Star Wars is at the forefront of the American consciousness. There’s legitimate hope with the local baseball team. And we may very well be on the cusp of a Clinton in the White House.
Old is indeed new again.
That may not be more evident than in the music-retail landscape. According to Forbes, 2015 witnessed a 30 percent increase of vinyl record sales in the United States. American record stores and online retailers moved nearly 12 million records last year, up from approximately nine million in 2014.
Vinyl, while still accounting for only five percent of albums sold nationwide last year, is a growing retro trend. That holds true in Houston as well, where local record stores are stocking the shelves with vinyl — both old and new — from a number of different genres. The rise in vinyl consumers is yielding a rise in local record store customers, many of whom (particularly the Millennial variety) had never previously stepped foot in a record stores.
But what about those who are interested in starting a record collection, but have yet to do so? With Record Store Day this coming Saturday, the Houston Press visited a number of Houston music retailers in hopes of offering a sense of what to expect from the local record-store scene.
A scene in the great 2000 film High Fidelity perfectly encapsulates why some people are a bit intimidated by the thought of venturing into their local record store. In the scene, Jack Black’s Barry chastises a middle-aged man who has the audacity to ask if the store carries a copy of “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
In short, an elitist tag – deserved or no – does exist.
“There’s certainly a perception that people who work [in record stores] are all 'Comic Book Store' guys,” says Vinal Edge owner Chuck Roast of the loathsome Simpsons character, known for insulting any customer he deems as not possessing adequate comic-book and other nerd-related knowledge. “But that’s not really the case. Local record stores are more about building up community.”
Adds Craig Brown, owner of Heights Vinyl: “I’ll carry anything. My first concert was Iron Maiden, and my second was New Order. I like to pride myself on having a good breadth of knowledge of music.”
That certainly appeared true during my travels through the local record-store scene. During my various stops, local record store employees were kind and courteous and attentive to my needs.
The used vinyl game is tailored to those on a budget. For those looking to start small with their record collection, you can do so without breaking the bank. For instance, local outlet Sound Exchange sells “Junk 45s” at ten for a dollar. Cactus Music sells some used records for less than $1. You can pick up a used vinyl single at Vinal Edge starting at 29 cents, and Heights Vinyl also has a $1 bargain bin as well.
Those looking to stock their record collection with premium vinyl, meanwhile, can do so at a number of local record stores.
“The most I ever sold a record for was around $10,000,” says Kurt Brennan, who has co-owned Sound Exchange with Kevin Bakos since 1999. “Supply makes it valuable. If supply is low and demand is high, there’s a market for it.”
For more premium product, prices are often negotiable as well.
“Everything is flexible – if we ever get knocked on pricing, it’s because someone didn’t ask,” Brown says. “If you look on the wall at something that’s $50 and has been there a while, make me an offer.”
Those worried about sticking out for all the wrong reasons need not worry. Local record stores cater to a variety of customers.
“I’d say it’s about half Millennials, and about half Millennials’ parents,” says a chuckling Brown, who has owned Heights Vinyl on White Oak for more than four years. “The Millennials have come in and taken all their stuff. For the parents, to come in and feel the vibe and the energy, it sort of brings back all those memories. They want that feeling again.”
Those in the local scene have actually noticed a steady rise of younger consumers itching to get into the vinyl game.
“One of the reasons vinyl sales keep going up is because vinyl is deemed hip,” says Roast of Vinal Edge. “You see record players in popular culture now. The media now thinks it’s hip, so younger people are catching on.”
Vinyl’s hip status has led to major pop acts increasing production of vinyl for new releases. In fact, the two biggest vinyl sellers of 2015 were Adele’s 25 and Taylor Swift’s 1989. Other contemporary mainstream acts ranking in the Top 10 were Hozier, Alabama Shakes and Arctic Monkeys.
Vinyl is no longer exclusive to those on the indie scene, something that was evident in visiting local shops. Among the radio-friendly acts with new vinyl releases on display were Kings of Leon, Slipknot and Coldplay.
Local record stores aren’t just about selling music; they’re also about showcasing local and national acts. Places like Heights Vinyl, Cactus Music and Vinal Edge are known for morphing into live-music venues in hosting acts from Houston, as well as those travelling through town and looking to promote a new record.
“Bringing music into the store helps a lot. It gives people a reason to come in on the weekends; come in and have a beer, see some music,” says Robert Medellin of Cactus Music. “Maybe it’s someone you’ve never heard before, or maybe you get to meet one of your favorite bands.”
Independent record stores accounted for 45 percent of vinyl records sold in the U.S. last year, so that certainly makes up a sizable portion of their business. However, a number of local outlets diversify and cater to other clientele by selling various types of musical media.
That includes tapes and CDs, the latter of which is poised for a resurgence of its own, according to a number of local store owners and employees.
“For now, people are still dumping them, but we’re able to turn them around and sell them really quick,” says Roast of Vinal Edge. “It’s way cheaper than a download.”
Other items of note at various local outlets were T-shirts (the “I’m Not Moving to Austin” shirt at Cactus Music was a personal favorite), toys, lunch boxes, stickers, books and DVDs.