Music

Vegas record stores new and old stoke the vinyl revival

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Downtown sound: Ronald Corso is expecting a crowd at 11th Street Records.
Photo: Spencer Burton

It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday, and there’s nowhere to park at Zia Record Exchange on West Sahara Avenue. For once, blame doesn’t lie with the heavy brunch crowd at the nearby Egg & I. The line is actually in front of Zia—long enough to require a break for the driveway, as cars are still entering the lot, drivers surely wondering if arriving an hour before opening wasn’t early enough.

The line isn’t for One Direction’s latest or some touring band’s in-store performance, and the Christmas shopping season is eight months away. It’s Record Store Day 2014, the music industry’s promotional holiday to encourage the patronage of independent retailers and the purchase of limited-edition product not available at big-chain stores or online (eBay notwithstanding). And that RSD product is almost exclusively vinyl.

Zia Records

After laying down some ground rules, a Zia manager opens the door and the line briskly files inside. It’s a remarkably polite feeding frenzy, numerous bodies flipping through about a dozen boxes up front, scanning specially marked endcaps and passing platters to later-arriving patrons. Even more surreal: the intermingling of those buying a stack of wax for the very first time with those more than twice their age doing the same—and reliving their own childhoods, when vinyl was king.

It hasn’t reclaimed its throne as the dominant format for music listening and recording; that ship has likely sailed in the digital era, but don’t tell that to vinyl’s rapidly increasing fanbase.

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Vinyl has always maintained a loyal following, especially in the underground and among classic rock and jazz enthusiasts. In the 1990s, as mainstream record stores phased out their wax inventory, Pearl Jam was giving out 7-inch records—the preferred recording format of the punk-rock scene—to its fan club. Turntablists like DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist and even the late DJ AM turned a new generation on to the merits of the commercially bygone format—and the roots of hip-hop. The White Stripes, like many indie-rock bands, released all of their singles and albums on the format, and now Jack White’s Third Man Records headquarters in Nashville is a Mecca for vinyl enthusiasts. The Roots’ drummer Questlove is famous for his 70,000-strong record collection, which provides the soundtrack to his Bowl Train parties at Brooklyn Bowl.

Record City

But vinyl’s popularity of late—fueled by a younger generation intrigued by the novelty of tangible music, fatigue with the MP3 sound, nostalgia among those who grew up with records, cultural momentum, savvy marketing, artist support, vinyl’s high market value (typically, a new or used record sells for $10 more than its CD equivalent) and the possible guilt of rampant unpaid downloading—has turned it into the lone success story of the record industry.

Not only does nearly every new album include a vinyl option, but some releases, especially on Record Store Day, can only be obtained on wax. As such, RSD is considered second to Christmas in terms of financial windfalls for independent record shops, which sweated through the rise of downloads and the precipitous decline of CD sales over the past decade.

And during that same period of time, new vinyl record sales have increased a staggering 900 percent, pushing what few pressing plants exist to churn out product 24 hours a day even as general new album sales have tumbled by more than half. Last year, retailers—from brick-and-mortars like Zia to online outlets like Amazon to corporate chains like Hot Topic and, of all places, Whole Foods—moved over 9 million platters, up more than 50 percent from 2013. Jack White’s Lazaretto was last year’s best-selling vinyl title. Indie icon Sufjan Stevens’ just-released Carrie & Lowell topped Amazon’s vinyl sales chart, knocking down the previous (and frequent) No. 1, Miles Davis’ jazz classic Kind of Blue. What year is this again?

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It certainly doesn’t look like 2015. Even though retail stats from Nielsen Music indicate physical sales were down 20 percent last year and that only two albums in CD format passed the million-unit sales mark (vinyl represented 6 percent of overall album sales), record shops are actually growing in Las Vegas.

On the rise: Moondog Records owner Clint McKean says “it’ll take time” for Vegas to become known for its vinyl.

On the rise: Moondog Records owner Clint McKean says “it’ll take time” for Vegas to become known for its vinyl.

Last week, vinyl-dominant Moondog Records on South Maryland Parkway celebrated its second anniversary. And this week sees the opening of 11th Street Records, the long-awaited music retailer affiliated with Downtown Project, whose music division sought out someone from the local scene with a bigger vision than a typical store or studio owner. It signed a contract with Ronald Corso, who has worked with Las Vegas acts as both a musician and the proprietor/producer of National Southwestern Recordings. He’s also a former teenage record-shop clerk who has remained a vinyl cheerleader.

“I love records,” he says. “Everything about them: the sound, the artwork, the smell … I’ve been fascinated with how they are made since I realized that fooling with the knobs on my parents’ stereo could make the vocals or the drums disappear on Beatles or Jimi Hendrix records.”

While the new vinyl generation may not be honing in on the technology quite so closely (many buying inexpensive Crosley turntables, widely derided by audiophiles), it is nonetheless making an experience of listening to albums, considered anathema to the recently established traditions of cherry-picking songs on iTunes or shuffling through tens of thousands of BitTorrent downloads. And those new to the vinyl party are also discovering an analog sound dynamic different from their MP3s and CDs. “I think things go in cycles,” Corso says. “Ten or 15 years ago, people were experimenting with the digital thing, and they found it lacking.”

His vinyl shop, on Fremont Street adjacent to the Bunkhouse’s outdoor hangout space, will not only forego CD sales (with the exception of those by local artists), but will have an analog recording studio and label operation in the back for musicians to make and distribute more tunes—which means it’s designed to foster development of the local music scene, a goal of both Corso and DTP. If there’s one demographic they’re hoping to lure into the complex, it’s musicians.

“This is just infrastructure,” Corso says. “[Las Vegas] is a singular place. I have to believe great music will come out of here.”

11th Street Records

11th Street Records

For the immediate future, the priority will be selling great music made elsewhere. 11th Street is slated to open on April 18—Record Store Day—but Corso won’t have the sought-after exclusives, as his shop was too new to earn certification by the organization behind RSD this year. Nonetheless, he won’t miss corralling the morning rush expected at Zia and Record City locations on Saturday morning. A record hound himself, he knows that both casual and serious vinyl fans will visit multiple stores that day, regardless of the rarities or discounts offered. They merely want to participate and spend time among the product. “The important part of a record store is being in a record store,” Corso says. “I want to slow down the experience. Flipping through the racks is a Zen-like activity for some people … so we’re maximizing that.” Among his strategies: He’ll organize every album alphabetically by its artist—only classical and compilations will have their own sections—to facilitate genre-blind discoveries. Customers can even use one of the house turntables to sample the stock.

And the store won’t emphasize expensive collector’s items—there will be plenty of relevant new vinyl and market-priced used chestnuts. You’ll be able to buy the latest Spoon album and John Coltrane reissue, as well as old records by Prince and The Who.

“I don’t want a museum,” Corso says. “I want people to buy the records.”

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11th Street Records joins a surprisingly crowded marketplace here. There are the aforementioned retail outlets, various thrift stores and antique malls, and chain stores like Urban Outfitters and Barnes & Noble, to say nothing of the vast world of Internet retail, from wax-specific online stores (like Popmarket and SoundStageDirect) to large commercial endeavors (Amazon and eBay) to the popular online vinyl community known as Discogs, where one can sell, buy, rate and discuss albums.

And then there’s Wax Trax Records, which has actually been called a museum and certainly looks the part with its estimated half-million records, umpteen music-related collectibles and two dozen or so used turntables. Owner Rich Rosen, a collector extraordinaire with countless found-treasure stories (and another 60,000 records in his personal collection), opened it in 1999 after moving his family and substantial record collection from Pennsylvania to Las Vegas. The move served him well, despite the digital revolution and the 2008 recession.

Wax Trax

Wax Trax

“Six years ago, business was slow, although I had been successful enough in my life that I could sustain,” Rosen says. “All of a sudden, it was like a bomb went off. It was really strange. What I picked to do with my life came back—but came back tenfold.”

That bomb was the vinyl revival, sending locals and tourists, longtime collectors and curious newbies to his three-story vinyl destination, loaded with records by lesser-known artists from the 1950s and 1960s—some of which I played on Rosen’s vintage AMI jukebox during a recent Wax Trax visit—multiple pressings of classic albums like Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, alternative gems like the Misfits’ 1982 debut Walk Among Us and mysterious discoveries that stump even Rosen. He hands me an old but mint-condition Johnny Cash 7-inch, “Oh Lonesome Me.” “I just found this,” Rosen says. “Nobody can tell me anything about it.”

Despite some collectors’ exasperation with his pricing policy, many local vinyl enthusiasts mention Rosen with a degree of reverence. In an ironic twist, his bad reviews on Yelp drew the attention of Elton John, who visited the store last month and raved about it on Instagram. Shortly after I finish interviewing Rosen, Elton John returns for his third visit in three weeks, the contents of his want list—heavy on soul, Elvis and The Beatles, including the hotly coveted uncensored version of the latter’s Yesterday and Today compilation, featuring the Fab Four holding doll parts and raw meat—already stacked neatly on the counter. Three days later, John invites Rosen and his family to his Colosseum show, thanking them by name mid-performance and vowing to return that weekend.

The superstar, of course, can easily afford what Rosen says is an expensive hobby. Naturally, he loves selling to serious, bargain-indifferent vinyl hounds—if he knows regulars’ tastes and spots something they might like, he’ll put it aside for them—and is less enthusiastic about the more fickle, casual vinyl enthusiasts. That said, he doesn’t mind giving advice to younger shoppers just getting their feet wet.

“I do two things,” Rosen says. “If they say, I want Kind of Blue, I will ask them, which variation? The six eye? The [cheaper] one with the regular swirl? I tell them this because I don’t want to take their money on the six-eye when I can give them the cheaper version. Then I’ll ask, why don’t you try Cal Tjader? Or why don’t you try this? You might like it—and you can sample it [first]. Sometimes it works if they have the money after buying the Miles Davis.”

Wax Trax

Wax Trax

Customers aren’t the only people Rosen is advising. “Rich and I have agreements,” says Clint McKean, owner of Moondog Records. “We try not to hurt one another. He helps me out with a lot of things. He knows so much—things that take years and years to learn.”

McKean’s choice inventory—quality over quantity, he maintains—suggests he’s already learned a lot. Moondog, like Wax Trax, sells recorded music in every format (except new vinyl), turntables and accessories and other musical wares. However, McKean devotes a larger percentage of his record bins to classic rock and New Wave/punk/metal. That would be a no-brainer for a University District music store, if only more students shopped there. Moondog’s location is actually more important for how close it is to the Strip. Asked about the hope of Las Vegas becoming a town known for its vinyl offerings, McKean says, “The tourists will keep it alive as long as there is vinyl,” adding that while there are some ardent local collectors who pass through his doors, he’s seen too many of them move elsewhere. “It’ll take time before we get there.”

Trying to gauge the future of his own customer base, Corso says he no longer thinks of Las Vegas as a city of 2 million. He thinks of it as a city of 40 million, including visitors. “Any time I go to a new city, I try to find a record store. If you can make it happen, you do it. I think there are a lot of people that travel here that do the same thing.”

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John Doe, the Downtown DJ behind retro wax party the Get Back who has been collecting records (roughly 15,000) for 26 years, doesn’t fixate on tourist competition in the stores, especially since he’s made friends and traded with hardcore vinyl collectors who were just passing through. His chief gripe about Vegas’ vintage wax scene is that it doesn’t offer enough from his main area of musical interest: 1960s and 1970s funk, soul, R&B and jazz.

“You run across more of those records now, but it’s still a lot of lounge singers and Sinatra and that’s not what I go after. If you went to another city with 2 million [people], you’d find a lot more of the records I’m looking for.”

Record City

That doesn’t deter Doe, who still shops for albums every single day, usually on his lunch break. Not for nothing are multiple pictures of him hanging on the Wax Trax walls. If he skips a day, he might hit four places the next day. Like Rosen and McKean and now Corso, he’s always on the prowl for new record sellers, knowing full well he must get to store and garage sales first or it’s likely too late. With the current wax trend comes more buyer competition, though for the guy who’s been making the case for vinyl’s role in local nightlife for over a decade, it’s hard for him to complain about diminished inventory.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Doe says. “A lot of kids are coming out [to the Get Back] because we’re known as a vinyl party. I might be getting less fruit from the trees out there, but people are coming and digging the music and the culture. I’d rather have it this way than have a ton of records I can easily get and no one gives a sh*t.

“I’m glad vinyl is really popular now,” he adds. “I hope it’s not a fad.”

That being said, don’t expect to see one of Las Vegas’ most renowned record collectors queuing up anywhere on April 18. For one, Doe doesn’t really buy new vinyl or reissues. Besides, given his vinyl-shopping regimen, he’ll be rummaging through the bins soon enough anyway.

“Record store day is every day for me.”

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Mike Prevatt

Mike started his journalism career at UCLA reviewing CDs and interviewing bands, less because he needed even more homework and ...

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