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30 years strong: Celebrate Record Store Day with In Your Ear Emporium

As In Your Ear Emporium celebrates 30 years, founder Lauren Calvert hopes to continue serving the community. File photo As In Your Ear Emporium celebrates 30 years, founder Lauren Calvert hopes to continue serving the community. File photo

This summer will be 30 years since Lauren Calvert opened the doors to In Your Ear Emporium, downtown Sylva’s record store. Over the years, the way in which people consume music has changed drastically, but the heart of Calvert’s business has not. 

“We need the community,” said Calvert. “Community has always been at the center of what we do.” 

Back when Calvert was still attending Western Carolina University in the early 1990s, anyone looking to buy a CD or a record had to make the drive over to Waynesville, which had the closest music store.

“That was the only place to get CDs, and there’s an entire campus here,” said Calvert. “We all love music. So that’s when it started.” 

But starting her own business wasn’t as easy as just finding a niche in the market. Calvert, 25 at the time and a recent college graduate, found several financial institutions unwilling to take a chance on a young woman.

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Lauren Calvert. File photo

“Women in business, it’s come a long way in 25 years,” said Calvert. “We’re still not recognized as the top of the food chain, but it was even harder back then. Banks didn’t really want to lend to us.” 

However, Calvert was undeterred and eventually found a private investor to help kickstart the project. When doors opened in 1994, CDs were nearing their golden age.

“CDs were really starting to take a stronghold,” said Calvert. “All that killer grunge was coming out, Pearl Jam, Nirvana; and I was Pandora.” 

Since the beginning, Calvert has done everything she can to be more than a music store. She has always wanted the emporium to be an experience. She wanted people to walk away with more than they bargained for and a big part of that came in the form of recommendations.

“I would just spin off and tell them, ‘check this out,’” Calvert recalls. “I had a policy where I’d be like, you buy this and don’t like it, you can bring it back. No one ever brought it back.” 

In those early days, big releases didn’t look like modern albums the moment it’s released on streaming services. Back then, it was midnight release parties with a store full of people waiting to buy the new album.

One of those big releases Calvert remembers well was for a Nine Inch Nails album.

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“We ordered three boxes, that’s 90 CDs, and that was a lot of money for us,” said Calvert. “And we ran out. It was so cool. Now when I order a new release, I’m hesitant to get two.” 

There’s no question that CDs have fallen victim to the proliferation of streaming services. In 2023, streaming accounted for 84% of all recorded music revenue totaling over $14 billion in the United States. The average number of paid subscriptions to streaming services reached 96.8 million in 2023.

Meanwhile, CDs sales hit their peak in the 2000 at $13.2 billion sold in the United States according to the Record Industry Association of America. In 2023, CD sales in the United States totaled just $537 million.

Last year, vinyl record sales grew 10% to $1.4 billion — the 17th consecutive year of growth and only the second time since 1987 that vinyl albums outsold CDs in units. Data for 2023 shows 43 million vinyl albums sold compared to 37 million CDs.

Back in those early days, CDs accounted for the vast majority of sales at In Your Ear Emporium.

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“Nobody back then was even asking for records,” said Calvert. “I don’t want to diminish vinyl. Vinyl has always been a thing, but there’s a difference.” 

There was a long period of time between the 90s and the 2010s when new vinyl wasn’t getting made at a high rate. Some niche stores dealt in vintage, but artists releasing new music were rarely pressing new vinyl.

“For a long time, you were on the cutting edge if you not only dropped a CD, but you had it in vinyl too,” said Calvert. “That was a big deal. Like you must have a lot of money or you’re just cool. So, they weren’t even pressing vinyl as much.” 

These days, most merch tables that concert goers come across will sport vinyl sales, and independent music stores like In Your Ear Emporium are focused heavily on selling vinyl.

“I’d say probably three or four years before the pandemic we started dabbling in used records,” said Calvert. “Vinyl has always been the one media that has never faltered because there’s a nostalgic trend to it. People grew up on it and the sound quality is so much better.”

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And while interest and sales in vinyl were on the rise prior to the pandemic, the ensuing shutdown had a big impact on the resurgence of the retro way to listen to music.

“People were stuck at home, they were doing puzzles… people were home again, they were getting their old stuff out,” Calvert said. “It became kind of a resurgence. That’s what kept us in business during the pandemic — ukulele sales and vinyl.” 

Calvert sees the resurgence of physical media as a craving for presence in a world where so much of daily life has gone online, reducing the need for physical presence or human interaction.

“It’s about being present of mind. You have to get up and turn the record over, right? There’s your intention. You are intently listening to that record,” said Calvert. “You’re doing it with more purpose. And also, the sound quality is way better.

“If you’ve ever been in a room where you’ve had a fluorescent light on and then you turn it off and you all of a sudden realize there was a buzz that you were hearing,” Calvert continued. “That’s the difference between vinyl and CDs. It’s like there’s a thickness, a dimension to vinyl.”

After 30 years and multiple changes in the scope of business, it’s safe to say that running In Your Ear Emporium remains a labor of love.

“I’m just really proud that we’re still here. I’m not going to say it’s not a struggle,” Calvert said. “Running your own business is not easy.”

But what comes next for In Your Ear Emporium will largely be decided by the community itself.

“We need our community support now more than ever,” said Calvert.

Countless people in the community, as well as those who visit Sylva, have memories of shopping or spending time at In Your Ear Emporium. But that nostalgia alone doesn’t translate into staying power for the music store. 

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“I’ve always built my business on what my community wants,” said Calvert. “So, the answer to what’s next is really whatever the community wants to see; whatever the community can support.” 

On the second floor of the shop, there are opportunities for meeting spaces, artist booths or music classes, anything that could bring the community together and provide a place for people to be in creative fellowship. Community members should stay on the lookout for a call for input on what they want to see at their local record store.

Come what may, In Your Ear Emporium will continue to celebrate Record Store Day, an annual event, held this year on April 20, to celebrate the culture of independently owned record stores and connect people to those local businesses. The inaugural Record Store Day took place in 2008 and was conceived to celebrate and spread the word about what these stores have to offer.

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Each year, special vinyl and CD releases are coordinated exclusively for the event and disseminated around the nation. People spend the day going from record store to record store hunting down these exclusive releases. 

“I get a list of about 3,000 titles and I pick what I want,” said Calvert. “There might be an album that’s only 400 made for the whole world. The store might have one of those 400, it might have five of them. So, it’s a lottery.” 

The event is all about getting people through the door of their local music store and creating an experience. The same positive, enlightening experience Calvert has been aiming to deliver to her customers for the last 30 years.

“People can buy a CD anywhere,” Calvert said. “I want them to leave here and think, that was such a great conversation, or that was such a fun experience, we’ve got to go back. That’s what I’ve always lived by, and it’s done well for me.”

Want to celebrate Record Store Day?

Record Store Day will take place Saturday, April 20.

In Your Ear Emporium will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with food and drinks and gifts for the first five people in line, as well as giveaways all day.

Toad-Stool will be live in store from noon to 2 p.m.

For more information or to support In Your Ear Emporium visit inyourearmusicemporium.com.

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