Record Store Day’s Chris Brown Discusses Origins of the Vinyl Holiday
Over the last several years, we have loved seeing the resurgence of vinyl take place across the United States. From Third Man Records becoming a musical institution to Amoeba Records opening an annex of sorts in New York City, there’s no questioning that more and more people are gravitating to the experience that surrounds vinyl.
Looking back on history, for many fans, vinyl never really disappeared — but in the last six, seven, eight years, there’s no question that the format is enjoying a revitalization. We think it’s safe to say that we should applaud the advent of Record Store Day for that happening.
As we gear up for this year’s edition of Record Store Day Black Friday (Nov. 28), we felt like it was time to actually learn a thing or two about RSD — so, we decided to go to the man who started it all: Bull Moose‘s own Chris Brown. Check out our exclusive interview below:
For the uninitiated, before we jump into all things Record Store Day, can you give readers a bit of background on Bull Moose?
I got involved at Bull Moose when I was pumping a keg at a party. A guy came up to me and we were just chatting. It was a summer thing, you know? I was like 20 and we started talking about summer jobs. He told me he was opening a CD store and I didn’t believe him — but a friend confirmed it and I guess he came to this party looking for free labor. [Laughs] You know, that’s something I wanted to be involved in, so I just started, I helped carry CDs around, load them into trucks, you know, just craziness. About a month after he started, he brought me on as an actual employee. I worked on and off during college, then left Maine for a bit, and now have been back since 1996. That’s kind of the story. Bull Moose was founded by a guy who was one year ahead of me in college. He ran the store and somehow managed to graduate!
And now how many locations are there?
Eleven! I do the marketing and website and finances, those are my three areas.
So where does Record Store Day come into play in your history?
The pre-history to Record Store Day started in the mid-‘90s. Record stores started getting grouped into coalitions and then in the early 2000s, the three main coalitions started working together on special projects. So in 2007, I tossed out the idea — we already had this history of record stores collaborating together. Nothing as big as Record Store Day, but we definitely had developed a trust among each other. If you remember what things were like then, there was just a lot of bad press about the music industry.
But the experience at independent stores was really different. We were thriving, we were growing and selling more music every year. We kept hearing from our customers about how they were reading about music stores going out of business. There was this concern that we might not be there for them in six months. The folks at the record labels were panicking. I felt like we needed to put something together that would, first of all, be really fun for our loyal customers who kept us thriving, and two, make a statement to everybody else who doesn’t know that things are great and there is this sector that’s just kicking ass. That was partly something to speak to within the music industry, but this was for the public, too.
We wanted to let people know that great store in your town would be there as long as you want it to be. That sort of thing. At the time, I was the chairman of the board of one of those coalitions, so I mentioned it to one of the employees and he said one of the other coalitions would be in with us as well as some of the larger, non-affiliated indie shops. In early September 2007, he pretty much had it all sewn up. We had at least 200 store fronts we knew would do it. We just had to get in one place and have everyone say yes. The challenge then came with trying to get with the smaller indies that were off our radar. A few hundred more of them signed up. So, by the first one in April 2008, we had a lot of stores participating. We surprised everyone. It was successful and everyone felt great.
Did you ever think it would grow into what it is today?
I think we hoped. At first I thought it would just be an independent thing, like only working with indie labels. We thought we could grow it to the point where Guided by Voices might want to make a special piece for us — they were who I was thinking of. Metallica, U2, the Beatles? No. No way. I thought it would be more about in-store events, too. You know, I figured we would just get with labels and have bands perform at whatever record store they’re near at the time.
So, yes and no. We hoped we could build it to a point where larger artists would want to get involved, but like, Metallica did a signing at the first one in San Francisco — that just blew us away. When we heard we were on Ani DiFranco’s radar, that was a big deal because she hadn’t done an in-store in 20 years or something. That was just never part of her thing. She was the top, truly independent artist. Now, she’s not as well-known, but in the mid-2000s she was huge and such an inspiration for us. We thought it would take longer than it did.
What are you most proud of as you look back on the history of Record Store Day?
There are so many things. I think the biggest surprise was how many small stores there were in the country. Nobody had any idea. What Record Store Day did was pull out some of these used record stores back into the world of selling new music and inspired a lot of people to start their own record stores. What we’ve got now is the beginning of the next wave of what physical retail is going to look like. We’ve got this new generation of stores coming up. That’s one of the coolest things.
Besides Bull Moose, do you have any stores that stand out to you as part of that new generation?
Zia Records in Arizona and Nevada — I’ve been in a few of their locations and they’re all great. Even if you just look at their emails, their website, everything looks fantastic. I like Dimple in Sacramento a lot. What I like about those stores is they just look vibrant and they’re pushing hard to figure out what is cool. They experiment with things and try to move forward. When you go into either of those chains, I always get a really fantastic energy from the customers or the staff. They’re working but having fun. I like those stores. Then on the other side, I stumbled on Off Center Records in Utica, N.Y., which it’s completely different than Dimple and Zia. They weren’t selling online at the time, so they had a lot of good stuff on their racks. So, you know, that covers both ends.
Yeah, there’s definitely something special about going into an exclusively vinyl shop — but stores like Bull Moose or Amoeba that sell movies, video games, whatever, there is so much going on.
Yeah, that’s exactly it. Younger people who have no interest in CDs, you know, they went straight to records, but they’re also buying video games from us. They were doing that before they ever bought records. You know, that energy, it’s just youth. [Laughs]
Do you think the vinyl resurgence is because of Record Store Day?
I think it contributed to it. The reason why Record Store Day worked, though, was that it was the right time for it. We weren’t even thinking specifically vinyl, it just kind of worked out that way. That wasn’t necessarily the original plan. The wave was coming and we just got a little bit in front of it and surfed the whole way. I think it helped, but I think it would’ve happened anyway, maybe it just would’ve taken a little longer. The thing is, when you have CBS Morning News and USA Today talking about records, because of Record Store Day, then everything else can kind of follow behind that. It just puts it out there. One of the things that made Record Store Day work is that thousands of people wanted to get involved. Every record company wants to do something, a lot of artists want to do something. Everyone wants to be a part of it.
And not just the labels and and bands, but the fans want to be a part of it, too. When you’re standing in line with total strangers, but you’re all gushing over music, it’s cool. It’s special.
Yeah, is it almost because you know everyone in line with you has something seriously in common with you?
Yeah, I think that’s definitely part of it. I camped out this past April at Rough Trade in Brooklyn. I think I was the only person in line who really, really wanted ‘The Folk Box.’ That was my No. 1 thing. But even though I was the only person who cared about it — and the other people in line had items on their wishlist that I never would’ve thought about buying — we all connected on this one thing: music. And with Record Store Day, it also promotes that sense of community — we’re all from the same town supporting a local shop.
That’s cool. That is so cool.
Do you ever see Record Store Day expanding from indie stores? So many other businesses sell vinyl now — you can find it at Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters. I’d be shocked if Starbucks didn’t get in the game. And there are definitely relationships being built; Third Man Records did something with Urban Outfitters, and so did Amoeba.
We’d have to redefine what Record Store Day is. We set up criteria originally that has to do with ownership structure, you know, actually being an independent business, as well as floor space dedicated to music. We’d really have to change our idea of what a record store is. It’s about the store, it’s not about the product. It’s the experience. What you’re talking about is some other kind of store that happens to sell records. [Bull Moose] sells comics, but we don’t call ourselves a comic book store because it’s just one rack. It would probably change the day so much that it would just be something else. It would be different, that’s all.
That makes sense. And yeah, you’re right, Record Store Day is about the record store. I’m proud that I stood in line at Rough Trade — it’s become one of my favorite spots in New York City. I’m proud to have grown up going to Love Garden in Lawrence, Kansas or to call Mills Record Company my new favorite store in the Midwest.
Exactly. And don’t get me wrong, anyone who sells music in anyway that they do — having record companies invested in keeping bands alive and making songs — that’s cool, you know?
Two final questions: What’s your favorite record, and what’s your white whale?
Wow. OK, wow. You know, the favorite record can shift, but … [Pauses] I’m not sure what it is today. I think it’s probably ‘Octopus’ by Gentle Giant. I own more copies of it than anything else. I buy it every time it’s remastered. [Laughs] Whatever, you know, that whole thing, I get excited about the European pressing or the cover that’s different. Records, CDs, whatever. The white whale, the thing I’d be searching for, I think nothing would make me happier — I’m going to limit this to records that actually exist that you could find — I’d love to get the ‘Popeye’ soundtrack, the soundtrack to the movie. I’d love to have that. [Laughs] Yeah, it’s really cool.
Good answer, man.
After performing on classical and punk rock records and collecting many more, Chris Brown settled into a career at Bull Moose, an eleven-store music, movie, video game, and book store chain based in Portland, Maine. He proposed Record Store Day in 2007 and is disappointed when he sees records sold as fashion accessories.
Record Store Day Black Friday takes place on Nov. 28. You can check out all the releases here, and if you’re curious what stores are participating across the country, head over to RSD’s official website for a complete rundown.