Record Store Days: An Interview with Phil Gallo

Without a doubt one of the best jobs I ever had growing up was working at a record store.  It wasn’t an independent store, but a local chain called Kemp Mill Records that has since shrunk to only one store.  Whether it was helping customers find new music, debating the merits of the latest releases with my co-workers or simply feeding my own musical jones by spending everything I earned on the very music I sold, it was a great experience.  I loved that job and I still think fondly of it many moons later.

The problem is that my memory may well become a memory for every person who loves music, because record stores like Kemp Mill are slowly but surely being pushed to the brink of extinction by the internet and illegal downloads.  Even huge chains like Tower,  HMV, Sam Goody and Virgin have closed up shop.  Despite this trend, independent record stores continue to survive.  Whether it’s Stinkweeds in Phoenix, AZ or Vintage Vinyl in Fords, NJ, all of us at Music Lit 101 have a favorite record store.  The question is for how much longer?

Stinkweeds

That’s why we’re excited about a new book called Record Store Days by Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo.  The book, which will be released by Sterling Publishing on April 6, 2010, takes you behind the counter with fascinating first-person accounts from the store owners and clerks who have made browsing for records a national pastime for nearly 100 years. Out just in time for the 3rd annual Record Store Day (April 17, 2010 www.recordstoreday.com), the book features more than 150 photographs and is filled with reminiscences from musicians, music industry executives, record store owners and music fans from all across America.

For Phil Gallo, a music journalist and entertainment writer for over 25 years, this book was a labor of love.  We had a chance to talk with Phil about “Record Store Days” and what he thinks the future holds for records stores.

Music Lit 101:  Growing up I worked in a record store and I think it still ranks as one of my favorite jobs.  How did you get involved in this project?  Did you ever work at a record store yourself?

Phil Gallo (PG):  My co-author Gary Calamar worked in record stores from the 1970s into the 1990s and came up with the idea for the book a few years ago. Once he got a publisher interested and the concept worked out, it was clear a writer was going to be needed, which is when I came in. While in college I worked in a  stereo store that had a record department.

Music Lit 101:  What is the attraction of a record store versus buying music online?

PG:  A physical product resonates with the mind more than a digital file. Holding music in your hands, seeing the pictures, reading the liner notes and credits and allowing all of that to go into your decision to make a purchase while some other music that you have not selected is playing …. Whew! It’s wonderful sensory overload. There’s a reason you should always bring a list when you go to a well-stocked music store. It’s easy – and a load of fun – to be overwhelmed like that.

Music Lit 101:  Do you have any idea how many independent record stores still exist?

PG:  That’s a very tough question. At the time of last year’s Record Store Day, it was estimated there are about 3,000 physical retail operations that sell recorded music. How that breaks down I am not sure. One thing is certain – a decade earlier it was 12,000.

Music Lit 101:  How do small independent record stores regain the attention of kids weaned on illegal downloads and iTunes?

PG:  That’s where history repeats itself – service, selection and value, the elements that stores used to distinguished themselves when there were three outlets in one mall or three stores within a few blocks of each other. The Internet has convenience all to itself, but smart record store owners stay in business by filling customers’ needs first. It has become a largely hand-selling business. By that I mean, record stores are keeping the lights on by informing their customers about music, offering products that make sense to purchase in a physical format and by having in stock, music that gives a store an identity. In some cases that means having every Pink Floyd title; elsewhere, it means having all of Neutral Milk Hotel on vinyl.

Music Lit 101:  How important do you think album cover art is in selling a recording?

PG:  Massively important from the late 1960s up until the mid-1990s, which is covered in  the book. At the point vinyl completely went away, CDs became much simpler in the design department with an emphasis on typography. The reintroduction of vinyl has helped reinvigorate album cover design as artists have a nice 12 X 12 surface to convey a concept. Sonic Youth has always had great album covers and that must be rubbing off on acts that hold them in high regard for their music.  I’m guessing a lot of indie rock acts aspire to provide arresting visuals beyond concert posters.

Music Lit 101:  Are we losing something by not being able to hold a record or CD in our hands before we buy it?

PG:  Yes.  Information.  Music becomes less visceral and more of a consumer good. The portability of music has diminished its value. That was true with cassettes, too.

Music Lit 101:  What’s your involvement with Record Store Day and can you tell us a little about it?

PG:  Record Store Day was created by members of three organizations that support independent record stores and help enhance their buying power and access to releases. Our book is being released in April to coincide with Record Store Day and the organizers, especially Michal Kurtz of Music Monitor Network, were very helpful to us in getting the word out when we were writing and gathering photographs. This year RSD is expanding internationally but we have no actual connection to the event.

Music Lit 101:  You chronicle some legendary in-store shows in the book can you tell us about one in particular that you think best sums up the record store experience?

PG:  We’re spoiled here in L.A. because Amoeba has brought in Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, etc. and the old Rhino had Nirvana and acts of that sort, not to mention Tower Records on Sunset. The McCartney show was the ultimate in-store event. Here you had one of the world’s biggest superstars performing amid the bins and he didn’t short-change it – he played 45 minutes or so in a set that went far beyond introducing the music on the new album.  In-store shows are the ultimate raw performances and you can honestly say the Paul McCartney Amoeba show is as rare an event as you can get.

Music Lit 101:  You’ve covered the music industry for some time now.  What influence do you think record stores have had on music and the music industry over the years?

PG:  One of the subtexts of the book is the role stores had in shaping the business. There’s not a store that was not started by an enthusiast who saw records as a way to be surrounded by the music they loved. Get a clerk behind a release and a record label had a much-needed allay in the ’60s and ’70s when wall space was not sold. These clerks would create the displays themselves with materials supplied by the labels. When record stores were filed with knowledgeable clerks – and that goes back to the late 1930s – they shaped the popularity of music. Don’t forget, the charts were based on what a record store’s managers told a chart complier at a magazine and often they’d bump up numbers on their favorite bands. I always got a charge out of good albums that would do well in stores or have a prominent display position despite the fact that it was getting no airplay. It said, to me anyway, that the store has a believer looking to turn on people to music that he or she loves.  Apple’s iTunes has a considerable effect on what’s popular today; it’s a rare case when an album only does well in only CD or digital.

In a nutshell, records in the 1960s were sold in places that sold items besides just records. Instruments, electronics, drugstores. As the rock music developed in the album format in the late 1960s, it became a viable business model for guys who wanted to have stores with nothing but records. The more places to sell records, the more artists the labels would sign and the more albums they would release. Look at music today. Fewer physical outlets has meant much smaller rosters and far fewer releases than just five or six years ago.

Music Lit 101:  One of my favorite independent record stores is Flat, Black & Circular in East Lansing, MI.  I also love Vintage Vinyl in Fords, NJ.  What is your favorite record store and where is it located?

PG:  It’s so hard to narrow down. I shop regularly at Amoeba in L.A. and Freakbeat in Sherman Oaks, Calif., do mail order with Dusty Groove in Chicago and always visit Downtown Music Gallery when I’m in New York City. I really like specialty shops and that makes Downtown Music Gallery, which thrives on avant-garde everything – jazz, folk, rock, classical – my ultimate favorite.

Side note: In recent years, record stores have struggled the most in college towns such as East Lansing, because the students are the ones most likely to pilfer music from Internet sites. At the same time, it’s the record collections of professors that, when they decide to unload them, can make the inventory in college town stores  much more interesting than your standard used shop.

Music Lit 101:  What do think the future holds for independent record stores?  Will they survive?

PG:  What will make it tough is coming to terms with how to stay stocked and how to spend money to have the right selections. Smaller stores that focus on fewer genres will need to be able to sell two of three copies of many albums rather than hundreds of 10 or 20 titles. The more the indies can keep their customers informed, usually via the Internet, the better; they need to be seen as one-stop shopping, no different than Amazon. Music has become too vast for the average consumer looking to buy an album that’s not played relentlessly on the radio. The store owner is in a position to tout their wares rather than wait for a review from Pitchfork or Rolling Stone that might move some units and they have to take advantage of that. General interest record stores will always have to have the DVDs, clothes, toys, comics and books to remain profitable. Vinyl, new and used, will help prop up some stores but who knows how long this “revival” will last.

 Record stores have a rich history, some of which is chronicled in Record Store Days, but they don’t have to become history if we continue to support our local record store.  So on Record Store Day take a moment to visit your local record store and pick up a record from your favorite artist or better yet let them help you discover someone new, but don’t let it end there, keep going, and we can all do our part to add more chapters to the story that is our local record store.

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You can find out more about Record Store Day by:

Visiting the Record Store Day website.

Follow Phil Gallo on Twitter.



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