On a recent Saturday afternoon, when clouds climb over the mountains and spit a little rain every half hour or so, Harvest Records teems with customers — customers who don't come in just to consume, but who seek safe haven among fellow fans, freaks and collectors. They hang out (oftentimes for hours), shoot the breeze, dig the current art exhibit pasted to the walls and probe co-owners Matt Schnable and Mark Capon for possible recommendations.
Their knowledge is needed. For five years, Capon and Schnable have stuffed the place with all manner of rare and exotic treats: the latest indie rock, boxed sets full of archaic mountain folk and blues, esoteric psychedelia from around the planet, experimental noise, vintage free jazz and tons of new vinyl albums, which have oh-so-quietly broken out of the underground in recent years.
"Yesterday we did double the amount of new vinyl sales that we did new CDs," Schnable says. "That's a first."
So yeah, Harvest isn't exactly Coconuts.
In addition to looking after their patrons, Capon and Schnable are busy unpacking two boxes of product and stocking yet another newly handcrafted record shelf, now their fifth. On top of all this, these dudes are somehow finding time to work with their friend Liz Harrison. She sits behind the counter computer, designing a sponsor sheet for Transfigurations, a three-day, 16-band celebration of Harvest's five-year anniversary. Already generating serious buzz around the country, the festival is the duo's biggest undertaking to date.
That said, Transfigurations is more than just a killer birthday party. "It's about us paying off the $70,000 loan we took out to open this store," Capon says. "Five years was always the goal in terms of getting clear of debt."
"There are no more loan payments," his partner adds, looking more satisfied than a cat napping in the late-morning sun. "We own everything in the shop."
This everything of which Schnable speaks is a selection of music that's choice enough and unique enough to earn the store honorable mention in Spin magazine's recent article, "America's 15 Best Indie Record Stores." Harvest, according to editors Abigail Everdell and Charles Aaron, rivals "any big-city shop."
To put Capon and Schnable's accomplishments into perspective, as well as appreciate Harvest's everyday vibrancy, kindly Google the queries "record stores closing" and "record sales down"; both will return endless lists of articles and essays documenting the mass extinction of the American record store, both corporate and independent. You'll also get to examine several graphs charting the decline of CD sales, many of which claim between a 16 and 25 percent drop since the beginning of the millennium.
Because stats are abstract, let's ground them in a little anecdotal evidence. A couple decades ago, back when college towns and medium-sized cities across this country boasted their own funky, little independent record stores, Harvest's success wouldn't have seemed like such an anomaly. "Unfortunately, those days are long gone," counters Amy Stevens, a hardcore record nerd who adores Capon and Schnable. For years now, Stevens has been road tripping between her family's vacation home in Maggie Valley and Kalamazoo, Mich., where she and her husband Scott co-managed Flipside, that city's equivalent to Harvest back in the 1980s and '90s. Those long, circuitous drives used to entail regular stops at a string of local record shops. But not any longer. "A hollow remnant remains here and there," she says. "But it's pretty much a sad, desolate scene."
The Recording Industry Association of America would have us believe (for reasons that are too tangled and contentious for this little article to tackle) that illegal downloading is the primary culprit behind the music industry's sorry-ass state — that and our dismal economy. But while stealing music should not be taken lightly — even when the music in question is string of 1s and Os produced by billionaire blowhards like Metallica — there is more to the story than just online theft.
It's the Internet itself that's the issue.
"We are basically witnessing the death of the music industry as we know it," explains Harvest habitué Greg Lyon. A longtime radio disc jockey and trustee at Princeton University's WPRB, Lyon currently spearheads Asheville Free Media, a community-driven Internet radio station. "There are three big forces at work," he says. "First off, downloading and the iPod have shifted listening habits away from the traditional album. Secondly, the retail sector has died off as media has become available cheaply on the Internet. And thirdly, people now find out about music mostly online, so that's where they go to get it, too."
In other words, the world's century-old infrastructure for producing, distributing, selling and consuming music is more or less crumbling like a fine Gorgonzola. The music collection of the now is no longer a wall of multitiered CD racks. It's a tidy row of external hard drives full of playlists, with a custom-built case of rare and limited-edition vinyl off to the side.
Call them old-fashioned, but Capon and Schnable still worship the sound artifact. "For our generation, it's hard to fathom not having that object," Capon says. "And for the newer generation, it's hard to fathom buying a CD off a rack."
Even more endearing is the social dimension to the record store. Just about everyone interviewed for this article, the Harvest boys included, turns intensely nostalgic when reminiscing about that one all-time favorite shop from his or her youth. Most of the talk revolves not around music, but the experiential stuff: making friends, having laughs, learning of new jams, debating the top 10 proto-punk albums of the mid 1970s.
Those are things you just can't get hanging around the house in your skivvies browsing iTunes.
Grounded like turnips
James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., is where Schnable, a native Virginian, and Capon, who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., met in the early aughts. "We were involved in the college radio station WXJM," says Schnable, as he sifts through a fat sack of used CDs. (The kid selling them needs to generate some extra scratch for a move to the Bay Area.)
"The radio station puts together this festival every year called the Mid-Atlantic College Radio Conference," he says. "We were on that committee. That's where we started getting pretty tight."
MACRoCk, as it's commonly called, served as a get-your-asses-whipped boot camp for the two music-obsessed students, who were quickly becoming best buds. In the months leading up to the conference, they lost their music industry cherries by spending countless, and likely thankless, hours wheeling 'n' dealing with too many bookers, promoters, club owners, musicians and managers from around the country.
It was a pivotal experience in Harvest's development. Right from its earliest inception, the summer between their junior and senior years, Capon and Schnable's vision entailed far more than just a record store. They planned to create a hydra-headed brand also encompassing show promotion, art exhibitions and multivendor record fairs (aka the Asheville Sound Swap).
This they've done. Harvest is like a tiny entertainment conglomerate, a mark of quality behind which one cool endeavor helps reinforce the cultural import and media visibility of the others. It's a big reason why Schnable and Capon succeed in these desperate times. "The money from the store doesn't go into our pockets," Schnable says. "It keeps the art openings alive. It keeps shows coming to town. Someone spends a dollar at our shop, and it's going to come back to him in some kind of culturally viable way."
Since opening its doors in August 2004, Harvest has brought an insane amount of top-shelf talent to this town: Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Band of Horses, Cat Power, Deerhoof, MGMT, Joanna Newsom, Sharon Jones, Earth, Jack Rose and about 200 other artists, hipsters, mavericks and bands who probably wouldn't be visiting our little mountain paradise were it not for these two characters.
As we rap about their days at James Madison, I envision them spending late nights waxing philosophic about The Ultimate Record Store while smoking doobs and staring at the stars over the Shenandoah Valley. But reality is far less romantic. The more you get to know Capon and Schnable, the more it's apparent they're as grounded as a row of fully matured turnips.
Here's what I mean by that:
What did their parents think of their decision to relocate to Asheville in 2004 to open Harvest? Both claim disapproval. "Our parents are totally, normal, nice and reasonable," says Capon, whose father, Richard, is also their accountant. "But I know mine had reservations. There were a few arguments, a few blowouts."
"Mine went to college, graduated and became school teachers, so it was The Plan," adds Schnable. "They were freaked out for sure. It took a couple years before they were not stressed all the time, but now they're super proud."
Two 20-something kids not following in their parents' professional footsteps and instead opening an independent record store specializing in left-of-the-dial sounds is, in some sense, a rejection of their middle-class backgrounds — of The Plan. At the same time, Schnable and Capon are hardcore middle class when it comes to business. They are sharp, meticulous and pragmatic. Listening to them talk shop about how they chose Asheville, how they scoured the city for a location and how they found this building is like reading a success story ripped from the American Dream's Official Handbook: Success is predicated upon earning a college degree. Working hard. Saving money. Living frugally. Building good credit. Making sound business decisions. And paying off your debts in a timely fashion. Amen.
These two even headed on over to A-B Tech and put together a business plan in hopes of securing that $70,000 bank loan. "We met with this guy Harry Ponder," says Schnable, referring to the director of the school's Small Business Center at the time. "He'd give us guidelines and advice. Then we'd go back for more."
Now it's been my experience that establishments specializing in alternative culture — record stores, anarchist book shops, DIY music labels, experimental theater troupes, etc. — are sometimes owned by individuals who don't make the most, how shall we say, informed business decisions. Possible explanation for this: These folks consider themselves way too underground, too punk, too hippie, to learn how to turn a profit in the marketplace. That stuff, as so many of them tend to believe, is for mainstream squares and capitalist drones.
Capon and Schnable didn't fall into this trap. Sure, they dig a lot of music, art and literature that a large chunk of the population would think is weird and strange. And yes, Matt is a bit of a cosmic longhair at first blush. But these two possess a solid feel for how the game is played. In order for a business to work, be it a store full of oddball sounds or your neighborhood florist, the rules of commerce and finance, however lame, have to be understood and engaged, especially in the current economy.
Who knows — maybe this knowledge has made the difference between Harvest staying in business for five years instead of two.
"We are a counter culture"
Asheville deserves some serious props here. This town obviously loves its music. In addition to Harvest, we can boast of three other independent record stores: Voltage Records, Karmasonics and Static Age Records. That last place is owned and operated by Joel Hutcheson, who says, "If there is a difference in how many record-store consumers there are in Asheville as opposed to other places, I would credit it to the fact that Asheville likes to be turned on. We are a counter culture."
Capon concurs. Whenever a customer mentions the Spin article or some big-city musician passing through town says to him, "Man, I can't believe your record store even exists," he invariably passes the credit on to Asheville.
"Although it did take some time to build this place up — the first year was kind of rough — it seemed like there were a certain amount of people kind of waiting for something like Harvest," he says. "Our success is a reflection of how great this town is for supporting small business and for being filled with strange and interesting people. This store could not survive in any other city this size, let alone tons of other cities bigger than this one."
A little food for thought: No one can predict how the radical changes within the music industry will affect Asheville in the coming years. Will we plunge into the future and abandon the sound artifact altogether? Or stubbornly clutch it to our breasts, with all the conviction of an organic farmer who stands by thousand-year-old methods?
Regardless of how things shake out, Schnable and Capon are good at what they do. Savvy, too. And they stand more than a puncher's chance at making it to Transfigurations 2.0.
[Justin Farrar is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Seattle Weekly, Rhapsody.com and many other publications.]