Flying the Flag
I’ve recently become interested in the US dance / electronic / vinyl market (of course I have, I’ve got an album coming out). As an artist and label owner, it’s always seemed slightly untouchable and disparate, continually beckoning with it’s potential for huge sales yet geographically fragmented… home to the biggest blogs / websites (Pitchfork, Gorilla vs Bear, ISO 50 etc.), the inventors of house music (let’s hope the US public start to realise what we’ve lost with the untimely demise of Frankie Knuckles), yet so few in our world have cracked the secret code….maybe because in America, to succeed on the big stage, you need to play the game and dance music & culture by it’s very nature, at it’s very core, is subversive.
Whilst chatting to a few people I know through International Feel about the US market, I came across two endeavours that should give us all hope for the future of the vinyl scene Stateside. One old (in approach) and one new, but both, whilst openly admitting that they are business ventures, spring from something deeper in the soul, the part where labours of love are born. Combine that with the fact that both have (literally) put their money where their mouths are, I wanted to find out more about who they are, what they’re doing and why.
First up is Pacific Beach Vinyl based in Southern California. A new online vinyl shop (so I guess they’re based everywhere), formed by four partners of equally high pedigree whose aim is to make the vinyl they love more readily available in the States. At the moment, the majority of US vinyl buyers order from Europe and are therefore charged high shipping rates or even worse have to succumb to the Discogs scalping brigade (maybe I should put the 50 copies of Adventure Party in my parents garage onto Discogs at the same time ?).
Hugh Herrera and Jason Kincade have been involved with the West Coast underground dance scene since the beginning and are joined on this venture by Paul Murphy (the owner of Claremont 56, the record label I always look to and think…ah thats how you run a proper label) and Phil South who runs Golf Channel Recordings, the label that puts out all the music I wish I did !
In addition to making the vinyl itself more easily available, their online shop is also highly curated in a way that reflects their tastes and musical passions, so you’re getting access to their ‘ears & experience’ as well and I think it’s important to realise that scenes don’t progress by simply buying fish…you need to learn how to fish to keep feeding yourself and that’s what these guys aim to do and for that they deserve your support.
Shooting up to San Francisco, Mike Battaglia has opened a new vinyl store, called Vinyl Dreams. For some reason it reminds me of the Alan Erasmus saying ‘I saw a Factory closing sign, so I thought we should have a Factory opening’. If you look at the death of the independent record shop in the UK and US, if they were protected by the WWF (no, not those wrestling chaps) they’d be on extinction watch by now, so it’s exciting to hear that one is opening, particularly when the owner is someone (as above) with the knowledge of Mike B.
I think that new openings like these show us we really are living in ‘spoilt times’ and I find it thrilling that more and more pockets of guerilla resistance are springing up. I hear from a couple of friends in London that work in record stores, that the past six months have seen a big influx of new buyers coming into the stores….all of this, together with new distribution methods, should make us very positive about the future of vinyl and independent culture in general (because thats what we’re really talking about here – the focus on localisation, supportive community building with passion & attention to detail….as opposed to faceless hermetically sealed corporate global ‘non’ culture…anarchy through vinyl baby !).
So I put together a few Q’s for Mike B (and also a few from some friends) and here together with a mix he kindly put together are his answers.
1. Who are you, what’s your background and what are you doing now ?
My name is Michelangelo Battaglia, I’m from San Francisco these last 20 years and from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania before that. I have a long, hereditary involvement in music from an early age, studied music in college, etc. I’ve worked in the dance/electronic music industry these last 20 years in some capacity or other, as a DJ, club promoter, journalist at XLR8R and URB magazines (among others), radio show host (KUSF), but most people either know me as a DJ or in my previous job as the buyer/manager of Amoeba Music SF’s electronic/dance section. I currently own and operate Vinyl Dreams, a brick & mortar record shop in San Francisco’s Lower Haight that’s been open for nine months and specializes in new electronic and dance music.
2. What was your motivation for opening a new vinyl store ?
There was an opening, both locally and on the west coast when I started. My former partner Darren Davis (ex-owner, Tweekin’ Records) initially approached me about doing something exclusively online in 2010. We both saw the potential since, after the bottom fell out of the market in the mid-aughts, there were no shops left but plenty of people buying records online (and complaining about it). Honestly, it was sort of a no-brainer, as we say over here. Plus we love records and I frankly would rather do this than anything else. It’s constant inspiration & uplift.
3. Whats the average day for a record store owner ?
Well, for the physical-only record store owner (this one, at least) it’s long stretches of hanging out and short bursts of heavy activity. Yes, you get to listen to music all day long. Medicinal herbs certainly come into play (it’s a record shop, for fuck’s sake). We have events near-weekly here with local DJ crews, up & comers, big-name out of town guests and such, so the nights are regularly active. We also do community-oriented things like the Ambient Book Club some nights, which is an actual book discussion group started by Billee Sharp and featuring DJ’s or artists performing a live chillout soundtrack. On weeknights, most of my business is done after folks get off work, so I’ll see the bulk of our sales within a few hours in a day.
Once our website is finished, though, that will see a whole lot more regular, daily tasks to be done and a whole lot less chilling!
4. Has EDM trickled down and created more interest in the underground side of things or is that just bullshit that we keep hearing to try and validate people who make shitty ringtones and pretend its music ?
There is a very small amount of interest from former EDM fans who have, sort of, grown out of it and are hungry for something a bit more sophisticated, but the young folks I see coming are excited about house, techno, disco specifically. They know that these genres have a long and fantastic history and are eager to learn more about it. They’re excited about vinyl, making their own music, starting labels, and making a go of it. It’s an exciting time! EDM as an industry can fuck off, it’s got nothing to do with us.
5. What makes a vinyl release ‘big’ in the US ? From the outside it seems like the distribution and scene in general is not as developed as Europe and yet the big blogs like Pitchfork, ISO50, Gorilla vs Bear etc are all US based. Are US buyers still taking their cues from Europe or discovering stuff for themselves by coming into shops like yours ?
Big is *extremely* relative. I don’t really read any of those blogs (Test Pressing, holla!) so I’m not sure what they’re covering, but a vinyl release that we consider big is something that sells 20/30 copies – not exactly a milestone, but big for us! There are no charts so it’s difficult to tell what’s selling elsewhere aside from how fast something sells out!
The infrastructure is actually about as developed as Europe, it’s just smaller. We lost many major dance distributors over the last decade – Watts, Nemesis, Syntax, Downtown – these were all major contributors to a very healthy industry. As shops closed, distributors went with them.
All that said, I think that US buyers are both using the physical record store as a place for discovery as well as looking to Europe for what’s new. Digital has definitely dropped the ball as far as this aspect is concerned and people are really craving a content filter, which is where we come in.
The clued-in customer is already familiar with the week-to-week release schedule, what labels are hot, what artists are killing it, what record is blazing on promo or whatever. They generally know what they want. It’s the ones to whom this whole world is new – the world of buying records – that are looking for some guidance and eager to see what awaits them out there, and we try to help folks with that whenever possible.
6. From Paul at Test Pressing: What’s the best record store you’ve been in and do you remember what you bought?
Jerry’s Records in Pittsburgh is a fantastic resource to have grown up in, I bought so much there over the years, I don’t think I could pinpoint one purchase.
I remember going to Tower Records on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC in the early 90′s and just being blown away by the import selection. Here was all the stuff I had been reading about in the NME & Melody Maker but I could actually buy it! I bought The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld within weeks of release. Definite life-changer there, especially for a kid of 17. Most people have a hard time believing that Tower was not only good, but but it really was incredible! Amoeba in San Francisco was completely mindblowing when it opened, an aircraft hangar-sized record shop, and I bought too many things to mention, both before I was hired there and during my 13-year tenure. You can imagine the treasure I found!
I just went to Mount Analog in Los Angeles and walked out $100 poorer despite owning my own damn record shop. What a great place! I bought the Spirit Bear Mezcal Ensemble 12″ on LNCC, Steve Moore’s Zen Spiders on Future Times, A Crue-L 12″ with a killer Jonny Nash Discossession remix on it…
7. From Balearic Mike: Wouldn’t you rather work for Google?
Only if Google is going to pay me to play records! I’ll take a six-figure income to be the lobby DJ, how about it!
8. From Dr. Rob at Test Pressing: What do think will be the key to ensuring that the business of selling vinyl keeps turning a profit?
Well the profit margin on a 12″ single is very, very low, so volume is essential. Add that to the million reasons why having an online counterpart is so important. We’ve been working on ours for awhile now and it’s just about to launch at http://vinyldreams.storenvy.com. We’ve been hoarding some of the best jams of the past six months and will launch with a whole slew of now hard-to-find gems mixed in with new releases.
Of course, releasing records people want, taking the care to put out something that’s collectible and a work of art in and of itself helps. The CD is dying and being replaced by digital, but vinyl endures. It’s plenty trendy at the moment but I think that the new generation of kids sees it as a viable format moving forward. One that puts them in touch with the music, directly in touch with their dancefloors. They spend all day online programming as part of their day jobs, putting two hands on vinyl and mixing records for an hour is an escape from the grind!
I think that labels who are releasing exclusively on vinyl are definitely keeping things not only alive, but thriving. It’s a whole world to discover, and one that trawling Beatport isn’t going to gain you entry into.
Finally an extra question from Lexx: maybe you could ask him about his opinion about the “importance” and sales of vinyl in about 10 years from now.
That’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure I have the vision to see where vinyl will be in 10 years, but it seems that vinyl is still very much alive after many obituaries were written, people connect to it in a way that nothing else can really replicate, so I think a technology would have to be invented that will actually be better than vinyl but retain all of its best aspects. I would hope for something a bit environmentally responsible – perhaps the perfection of using some new substance to press records other than petroleum products, while still retaining the audio quality and keeping things analog?
What keeps me excited and sure of my decision to open a record shop in 2012 is seeing a younger generation discover this whole world of music. Streaming services don’t remotely touch the breadth and depth of music and sound that being into records gains you access to, if only you’re willing to look. I think if even a small segment of this generation coming up embraces vinyl, it should be alive for years to come. Besides, who is going to buy our records when we all die?
Footnote: I asked a friend in San Fran to pop into Mike’s store as a secret shopper (hey why not !) and on opening the door he saw a guy asleep on the couch (big tick already – a store with a couch). Said guy looks up, says hi & sorry he had a heavy night last night and then promptly falls back asleep. Now THAT Mr Battaglia is class !
And when he wakes up he’ll be providing a mix for us at some point in the future.