Music Updates

Strictly Discs in Wisconsin, in a Pandemic: ‘This is Something We Can Manage as a Biz’

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. After the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Evers’ stay-at-home order in May 2020 — ruling it “unlawful” and “unenforceable” — the Roloffs and their employees reopened the store and have kept it running ever since.

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.)

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I’m mindful that I’m doing this interview with you while there’s a massive surge happening in COVID infections across the U.S. How are you feeling this week about the chaos being unleashed by the Delta variant?

I think in a lot of ways it feels like we’re sort of back to square one. I know that that’s not the case, because we’ve learned a lot in the last year and a half, and we have a lot more tools in the box to deal with what’s coming. And so to say that kind of minimizes, I think, all of our shared experience. But it certainly feels uncertain, and when you look at the numbers, we’re looking at numbers that are similar to when you and I got vaccinated. So it just feels like a very giant step back.

I think the last time we spoke, we were kind of in that few weeks of a sweet spot, where it felt like, “Oh, we turned a real corner, maybe this is over.” So it’s been a transition to realize that that little honeymoon is in fact over and that we have to do more to beat this virus.

Have you changed any of your in-store policies as far as customers or employees wearing masks?

We went as a group, about 10 days ago, to all staff wearing masks at all times when the store was open. And then we recently had put the sign on the door that was essentially from our county health board that recommends masks be worn inside despite vaccination status. And then today (Aug. 17), our county reinstated a mask mandate that goes into effect Thursday (Aug. 19). And we put our very nice “Mask Required” signs back on the door today. So we are now enforcing that and giving masks out at the door for folks that don’t have their own.

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Have you had any pushback from customers?

Not today. Pretty much all the students who live in off-campus housing are moving back in right now, and so we’ve had a lot of young people in the store today. And so we’ve given out a lot of masks because they came and were surprised that they were required to wear one, but they were all very amiable to do so.

Are you coming to terms with the fact that COVID-19 is probably going to be with us in some form forever?

Yes, but I hope it’s with us in the same way the flu is and that we get to a point where it isn’t quite so scary. But yes, I’m also coming to terms with the fact that this fall and winter is probably going to look a lot like last year.

I was hoping to do a sort of compare-and-contrast how you were feeling when this all first started with now, but obviously things have darkened a bit in the last few weeks with Delta. Still, could you compare sort of your mindset then to how you’re feeling today?

I feel like this is something, as a business, that we can manage. We’ve done it, we’ve all stayed healthy, we’ve learned ways to pivot to service customers even when they were not able to come into the store. So I think we can rely on that experience. And collectively we can rely on one another just like we did in the worst of it. So, that part of me feels like, “You know, we got this. We can do this.” We just have to get people vaccinated and turn where we’re at right now around.

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Amid all of the anxieties you’ve had to endure as a business owner over the last year and a half, what positives have come from it that you can see for your business?

Our customers have stuck with us and been the real energy that that we’ve needed to keep going. And that will continue to be the case. So that’s fantastic. Not everybody turned to just ordering things online and staying at home, so I think people still realize that supporting the businesses they love is important. And we thankfully have benefited from that.

I’m wondering too if the huge uptick in vinyl sales in particular has made you feel more secure about the future of your business?

It definitely has. And the reach and the appeal of the medium being so vast feels good. Certainly, we’ve got some concerns about supply, but there’s always something that people can take home. It might not be the new release that’s been bumped back six times, but they can find something else that they will also love.

What challenges do you see on the horizon for your business and the music retail business as a whole?

I think almost all small business at this point would answer this the same way, and that’s staffing. I think finding good, qualified people is a challenge. I think almost everyone is running really lean right now, and that takes a toll on everyone. And so that’s certainly something that we’re looking to add some folks to our team, so people maybe don’t have to work as much or as hard to do the same amount of work. I think that certainly helps with morale as well, when everyone’s not working an extra shift here, an extra shift there, an extra shift every week.

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To what do you attribute the staffing shortage?

I think a lot of people have transitioned away from things maybe that they were doing pre-pandemic, and I think not everyone has landed on what that’s going to be. We’re lucky that we’re a passion business, and so we tend to attract people who are passionate about music and think of this less as a job than maybe working at another retail sort of business. It’s a great question, because you do wonder. It’s like, “How can all of us be short-staffed when a lot of people are still looking for work?” So I’m not sure what the answer to that is.

Are there any songs or albums that have gotten you through the past year and a half?

Every time the most recent Waxahatchee album [Saint Cloud] comes across the counter, I’m like, “That will always be my COVID album.” Because it came out when it was just me at the store, but people still really, really wanted it. And that’s when I was like, “Oh, we need to bring some of the guys back, because it’s too busy for me. I fondly think of that, because that was maybe the time where it was like we’re still in demand, even if people can’t come into the store. So I think that that’s probably the big one for me. And it’s a great album.

Just on a personal level, how has the past year and a half changed you?

I think it certainly made me more nervous, and maybe a little bit more introverted. And I think those two things kind of go hand-in-hand, where it’s just easier to be like, “You know, I think I’m just gonna go home.” Or, “I think I need some quiet time to collect myself and regroup.” And so I think those are both things that have become magnified as traits for me in this process.

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