By Michael Aushenker
Soundsations’ Pete Grasso doesn’t mind checking the inventory
Technology — especially when it comes to media — is usually equated with progress, in which one format innovation replaces another, enhancing the user experience.
Well, a funny thing happened in the world of music.
The compact disc (CD), which was supposed to supplant the traditional vinyl record in the marketplace as the superior option, has itself been rendered obsolete by digital sales. As for the LP, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.
On L.A.’s Westside, record shops left standing after years of struggling to survive the digital age are riding the wave of a national resurgence of interest in vinyl.
On Saturday, wax specialists Soundsations in Westchester and Record Surplus and Touch Vinyl in West Los Angeles will participate in the annual brick-and-mortar booster National Record Store Day — only this time around, sales of music issued and re-issued in the classic LP format are not just about surviving but thriving.
In June 2013, The New York Times was among media outlets declaring a vinyl revival, gauged in equal parts by record sales, a vinyl fascination among listeners born after 1980 and a burgeoning trend of new pressing plants. According to the Times, Nielsen SoundScan estimated that 19,000 of the 339,000 units sold on the mid-May 2013 release of Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” (featuring the megahit “Get Lucky”) were on vinyl. Other albums experiencing disproportionate LP success included Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City” (which sold 10,000 on vinyl that same week) and the National’s “Trouble Will Find Me” (with 7,000). Catalog albums by perennial favorites such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan are constantly being reissued.
Meanwhile, many young companies have joined venerable record manufacturers in the current marketplace. Brooklyn Phono, a New York City company launched in 2000, manufactures nearly 500,000 LPs annually, while Quality Record Pressings in Kansas, established in 2011, generates 900,000 a year, including reissues of Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton for major labels. Canoga Park-based Rainbo Records churns out 7.2 million yearly.
“Vinyl never died,” said Touch Vinyl owner Sebastian Mathews. “It was always the best sound.”
Behind the music
Since its inception in 1972, Soundsations Records has changed ownership three times and moved around several locations in Westchester.
After working at Soundsations for three years, childhood friends Pete Grasso and Lee Wilson, both 27 at the time, bought the store in 1990.
“It was a hobby that turned into a business,” said Grasso, now 51. “We always liked music.”
Until recently, the store stood two blocks away on Sepulveda, but after being chased out of the location by higher rents, it occupies a corner spot on La Tijera Boulevard.
Grasso estimates that, from 1995-2000, “CDs were coming in strong. We were lucky to sell one vinyl a month.”
But things began improving drastically about four years ago, he said.
Record Surplus, an anchor of the Westside vinyl scene since 1985, has also changed hands and locations over the years.
Longtime employee Neil Canter took over Record Surplus from former owners Mike Colestock and Chuck Rose in 2008 after the store’s landlord died and his children “put the building up for sale and not at our price range,” Canter recalled.
In their 70s and facing the prospects of rising rent, a 10-year lease and the store’s probable relocation, Colestock (who also owns Rhino Records in Claremont) and Rose (whose family owns the Chicago chain Rose Records) sold Record Surplus to Canter, who now runs the store with wife Cheryl Perkey.
Canter, who came aboard Record Surplus in 1986 and became manager in 1989, remembers a time when there were two Record Surplus stores in Las Vegas, one in Costa Mesa and one neighboring the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in West Hollywood.
“I was paid to keep it open during the filming of [Oliver Stone’s 1991] Doors movie,” Canter recalled, chuckling, of the Sunset Strip location. “We made a neon sign for it.”
Even during lean years that followed the L.A. Riots and during the recent recession, “We still always sold a lot of records,” Canter said. “We never gave up on vinyl.
The ancillary Record Surplus branches were gone by the time Canter assumed the flagship West L.A. shop, which in 2011 did relocate from its Santa Monica-adjacent Pico Boulevard and Barrington Avenue location to its slightly bigger current space on Santa Monica Boulevard near Centinela Avenue.
“They basically offered me the store,” he said. “If you want to move, it’s your problem.”
Touch Vinyl’s Mathews, 32, may be the newbie among these shop owners, but his business arguably has the most offbeat of origins. Mathews used to represent screenwriters and work in development at J. J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot. However, he found working in Hollywood soul-sucking.
“The entertainment industry is a lot of people striving to make it, talking past each other instead of trying to make a connection and moving forward before collaborating,” Mathews said. “Whereas having a record shop, I’ll be invited to a birthday party of a customer.”
Mathews, however, has no delusions about his work: “I don’t consider myself music industry. I consider myself retail.”
After quitting entertainment, Mathews traveled to Scandinavia, where he wandered into the record shop 12 Tonar in Reykjavik, Iceland.
“They very clearly want you to hang out in addition to purchasing music,” he said of 12 Tonar’s cozy, clubhouse feel. “I saw that and it resonated with me.”
Upon returning to the States, Mathews set up shop on Sawtelle Boulevard near Idaho Avenue, just west of the 405, with no qualms about jumping into the vinyl biz in 2012.
“After 2008 and the decline, all the big stores went out of business: Tower Records, Virgin [Megastore],” Mathews said. “It created a void. Mom-and-pop stores took their place.”
Waxing nostalgic about wax
The vinyl resurgence also extends to the original Scratch DJ Academy, co-founded in 2002 by legendary turntablist Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell of pioneering rap group Run-DMC and located near Pico along the 405.
In an age where scratching has fallen out of vogue in rap songs while most electronic dance music deejays sequence their music from MacBooks, vinyl is still vital to many in the trade, with shop owners confirming that Scratch students and alums still frequent their shops.
“They used to bring the class to the store and make them look for beats,” Canter said. “Rap music has never abandoned vinyl. Original Pearl Jam or Nirvana, those aren’t easy to find. But you can still find rap on vinyl.”
Gary Freiberg, a vinyl enthusiast who in 2002 successfully campaigned for an official declaration of Vinyl Record Day in San Luis Obispo County and has patented a method for framing album covers, said digital technology hasn’t caught up with vinyl’s historic music catalogue.
Just as the CD’s format eliminates levels of sound heard on vinyl in order to simplify it into data, CDs have also thinned out catalogues of various musicians. Freiberg noted that many LPs by such artists as Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye and only a small fraction of all music ever recorded have been released as CDs.
Keeping vinyl in the hands of listeners “is a preservation of our audio history. It’s a representation of a culture, lifestyle and fashion,” he said. “It gives me great satisfaction to know that last year vinyl record sales were the highest in 22 years.”
According to the advocates of traditional albums, it’s not only the aural that’s augmented by records, but also the visual experience.
“It’s like a mini poster,” Grasso said of album jackets. “It’s more of an experience listening to vinyl than a CD. You have to flip it over, right? So you sit there, you absorb the music.”
Freiberg proudly recalls meeting Alex Steinweiss — who around 1940 convinced Columbia Records to replace brown paper sleeves with adorned packaging — shortly before the New York graphic artist’s death in 2012.
Freiberg considers The Beatles’ 1967 record “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” a watershed moment for album cover art, which has encompassed everything from the avant-garde paintings gracing 1950s and ‘60s Blue Note jazz albums to Robert Crumb’s cartoony cover for the 1968 Janis Joplin album “Cheap Thrills.”
Forward-thinking musical acts have long supported records, even through the doom-and-gloom 1990s.
Beck, one of that decade’s biggest rock stars, continued issuing his work on vinyl, as did the Beastie Boys, with rapper Mike D. gloating on the 1994 track “Sure Shot”: “I’m still listening to wax, I’m not using the CD.”
Jack White, who owns a Nashville vinyl store, recently discussed its charms at length on the VH-1 Classic appraisal show “For What It’s Worth.” The Arcade Fire and M83 also exploit the format.
“Younger people view it as objects of art,” Freiberg said. “I’m glad to see I’m not old school or a dinosaur.”
The RSD Effect
If National Record Store Day, with its promotional giveaways and discounts, is just a gimmick, it has been an effective one.
“It’s been very good for our store. We’ll have 30 to 40 people waiting outside before we open. It really pushed the whole industry,” Soundsations’ Grasso said.
“It’s a huge day for all independent record shops,” added Mathews. “It’s a day to spend,” representing for Touch Vinyl “about a month’s worth of sales in one day” and “lines out the door of 75 people. Generally, after the sales rush, we party and celebrate.”
Past events at Touch Vinyl have included a cook-out and a food truck. This weekend, there will be deejays and ice cream.
“I try and find something to give away,” said Record Surplus’ Canter, who has stored up a palette of original programs from 1970s and 1980s concerts by the Ohio Players, the Beach Boys and the Steve Miller Band. Record Surplus will also offer deals such as three records for 92 cents and 15% off certain merchandise.
National Record Store Day has kept up the annual push each April since 2007. This year, Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. serves as the day’s national ambassador, backed by testimonials from musicians Ziggy Marley, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Tweedy, Joan Jett, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Regina Spektor.
But not everyone sees RSD as purely altruistic.
“There are a lot of people who are resentful of Record Store Day,” Freiberg said. “I feel that it’s primarily a commercial venture organized by big money. It has really nothing to do with what [his alternative] Vinyl Record Day is about.”
Mathews acknowledges the holiday has grown up a bit.
“Earlier, there was more of a spirit for indie records, indie and smaller labels to create cool releases,” Mathews said. “It’s getting less independent.”
Canter said some customers only show up on Record Store Day to snag promotional gifts—some of which, Freiberg said, simply end up on eBay.
However, most agree about National Record Store Day’s upside: It bonds record dealers with customers as well as other vendors.
“The rising tide raises all ships,” Mathews said. “It’s only to our benefit to help each other.”
As the table turns…
On the Westside, frequent in-store activities keep the vinyl vibe going year-round.
On Thursday nights, Mathews hosts open tables for deejay sets.
“We’ll record the set. We’ll post it to our Soundcloud site,” he said. “We have a party around it.”
Mathews has seen all genres of DJs step up — hip-hop, house and electronic dance music — but “one of my favorites was a husband-and-wife team that had no real experience but a great collection of Scandinavian death metal,” he said.
Touch Vinyl also throws in-store concerts. On Friday, singer-songwriter Kyle Neal and indie band Inner Wave perform. Santa Monica experimental rockers Opus Orange visited the store earlier this year just prior to performing at the South by Southwest music, film and technology festival in Austin.
Record Surplus also recently added in-store concerts, starting with Kat Lenz and Her Jaguars in December and, last month, The Outta Sites.
“There’s only a few record stores left that I feel really comfortable in — The Bop Shop in Rochester, N.Y., Hymie’s in Minneapolis, and Record Surplus,” said Pete Curry, a member of the newly formed Outta Sites and the venerable band Los Straitjackets, which last year issued National Record Store Day limited-edition 45s.
Mathews said many Touch Vinyl customers skew younger and he encourages them to assist the careers of local acts.
“Say I like this band and I’m a graphic designer,” he said. “I can draw posters for them — practical, simple stuff an independent band can benefit from. When they get big, I can say, ‘I had a hand in that.’”
Rap crew Warm Brew and Moses Sumney are among the acts passing through Touch Vinyl who have benefited from such support.
If anything, 2014 is a time for optimism regarding the fate of the classic licorice pizza.
Freiberg sees the survival of vinyl culture as “part of the responsibility of the baby boomer generation. That parent has to pass that onto their children. I hope that it’s not a temporary hipness.”
The record resurgence will stick “as long as we don’t repeat the same mistakes,” Mathews said. “Putting vinyl in every Whole Foods is not ideal.”
“I think we’re doing something right,” said Canter. “I have customers I’ve seen since day one. … The Westside’s been good to us.”
For Mathews, the second coming of vinyl isn’t a fad — it’s a new beginning.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if vinyl record shops popped up in Venice, on Abbot Kinney [Boulevard] and the like. And that’s a good thing.”
Special thanks to author Michael Aushenker and ArgonautNews.com for allowing this reprint.
This story originally ran in the April 17 issue of the Argonaut weekly newspaper in Los Angeles, which covers eight coastal communities on L.A.'s Westside including Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey. It was originally written to correspond with National Record Shop Day.
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