Tune Town

Photo by Jonathan Smith

Music Man

Carl Nordmeier gives customers more than music, he gives them an experience

On the corner of Rock Street and Riverfront Drive in Old Town Mankato sits the only shop in town dedicated to selling vinyl records.

TuneTown’s owner, Carl Nordmeier, is a veteran of the music sales business, working in the music department at Target for years before the birth of the record store in his home town of Faribault, Minnesota, in 1993.

It was his passion for music that inspired the now-26-year-old business. As many Americans do, Nordmeier saw an opportunity in the area and seized it.

“What got me into the business, growing up in that area, there really wasn’t anything available for record stores,” says Nordmeier. “We had to go up to the Twin Cities if I wanted to go to a decent record store. Faribault only had a Walmart, and there was a music-instrument shop that sold CDs and tapes on the side, so there wasn’t a whole lot of competition.”

Nordmeier capitalized on the wave of music censorship pushed by the Parents Music Resource Center during the mid-1980s and early ‘90s. He says Walmart’s decision to only carry “clean” albums opened a door for his store to sell music deemed “explicit” by advocates of a more “family-friendly” industry.

“So I opened up a small shop, about 500 square feet, in the Faribault West Mall right away,” says Nordmeier. “I had experience working in the Target music department. I was sick and tired of ‘working for the man.’ I thought if I could sell a few CDs per hour, there’s my wage right there. I had a good feeling about it, like I could swing it.

“There were a lot of nay-sayers that said ‘don’t do it, it’s a big mistake.’ At that time, there were three shops in Northfield – Northfield has two colleges, they could afford having a couple record shops. I got their opinions and if they said ‘don’t do it,’ they probably didn’t want the competition.”

Despite the warnings, a 23-year-old Nordmeier with no debt “pulled the trigger” and Tune Town was born.

“I saved up. It cost me about $15,000 to get started with inventory and everything,” says Nordmeier. “I came up with $25,000 on my own, my grandpa co-signed a loan for me and he helped me out. He’s pretty much the only one that believed in me, my parents thought I was nuts!”

Moving to Mankato

It was four years before Tune Town would move into a new market, one that the shop still calls a home. Tune Town now resides in Old Town Mankato, but it took some time to get there.

“We moved to University Square (in 1997) inside the mall,” says Nordmeier. “We didn’t get a whole lot of drive-by business. You had to hear about us because we had a sign out in front, but we had no storefront and it was at the old rickety strip mall. It almost felt like a speakeasy. “

While passersby may not have been buying at the time, Tune Town still had a clientele made up mostly of kids trying to figure out their future plans in life.

“College kids really helped us out at the time because college kids were still buying music, we sold tons of music to them,” says Nordmeier. “We got a lot of local folks, too.”

Nordmeier expanded the record store even further around 2003, opening another location for a brief time in Saint Peter.
The new spot remained open for just a year before shutting down; Nordmeier says the Saint Peter Tune Town ultimately was “cannibalizing off the sales” of its Mankato and Faribault stores.

But in 2006, a new opportunity presented itself, giving Tune Town the chance to bring in more “drive-by” traffic.

“We got an offer from the River Hills Mall because Sam Goody left. It was their only remaining record store and they needed something to fill the void,” says Nordmeier. “They gave us an offer we couldn’t refuse, so at one point we had two locations in Mankato, then we still had our Faribault shop.”

When Tune Town left the River Hills Mall for Old Town in 2010, it seemed it had found the perfect spot to call home, opening its current doors on Father’s Day that year.

“The first customer that walked through the door opened up his arms and said, ‘Now this is a record store!’ We got a lot of flack opening in the mall,” says Nordmeier. “A lot of our customers hated going to the mall.”

Those sentiments provide an example of what Tune Town’s customers seek out in a record store. An experience.

“The one thing we hear most from people, they’ll come in with a list in their minds and then they come into the store and it just disappears,” says Nordmeier. “They end up buying something else and don’t remember what they came in for.”

Adding to the “Experience” in Old Town

The Old Town location and the small business focus in the district provide a livelihood that previous spots haven’t.

“It’s a lot more intimate, people who are coming down to the store aren’t just walking by,” says Nordmeier. “Record stores have become more of a destination than just going to your local mall and walking into a shop.”

The destination can even surprise customers.

“People are really blown away when they come in, they just think ‘this is it,’” says Nordmeier, gesturing to the store’s main space. “They don’t realize that we have two other sections in the back and the basement. Once they find that out, they’re here for a while.”

Once they do end up checking out, there’s usually a brief conversation about whatever albums were just purchased. Nordmeier says this part of the job keeps him coming back.

“It gets me excited to go to work every day,” says Nordmeier. “I enjoy going to work. It’s pretty rare where I feel like I don’t want to go to work. Not too many people can say that. I’ve been doing it for 26 years now and it gets my bills paid.”

Community engagement is another important piece of what Nordmeier is trying to establish with the so-called “record store experience.”

“We have live events once in a while, we’ll clear the stage off,” says Nordmeier. “Mainly it’s on Record Store Day events, but during the year we’ll have maybe five or six shows in here. I originally built the stage with the idea of getting artists playing at Vetter Stone Amphitheater to come in here.”

Nordmeier says there haven’t been many A-list names occupying the 5-by-5 tile stage behind Tune Town’s counter, but the occasional celebrity guest will still make an appearance.

“The Suburbs came in and did a meet and greet once while opening up for Cheap Trick,” says Nordmeier.

And some will shop incognito.

“I wasn’t working that day but the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie came back,” says Nordmeier. “He didn’t buy anything, just kind of looked around.”

Method to the Madness

At the time of this interview, next to the checkout counter sits a display shelf lined with Bob Dylan CDs and merchandise. Dylan is playing the Mankato Civic Center later in the week and Nordmeier knows Tune Town’s customers are eager to see him perform.

“There’s some artists that come in to town that I know customers aren’t going to be into. The display is just for the clientele,” says Nordmeier. “We try to promote shows in the park. Believe it or not, I’ve had so many people come in, we just put this display up a week ago, and I bet you there’s been 20 people who have come into the store and said, ‘Bob Dylan’s coming to town?!’ They had no idea, I guess there’s people who don’t read the newspaper or don’t go online much, so we’re promoting the show.”

When deciding what albums are out front and center, Nordmeier says it comes down to simply being a part of the community.

“It’s just years and years of being in Mankato and knowing my customer base,” says Nordmeier. “Knowing what they want and what they’re looking for. You get to know customers pretty well, but there’s still artists that kind of catch me off guard and I have to look into it.

“Billie Eilish sold out the Depot up in the Cities. I had no clue who she was, then her album came out and people were asking about it so I brought in a couple of copies. First it was a couple special orders then people were interested in it so I started bringing in more and more. We’ve sold probably 50 copies on vinyl or CDs. I think it’s going to be a love her or hate her type of thing, like Bob Dylan. ‘I appreciate his songwriting but can’t stand his voice.’”

Record Resurgence

In each of the past 13 years, vinyl record sales have grown. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl sales jumped by 12.9% between the first half of 2018 and 2019, while CD sales remained stagnant. This marked a major change in business since Tune Town opened.

“When I opened in ’93, it was right in the midst of the CD boom,” says Nordmeier. “About the late ’90s it was the peak and it hung out a bit, then in the mid-2000s we really started to notice a decrease in sales. After the economy went bad in 2008, our sales really dropped and stores were dropping like flies.”

The introduction of streaming services like iTunes certainly didn’t help Tune Town’s physical-media-reliant business, but a knight in shining armor would soon arrive to breathe new life into physical sales.

“Eleven or 12 years ago, they started doing ‘Record Store Day,’” says Nordmeier. “We didn’t participate in the first year, but the second year it gained so much hype, we thought, ‘OK we’ll give this a shot.’

The second year, they probably had a list ‘this long’ of exclusive vinyl titles. I ordered quite a few of them, we had a little party, we had cake and balloons and stuff. I was amazed by the turnout. When we started to carry vinyl, it did OK, but as soon as this ‘Record Store Day’ thing started happening, it just gave more awareness to the whole vinyl phase.”

Ever since, sales have not slowed down for record stores across the nation.

“I think ‘Record Store Day’ has had a strong influence on record stores and keeping them open,” says Nordmeier. “There’s more record stores opening than closing. There are still a couple that will close here and there but there’s more opening now than closing, people are giving them a shot.”

Artists are moving further into the vinyl market as well, with acts like the 17-year-old Eilish not only boosting sales for Tune Town, but becoming a major reason business stays booming.

“Out of all vinyl sales, I would say 30% is new vinyl sales, the rest is used. New vinyl is how we make our money,” says Nordmeier. “That is what I call my ‘loss leader.’ People come in for the new stuff, maybe they’ll buy the new Jimmy Eat World record then buy a couple of used albums and that’s where we can make our bread and butter. That’s what’s bringing people in, there’s new titles every week, people come in for them.”

With the vinyl renaissance brought on by “Record Store Day”, Nordmeier says he’s seen a whole new spectrum of customers walk through his doors in the past decade.

“When I first opened up, our demographic was 15- to 25-year olds, that was probably 80% of our clientele, now it’s all over the board,” says Nordmeier. “I can’t even pinpoint an age range, mainly probably males around 50 years old is still our main clientele but it’s pretty wild, you see people of all ages come in here.”

The intergenerational love for records shines brightly on “Record Store Day” (held on a select Saturday in April, as well as Black Friday) and has served as a saving grace for stores everywhere. Nordmeier says those two days are easily Tune Town’s busiest of the year.

“It’s packed with people all day long just enjoying the record store and buying tons of stuff, listening to bands. Usually I have free stuff to give away, it’s a pretty big event.”

Envisioning the Future

The stats predict that the popularity of vinyl records isn’t going away anytime soon and Nordmeier agrees with that prediction.

“I don’t think it’s going to go away. The sales haven’t really skyrocketed lately, it’s kind of hitting a plateau but now they’re saying it’s going to surpass CD sales, which is huge,” says Nordmeier. “During ‘Record Store Day’ week, they do pass the CD sales easily.”

That growth in Tune Town’s vinyl sales may match the national trend, but CD sales are a different story.

“We’ve noticed a big jump in CD sales because Target doesn’t carry them anymore, they carry maybe the top 20,” says Nordmeier. “When Best Buy announced that they weren’t carrying CDs anymore, so many people came in asking, ‘Will I still be able to get CDs?!’

People are finding fewer and fewer ways to get their CDs, plus we’re pretty comparable to what’s out there. We’re not going to be selling new ones for $10 but I’d say it’s pretty right on track with Amazon on most titles.”
He adds that nostalgia may be a factor for the survival of CDs, with accessibility playing some part.

“There’s still people that love the CD format, we’ll see probably 10% of our clientele under the age of 20 buy CDs,” says Nordmeier. “It’s usually between 40-70 years of age that still buy them but we still move a lot of them. It’s probably 50/50 between vinyl and CDs, what’s really dying off is the DVD format. God, we have a hard time selling those.”

Tune Town continues to provide the Mankato area with a seemingly countless amount of vinyl, CDs and other formats of music for the average fan; anyone seeking a treasure can lose themselves going through the dollar bins in the basement or finding the “newest” album to add to their collection.

Either way, it’s a business built on a love for music and the desire to share it with others.

Carl Nordmeier Up Close

1) What’s your favorite artist/album to listen to?

It’s the Beatles, but there’s maybe five Beatles albums that go in and out of my favorite album. I’m kind of a sucker for the British rock scene. I grew up listening to them, it’s the first band I really got into and I’ve always stuck with them. I’ve never strayed away from their stuff because they’re constantly putting out new reissues and I’m always a sucker for it, I always buy it; I love the new Abbey Road reissue.

2) Is there a genre that you think sounds better on vinyl other than your favorite?

I’m all over the place, what I’m not a fan of is the new country or the bro-country. I’m not a fan of the current pop scene; my kids love listening to the Top 40 stuff, I just can’t get into it. I sound like an old man, it just sounds like all the same to me.

So much of the new music is being made for the moment, trying to get that single so they can maybe get a bunch of hits or a bunch of downloads. They don’t make any money from streaming so I don’t know … When you buy a physical format from an artist, they get paid the most from that type of sale. So if you want to support an artist, buy their album.

3) Has anyone ever brought in anything where you were surprised how rare it might be?

Nothing has really come by where I thought “wow this selection is amazing or there’s all this rare stuff in it.” Last year I did have someone come by and just drop off a box of records. I showed up for work at 10 o’clock and there’s a box of records sitting out there with no note or anything. So I brought it in and just set it aside, later in the afternoon I thought, “Oh maybe I should check that box.” I started digging through it and there were mint conditions of Pink Floyd, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, just an awesome collection and somebody just gave it to us.

The Essentials

Tune Town
630 North Riverfront Drive
Mankato, MN 56001
Phone: 507-625-6507
Faceboook: Tune Town