I’m watching Lou Russell wash vinyl records in a sink. I’m not helping him, which makes me feel kind of lazy. At least I’m writing some things down as we’re talking so I don’t look completely useless.
In my quest to become employed somewhere in music by interviewing those that already are, I was inspired to seek out Lou, the owner of Lou’s Records in Encinitas. His name was mentioned by multiple people I know, which is when I really take notice of someone. Following this “double-name-drop rule”, I became curious about Lou’s Records. Besides doing the customer service, I didn’t really know what was involved in running a record store. Now I know it involves washing the records.
Actually washing is part of what Lou refers to as “processing” used product. Since the store sells both new and used CDs and vinyl, used product that comes in must be first evaluated as worth buying, then cleaned up to the best possible condition, then priced and displayed. The staff at Lou’s price used records based on their condition and what the current demand is for a new version, if it’s still in print. If it’s out of print, then the pricing is based more on experience.
Knowing what to stock in-store is a key part of the business. Records that are less likely to sell or haven’t sold on the floor are put up for sale on popular internet channels. This is an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” move, since it is the availability of music on the internet that has contributed so strongly to what I am going to say is the theme of this interview: Local record stores are struggling!
Lou says he got the bug to open a record store back in 1980. He’s always been a huge appreciator of all types of music. I ask if he ever played in a band, and Lou goes, “I don’t have the skill for it. Radio is my instrument.” Since they opened, Lou’s Records has moved twice, eventually settling into its current location on Highway 101, where it’s been for 20 years now. Back in the day, before the rise of online sales, and way before our current Great Recession, things were going well. Lou’s stock of vinyl would bring people in from all over this area, and people coming from as far away as Arizona or Northern California would integrate a stop at his store into their trips to San Diego. In those days there was a huge inventory, covering everything from pop to hardcore to classic country to jazz and avant-garde. They had more floor space and more product, necessitating a larger staff; thirty-two employees at the peak. Now it’s down to five. I make a note in my notebook and circle it. Do not ask Lou for a job.
As for what he stocks now, Lou says, “In general, we stock what we think we can sell.” This consists of a lot of hit rock and classic artists like The Doors and The Beatles. They also do consignments for local artists, providing a good way for local music to be discovered. As of this writing, I have two of my CDs there.
I ask Lou what’s driving him to carry on the fight to stay in business. He says he is motivated by the challenge of making the store successful again. He also loves his employees and considers them like family. “Everyone is trying their hardest to make it work and to make sure the best possible product is on the floor,” he says. Trying to be naively helpful, I ask Lou what kind of promotional activities and advertising the store is doing. He says that, unfortunately, other than their Facebook and the website, they aren’t really doing any advertising; they can’t afford it. The last radio promotion they did was with KPRI for “vinyl days”, with the station playing records on-air borrowed from Lou’s inventory.
Then I ask Lou about the most frustrating parts of his job. He says that operating a business in survival mode is stressful and watching revenue decline over time has been very frustrating. It is heartbreaking turning people away because the record they are looking for was not stocked due to reduced inventory. The theme of struggle is even more apparent when he says that everywhere in music things are changing. Big box stores drive prices down, sometimes selling new pop releases below cost. Many indie artists will just give their music away to try to build a fan base (yup, sounds familiar to me), but established artists who are dependent on the old model rely on record sales. And, more and more, those sales are going to Apple or Amazon. None of these facts helps the indie record store.
As someone who is also in business for myself in a time when the music market is changing so drastically, I begin to wonder if there is a value inherent to record stores that is being lost on the internet generation: They who may callously remark, “Tough, that’s capitalism at work,” as they stream library after library of music from the cloud. I will admit that I rarely shopped at indie record stores growing up in the days before iTunes, instead grabbing my CDs from The Wherehouse or those crack-dealing BMG and Columbia House clubs (the first 12 for a penny, remember?) Now, as an independent musician, I am feeling guilty for not supporting independent stores and I’m hoping I’m not carrying some sort of musical karmic debt around with me. Just in case, though, I thought I should make a case for the value of the indie music store, apart from simply wanting to support a local business over a multinational corporation, as I am often inspired to do.
First, I recognize that employees of record stores can be experts on the current body of popular music. Some may have strong preferences, to the point of being accused of music snobbery (reminding me of the 90s-must-movie High Fidelity), but a recommendation from a person always means more to me than a recommendation from Pandora. I know that I would be more likely to buy and spend serious time with a record when I have a personal endorsement. Usually friends and significant others can fill that role for us, but why not add someone who listens to records for a living to our list of sources?
Second, I do think the experience of browsing in a record store is unique. I would say that poring through racks of physical albums, big-name artists side by side with lesser-knowns, gives one a sense that there is a discovery being made. We are not just collecting with our mouse clicks, but with our whole person. This allows us to appreciate the album as a work of art, incorporating all of our senses. It’s especially true for vinyl, where the album cover is an integral part of the experience. Speaking of vinyl…
Lou and I discuss the importance of the vinyl niche in keeping the local record store alive. Though I don’t own a record player, I tell Lou that I remember dropping the needle on the Sesame Street birthday album over and over on my parents’ turntable, and I get the difference in the listening experience. With vinyl, listening is an activity in itself. It is not office background music. It’s not for our commutes. It’s something done in the home environment and it puts the music, and some would say, the vibe it creates, at the forefront of our consciousness. I would venture to say that vinyl enthusiasts have a different relationship with albums and artists than those amassing thousands of songs on an iPod.
Of course, new and used vinyl records are now available online. Like I said, Lou even uses online channels to sell extra inventory. But because vinyl is such a tactile and active experience of music, it’s the vinyl geeks that are most likely to browse and discover at the record store. Therefore, Lou expects vinyl will eventually outsell CDs at the store. And if the vinyl trend continues to grow, it could be the saving grace for his business. But right now it’s a waiting game. The big question is what will happen when the economy starts to pick back up again. Then Lou’s Records will truly know where it stands. Has the market for record stores really gone away, or will people start shopping for their recorded music in person again?
As we wrap up, I realize I probably won’t be working in a record store, unless it’s as a volunteer. I’m sure that, like Lou’s Records, most of the stores are in survival mode at this point. But I do now have an intention to visit when I’m in the Encinitas area and pick up a used CD or two. I ask Lou if there is anything else he wants to say. He raises his voice, as if trying to be heard over an invisible crowd: “SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL INDEPENDENT MUSIC STORE!”
434 N Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas, CA 92024