Like a good Shakespearean drama, vinyl records have gone from royalty to pariah and back to the throne over the past half-century. According to the Record Industry Association of America, vinyl sales have grown for 15 consecutive years, with 2021 revenues increasing by 61% to $1 billion.
In a music-rich city like Asheville, it’s only fitting that multiple businesses specializing in wax have become fixtures around town. Since 2004, Harvest Records in West Asheville has set the standard for record stores, carrying vinyl from its inception, despite CDs initially carrying the bulk of its sales.
“I’m honestly not sure how much thoughtful intention was put into it,” says co-owner Mark Capon, who notes that he and co-owner Matt Schnable simply followed their instincts and interest. “We’ve always just passively fostered it, I suppose. We never sat in an office and thought, ‘How can we create vinyl addicts?’ We just kept it as available, interesting and affordable as we could.”
Meanwhile, in the River Arts District, the family-owned Records in the RAD launched in April. Led by Susan and Brian Haynes, along with their son, Dylan, the three are no strangers to the industry or the area. The elder Hayneses ran the downtown record store, Almost Blue, 1994-2004. Furthermore, they live in the River Arts District.
“We’re also big fans and friends of Wedge Brewing [Co.], and it turns out many beer lovers are also music lovers,” Brian Haynes says.
Like Records in the RAD, Citizen Vinyl is also relatively new, having opened downtown in October 2020. In addition to its in-house record store, Coda, Citizen Vinyl’s in-house record press gives the business distinct advantages over its industry peers.
“We’re able to partner directly with local artists, and we’ve even come up with some creative collaborations for folks who want to make their own compilation records,” says producer Cass Herrington. “Our CEO, Gar Ragland, is also very proud of vinylkey, which is an NFT tag embedded in a record to show proof of ownership and offers artists continued revenue, even if the album is later resold.”
Lifting the proverbial needle from their curation and customer-service duties, Capon, Brian Haynes and Herrington spoke with Xpress about their roles in the local industry and their efforts to satisfy a hungry, music-loving community.
Xpress: What misconceptions do people have about record stores?
Capon: I grew up with the cliché stereotype of the pretentious record-store clerk, looking down their nose at your selections with a scoff. Sometimes I wonder if that idea is so old that it’s now obsolete, or if people still feel that way and are still bracing for it when they come into Harvest. My hope — and one of our goals from day one — is that they don’t; that they feel welcome to buy or peruse or talk about any music they like. I believe both Matt and I have mostly embodied that, and our staff even more so. We’ve just always tried to foster that in our culture. And the truth is, music is literally subjective. There is no good, there is no bad — it all just is.
Haynes: Whatever the misconceptions are, good customer service goes a long way toward alleviating that.
Herrington: If there are any stigmas about record stores, I haven’t heard any. I pretty much survived high school thanks to the hours I spent at [the shop] ear X-tacy in Louisville after class let out. I’ve only experienced a sense of belonging — from the gritty, death-themed shops in Savannah to the crisp wooden bins lined up at Coda. Our intention is to be welcoming, and our shop manager Kassie [Guimapang] does an excellent job at making visitors feel valued.
What trends — both positive and negative — are you seeing in vinyl over the past few years?
Herrington: On the positive: The return to vinyl, period. The growing share of vinyl consumers grew up in a digital world, with iPhones and streaming music platforms at their fingertips. Of course, sound quality has a lot to do with vinyl’s resurgence. But I think it speaks to something deeper, particularly since [the music industry] saw record sales outpace CD sales during the pandemic for the first time in 30 years. To witness this cultural pivot back to something analog tells me that we’re discovering our limits when it comes to digital fatigue. Maybe I’m being hyperbolic or overly romantic, but it makes me feel hopeful about the future and a recognition that “newer” isn’t always “better.”
As far as negative trends, I’d say the production of cheap turntables that could potentially damage your prized record collection.
Haynes: The positive is that the resurgence in production of vinyl has led to a wider selection of music that has not been available in many years. The negative is that vinyl has become so popular that it is hard for production to keep up with sales, and it can become out of stock quickly.
Capon: Another positive trend is that there are more pressing plants now than there used to be. They’re popping up everywhere — including Asheville — and that feels like a good thing.
The most glaring downside I see with vinyl is its rising cost. It’s become prohibitively expensive for some people, and that will surely create a backlash toward the collection of it. We hate the idea of major labels catching wind in some boardroom that vinyl is “cool” again. Because what do they do? They jack the prices up. Go figure. It’s gross.
In what ways has your store been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Capon: Our main adjustment was becoming infinitely more engaged in our social media and other online outlets during a time that folks couldn’t make it in here. That seems like an obvious move which most businesses would make with or without a pandemic, but we can be a little slow sometimes. I think we just tried to up our game [in regard to] customer engagement. Before the pandemic, we would sit back and think, “It’s all good: People can come in and see what we have to offer” — which is true, but it doesn’t hurt to also put records in front of their eyeballs digitally.
And, obviously, the pandemic pushed people inward to explore and reengage with their home life experience. More people started buying records, and we’ve seen it. We’re busier than ever.
Haynes: It didn’t really play much of a role. The space that we wanted at the Wedge wasn’t even available until recently. While we had been contemplating the store during the pandemic, we really decided to do it when the space became available.
Herrington: We’ve accomplished a lot in just over a year. In addition to pressing thousands of records, we’ve hosted national acts, launched a podcast and added a third press to our factory. But just as it has for many in the hospitality and music industries, the pandemic humbled us from the very beginning. With that in mind, I’d say we’re most proud to still be growing and cultivating a community around music. That work is never-ending. We talk about creating something that will outlive all of us.
How do you stay current with music?
Capon: I’m always mining a wide array of sources, including but not limited to: discussions in the shop with our staff, discussions with customers, emails we get from record labels and distributors every day, music blogs, social media, the radio. I’ve always got my antennas up.
Herrington: There is no better way to discover a new artist than by listening. Around Citizen Vinyl, we call it “a sacred act.” If I read an article or review of an album that catches my eye, I add it to my running list of artists to check out in my notebook. I listen to what my favorite musicians are listening to. I also listen to what musicians I don’t necessarily like are listening to. I have a soft spot for musicians who are creating new sounds and genres of their own. I think the less we define musical tastes in terms of genre, the more we open ourselves up to that gratifying feeling of finding a new record artist we enjoy.
Haynes: While staying current can sometimes be challenging, we are a multigenerational, family-owned business with each person bringing their own taste and knowledge to the mix. We also make a point of reaching out to customers for input concerning artists that we may not yet be aware of to add to our inventory.
How do you approach representing local artists and how does stocking their vinyl compare with doing the same for nationally touring acts?
Herrington: We like to have a healthy mix. We’re keeping tabs on what’s going on locally and place these acts next to bigger names. Rising tides lift all boats.
Capon: Any local act with any type of release can bring in a copy or two, and we’ll put it on consignment. We have “Local” sections for CDs and vinyl, and whenever we particularly love a local record, you can bet we’re gonna push it far and wide, whether that’s visibly displaying it more thoughtfully in here or recommending it online or just telling out-of-town customers what’s hot in the Asheville music scene. It doesn’t always happen, but a handful of local acts — Wednesday, Indigo De Souza, MJ Lenderman — sell as well as anything else in our store.
Haynes: We have always, as a family and as a store, believed that supporting local musicians is an important part of being a record store. Asheville is home to an amazing volume of musical talent, and we want that talent well represented in our shop. We are attempting to reach out to all local artists who have produced vinyl and are growing our selection daily. Our goal is to be a store where a good representation of local artists can be found.
Is there a camaraderie among local vinyl stores, or does everyone operate independently and without much overlap or communication?
Haynes: There are many fantastic record stores in Asheville, and each of them have their own distinctive qualities, and I hope the same can be said for our shop. We have always felt a bond with other record store owners, and with Asheville being home to so many music enthusiasts, there are enough clientele for each of us to prosper.
Herrington: The more record stores there are, the more record stores there are. We benefit from each other, though we’re not dependent on each other. Our friends at Harvest have definitely helped us build our library — and on a personal level, you can find me digging in bins all over town.
Capon: We’ve never felt any sort of heated competition with other stores in Asheville. We send folks to other stores when they’re wondering where else to get some quality wax. But honestly, we should probably communicate more with our fellow shops. Maybe we could have monthly get-togethers to complain about how certain distributors send confusing invoices, or how Joni Mitchell’s Blue has been out of print for too long or whatever.