There was a moment leading up to 2013 when it looked as though the record store would join the dodo on the extinction list. Record sales were plummeting due to rampant pirating, digital sales became the primary metric and the major labels were scrambling to shut down the piracy, while appealing to the modern user. Then, reports began circulating that vinyl sales were up.
Soundscan and Nielsen Music numbers suggested an opportunity to press more records, rather than scale back. The advent of Record Store Day in 2007, on April 21, played a significant role in this recovery; sales have been shown to greatly increase on this annual holiday. But now, once again, early reports accompanied by scary headlines suggest that the boom is over.
Sacramento’s independent record store owners couldn’t care less.
Sacramento Area Record Stores*
MediumRare Records; Collectibles/Kicksville Vinyl & Vintage
1104 R St. #140 Sacramento
Phono Select Records
2475 Fruitridge Road Sacramento
Delta Breeze Records
1049 Jefferson Blvd. #110 West Sacramento
Brooks Novelty; Antiques Records and Rocket Records
1107 Firehouse Alley Sacramento
830 Jefferson Blvd. Ste 60 West Sacramento
* abridged list
The way Marty DeAnda, owner of MediumRare Records & Collectibles in Sacramento, views it, today’s marketplace is not discovering new music on vinyl — these buyers are archivists, meaning their collections are driven by nostalgia and memory, and an interest in the past. That’s why the used record store might be impervious to a boom or bust.
“The buyer today did not grow up force-fed music on vinyl,” DeAnda says. “They are digging through grandpa’s collection or mom and dad’s collection and discovering things in no specific chronological order. Therefore there are a lot of people who don’t realize Frank Sinatra’s music is any more new or older than, say, Wilco.”
Dal Basi, owner of Phono Select Records in Sacramento, senses that this new market is exhausted with instantaneous gratification. He says younger people seem drawn to vintage equipment, be it records or cameras, because they require interaction. When you play a record, you hold something tangible and have to get up and flip it over on the record player to hear more.
“Everything doesn’t have to be instantaneous,” Basi says. “Older people want it fast and they’re always in a hurry. It depends on the personality, but a lot of young adults are learning to slow down because they get overwhelmed. They want the slower, more manual version of things.”
This creates a niche and opportunity for the used record store. Owners curate their stores to specific buyers, while also listening to customer requests and monitoring trends. Because as DeAnda puts it, “the new buyer is not driven by new releases.”
“They new buyer is driven almost 100 percent by DJ samples, video games, Netflix movies,” he says. They are hearing 1980s synthpop duo Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” in season 2 of Master Of None, seeking Mtume’s 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit” because it’s the sample to Notorious B.I.G.’s popular hit “Juicy” and purchasing a physical copy of Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much” after it soundtracked the carnage caused in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
Each store has its story. Ben Johnson, co-owner of Delta Breeze Records in West Sacramento, called Willie Nelson records and Paul Simon’s Graceland mainstays in the $1 bin. Now, he makes sure a used copy of Graceland is always displayed near the front of the New Arrivals bin. “I can’t keep it in stock,” he says.
Phono Select gets inquiries for ‘80s soul and new wave, while DeAnda at Medium Rare has noticed that women ages 25 and under request Frank Sinatra.
“I have no idea why, but I assume that there’s some show that featured Frank Sinatra songs that appealed to that demographic,” he says.
But What About Used Vinyl?
Curiously, used vinyl is absent from the national story of the vinyl boom. Vinyl sales were less than $1 million in 2007, but nearly doubled by 2008 to $1.88 million, according to Nielsen Music. By 2013, sales had grown to over $6 million. Nielsen Music data from 2015 shows a 38 percent increase in that year, but in 2016 growth tapered off to 12 percent. So far in 2017, growth is a meager 2 percent.
But this data is exclusive to new release vinyl and the success stories of reissues; Fleet Foxes LPs, Radiohead’s OK Computer on 180-gram vinyl and anything Jack White’s Third Man Records empire touches. It fails to account for how used record sales are performing. Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece entitled Why Vinyl’s Boom Is Over, a scary declaration with a misleading narrative, while Forbes conservatively claims vinyl is not dead — but includes the perspective that new vinyl sales make up 6 percent of a $15 billion dollar recorded-music industry.
Just a few years ago, Sacramento had almost no skin in the new or used vinyl game. In 2013, the city was in the process of losing its staple music stores. Tower Records’ Russ Solomon had sold his remaining retail space — R5 Records on Broadway — to the local chain Dimple Records in 2010. The Beat on J Street lasted 31 years in business (19 of which were in Midtown) until closing in 2013 and making way for a BevMo.
That same year, Phono Select Records vacated its K Street location after opening in 2010, relocating to a warehouse across the street from Panama Pottery on 24th Street before moving down to on Fruitridge Road in south Sacramento. A year later, Medium Rare Records was “unceremoniously asked to leave” its Downtown Plaza location due to closure of the mall for construction of the Golden 1 Center.
The scene was bleak. Open since 1973, Brooks Novelty Antiques & Vinyl in Old Sacramento was among the few remaining used stores on the grid — it’s still open today. Last year, Records on Broadway closed its doors after nearly 40 years of business, 10 of which were at the Broadway location.
Each With a Unique Identity
Now, used vinyl is the lifeblood of the independent stores in Sacramento. DeAnda calls it a “vinyl circulatory system,” in which each store harmoniously provides a nutrient for the record enthusiast. Delta Breeze Records, which is celebrating its third birthday this month, supplies the oddball albums alongside obscure jazz and bargain rock. Phono Select Records is predominantly punk, with plenty of moderately priced college rock and hip hop. Brooks Novelty & Antiques Records and Rocket Records are the bargain shops. Medium Rare Records, which shares a space with Kicksville Vinyl & Vintage in Warehouse Artist Lofts, supply the high-end classic rock, punk, blues and soul.
That circulatory system includes the sellers — the inheritors of collections looking to clear out storage and the professional diggers who bring a stack to sell or trade to the store. The distinct identities of each shop creates a symbioses as sellers come to know who to bring certain items to for the fairest deal. During one afternoon in Medium Rare, a young father and his toddler daughter bring a few mint country records into trade for a Blue Note jazz record. At Delta Breeze, Johnson says he emphasizes fairness and guides sellers to stores that might take their collection if he’s not interested.
“You definitely want to encourage people to bring you stuff that they come across,” he says. “If they realize you’ll be fair they’ll keep coming back.”
The new model of used record stores is to establish a distinct identity, become a trusted brand, and be friendly to customers. Record stores might not be extinct, but snooty clerk archetype that behaves like Jack Black in High Fidelity died with the Great Recession. The glass window of Phono Select that reads “Friendliest Record Store In Town” is not a gimmick; it’s a blueprint — Basi says it was a decision made at the opening of the original location.
“When me and Nick [Lujan] started, it was about never being dickheads,” he says. “That’s not our place. Our job is to make you happy, to help you find what you need. And if not, maybe point you towards something you don’t know you need.”
Basi describes a vinyl store’s need for personal touch as vital to its success. He says it can’t be like a convenience store since “Budweiser and Doritos have already cornered that market.” At Phono Select, most of its records are democratically featured in a sprawling section called “Left of the Dial” — a Replacements reference that suggests the golden age of college radio. Ask Dal and he’ll give you a free root beer while you browse.
Medium Rare and Kicksville are laid out like a museum, meant to trigger nostalgia for mid-century decor or a rare pressing of Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat. Delta Breeze’s small space is curated for the adventurous and curious, with plenty of affordable silverface amps for sale. On a recent visit, a used copy of rapper Future’s EVOL album is displayed above the bins. Released in 2016, it’s a rare current artist sighting, but the copy is used and available for under $20.
“We’re just so small that it’s not really worth the space and expenditure to order a ton of new product,” says Johnson of Delta Breeze. “There’s already stores that do that. It’s about personal attention and having specialized items for people. We have a lot of regular customers and we get to know them and try to look out for them as much as possible.”
If there’s one major overlap all the stores share it’s social media — particularly Instagram. Delta Breeze, Kicksville, Rocket Records and Phono Select all post images and videos of its most enticing products. Whether it’s a recently restored silverface amp hitting the shelves or a hand flipping through the fresh stack in the “new arrivals” bin, the practice produces results beyond “likes” and comments on the post.
“Sometimes the phone rings 30 seconds later when you post something,” Johnson says.