale.

At times, it didn’t look like the store would make it this long. During its 10 years Treehouse has weathered two recessions, a precipitous decline in CD sales and the closing of many independent record store peers. Most recently it survived the threat of a fire that damaged a grocery store next door April 11.

The store’s T-shirts facetiously emblazon Treehouse as “the last record store on earth.” Yet with the Cheapos and CD Warehouses of the world dropping like flies as the market for non-downloadable music dried up around the middle of last decade, for a spell it looked like the slogan might end up coming uncomfortably close to the truth.

But Treehouse is still alive and kicking, and Cote is optimistic the store will be around for at least another 10 years. In the end, its staying power has been primarily about one thing — a steadfast and unwavering commitment to vinyl, market trends be damned.

In a sense, Treehouse has been around for much longer than a decade. Almost 40 years ago, the Oar Folkjokeopus record store first opened in the space Treehouse now calls home. Longtime manager Trehus purchased and renamed the store in 2001, promoting Cote to full-time manager at the same time.

The indie rock character of the store remained largely unchanged after the transition, but 2001 was a very different time. Destiny’s Child, Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park were on top of the charts, CDs ruled the music marketplace, and, with sales plummeting, it looked like vinyl records might soon go the way of dodo birds and 8-track tape players.

“When we opened in 2001, you had to be crazy to do a store focused on vinyl,” Cote said. “At the time, CDs probably accounted for 60 to 70 percent of our sales, vinyl 30 to 40, and that was still a much higher percentage [for vinyl] than other stores in town.”

Just months after opening, the September 11 terrorist attacks happened, throwing the economy into recession. And thanks in part to the rise of digital downloading, the market for CDs never really recovered. According to Nielsen SoundScan data, total album sales (over 95 percent of which were CDs), stagnated from 2003 to 2004, then fell by more than 7 percent from 2004 to 2005. Treehouse, like other music stores throughout the country, was pushed to the brink.

Then something unforeseen and almost magical happened.

Vinyl records, seemingly left for dead in the late 1980s, gradually became cool again. By the end of the decade albums that had long been out of print were being freshly pressed and placed on the shelves next to the hot new releases.

According to SoundScan, vinyl sales jumped by 33 percent from 2008 to 2009, then by 14 percent from 2009 to last year. In 2010, 2.8 million vinyl records were sold, the most in any year since 1991.

For the first time in roughly a dozen years, in December 2007, Treehouse sold more vinyl albums than CDs, and CDs haven’t come close to overtaking vinyl since. The store currently does about 90 percent of its business on vinyl.

As Treehouse enters its second decade, there are reasons for both optimism and concern about the store’s future.

Of concern is the fact that market conditions are perhaps more difficult than ever.

For instance, the total number of albums sold in 2010, 326.2 million, was the lowest since SoundScan began compiling the data in 1993. Last year, for the first time ever, overall music sales — that’s the accounting of every unit of sales for each physical format (CD, LP, cassette) plus digital tracks and music videos — declined from the year prior.

Vinyl sales make up less than one percent of total album sales, and while the market for records continues to expand, growth slowed significantly last year.

“It’s tough because CDs have fallen off so sharply, and I wouldn’t say our overall business has improved,” Cote said. “But that’s just the reality of the way the economy has gone over the last 10 years.”

One thing is certain, however. As long as Trehus and Cote are in charge, Treehouse will always be a record store first and foremost.

“The resurgence of vinyl has really been essential to our staying in business, but we’ve always been vinyl-first anyway,” Cote said. “In the end, it has served us better than a lot of our peers who have fallen by the wayside.”

Treehouse Records
2557 Lyndale Ave. S.
Twitter: @treehouserecs