Terry Currier: A Coalition for Music Freedom
There is something almost sensual about the independent record store experience. Perhaps it's the element of discovery with each new find, or the common bond and passion shared with each other. Maybe it's the inspiration of hearing music that seems to arouse all the senses. Or perhaps it's the understanding that there is something more warm and soulful about music played from a treasured record than from a disposable downloaded file. Whatever it is, there is something magical that happens inside these music shrines.
It wasn't long ago that horror stories were being written and the corporates were running scared. Napster was on the horizon and Amazon was ready to kill. File sharing would shred the remains while nostalgia buried the dead. But they are still here and their fires burn deep. They are the independent record store owners, the gatekeepers of the music, the foundation of a community and culture. And they still believe that music can save the world.
Terry Currier is the independent record store owner of Portland's Music Millennium but he also initiated The Coalition of Independent Record Stores in 1995. I had the opportunity to talk with Terry about the coalition and discuss the history of the music industry along with the struggles and challenges facing the industry as we step further into the 21st century.
All About Jazz: If I remember correctly, you started the Coalition of Independent Music Stores.
Terry Currier: Yes, it was started in May of 1995 but it really all came together in 1992.
AAJ: What was the premise behind the coalition?
TC: Well, four or five music distribution companies came up with a list of policies and said that if a record store sold used CD's; they would not support the store with any advertising money. They felt that used CD's were the ruin of the industry. So even though only 5% of our business was in used CD's, the distribution companies were trying to tell us how to run our stores. And I felt it was unconstitutional. As a result, I wrote a letter explaining the unfairness of this policy to a hundred or so presidents and vice presidents of labels and distribution companies. I also wrote to the industry media and trade publications.
The arguing continued back and forth for about six months. I then found out that Garth Brooks said that he didn't want his new album being sold in any stores that sold used CD's. This is from the same guy that bragged that he had more money than any of his children or his grand children could ever spend. So after Garth made that statement, we pulled all our Garth Brooks CDs off of our shelves and wrote it up for return. On the following week, we staged a protest barbecue in our parking lot. We invited the public to come down and barbecue all of their Garth Brooks CDs, DVD's and posters on the grill and I called it the "Barbecue for Retail Freedom."
It turned it to be so successful that representatives from the media actually started showing up a week before the barbecue. And on the day of the barbecue, there were reps from radio stations, television stations and print publications. The parking lot looked like a presidential election and I was also asked to do a talk show in Seattle. As a result, I decided to take it on the road. We visited record stores from Bellingham, Washington to San Diego, California and staged barbecues in all of those towns. I spoke with many radio stations while country DJ's discussed the topic with rock DJ's and debated whether this was fair or not.
But through all of this, I met many retailers who shared many of the same common problems. Subsequently, I thought it would be a good idea to bring independent stores around the country together that were in non-competitive markets. I also found it could act as a catalyst for breaking in new records together while also being a support group for each other.
Additionally, at that same time, the big retailers were having price wars on the selling of new releases and most independent record stores were getting priced out of the market. They couldn't compete and sadly some went away. So I thought that this would be another reason to have this coalition. And even though at this time I wasn't having this problem in my market place, I just figured that unless the independents had a solid structure in place, the labels wouldn't include us in their future marketing plans. So in May of 1995, about twenty owners of independent music stores came together and formed the coalition.
AAJ: Did you ever hear back from any of the record company executives?
TC: Most of the record labels and distribution companies were afraid of commenting due to legalities. There were some comments within the media but it was also perceived as Terry Currier against the industry. But over the next six months, many other independents came out to support and some even started their own crusades. In addition, there was a group that initiated a class action lawsuit against the industry. And though I had planned on meeting with all of the distribution heads, the lawsuit prevented them from speaking with me without a lawyer being in the room.
However, I had already purchased an airline ticket to attend the Album Networks anniversary party and there were many industry folks there. And the main proponent of the used CD issue was a guy named Russ Bach who was the president of EMI Music Distribution. Well, he just happened to be at this event. We were introduced and all of a sudden it was just Russ Bach and I, face to face. Everyone stepped back and there was a circle of people surrounding us. We had a very civil conversation while explaining each of our reasonings.
Within a couple of weeks after our discussion, all of the policies regarding used CD's were rescinded and it was because of the barbecue. People magazine did a full page article. A country music station and MTV followed us and we had major coverage in the major newspapers. I also received a call from Good Morning America but this was about a week after the policies were rescinded.
Looking back, I remember calling up the owner of our company at that time, Don McCloud and I told him what I was going to do and he said, "Well, you know, you have my blessing but you can't beat city hall." (Both laugh).
AAJ: When the CD replaced the LP, the industry had to know that the consumer would eventually replace their album collections, and CD sales would then fall off.
TC: Well, the record industry hasn't always been very bright. In today's climate, they are only interested in how to make money right now. And this wasn't as true early on, but each one of the major distribution companies was also trying to come up with a new format that would interest the public enough to buy and replace their music all over again. Each one of them wanted to develop that new piece and get a patent on it. But that's also when it all started to get away from the passion of the music, and the 60s' and 70s were built on that passion.
Then MTV came along and discovered that a three to five minute video of a song and image on a television screen could make people into stars overnight. The motivation became strictly monetary and the industry moved away from the passion of the music. The bean counters took over.
Originally, cassette tapes were only capturing 25% of all music sales but when the Sony Walkman came along, cassette sales increased to 50%. And that happened over the course of just one year. Then the CD came along. They were sexy and attractive to the consumer and it became the first new thing since the walkman. People replaced their albums with CDs and quite a few people just dumped their entire vinyl collections. And in a very short time, the CD had overtaken sales of vinyl to where LP's were no longer being published with new releases.
AAJ: I believe that you are still turning vinyl.
TC: We never did get out of the vinyl business though some stores did. The national chain stores dropped vinyl around 1988 because they just didn't want to add a third format into their stores. They didn't have the floor space nor did they want to pay more for it. So the major record companies told the chains that vinyl was going away and that the CD was going to replace it. And that's when we really saw the major change happen. The large chains got rid of their vinyl selections and brought in the CD. So in a way, it was really forced on the consumer.
AAJ: So what are the independents doing today?
TC: The reality is that record stores are trying to succeed in a declining sales mode. The large chains are closing and despite the fact that downloading is increasing, the economy hasn't helped either. But there are always going to be a lot of record stores. They are going to keep fighting because they are passionate about the music.
Three years ago, some record stores developed a national Record Store Day. It was developed from the concept utilized for national Comic Book Day that was developed amongst comic book dealers. They would have specific and special comic books developed for one particular day of the year. And through it all, it brought some awareness that there are still comic book stores out there. Out of this, the independent record stores developed Record Store Day.
On the first Record Store Day, many labels developed unique releases that only came out on that one day and it brought a lot of customers into the store. There was a lot of media attention and the reason there was a Record Store Day was because we were really getting tired of all of the death stories that record stores were going away. And even though they were declining and some were going out of business, there was still a good healthy market place of independent record stores. And we wanted to get the story across to the public.
AAJ: Do you see a new format on the horizon that could possibly replace the CD?
TC: There is the Blue Ray audio disc but there really hasn't been anything new that anyone has come up with. And unfortunately, many of these new formats just confuse the consumer. It took awhile to educate the consumer on the CD and then right away new formats were being developed to replace it such as with Super Audio CD and Dual Disc. It was just too soon and the consumer turned their nose up at all of that.
But something that was really important throughout the 70s was in trying to capture better sound. And with vinyl, you could accomplish this through hardware. When CD's came out, the consumer was told that CD's had a better sound and that was one of their selling points. But in actuality, a lot of those CD's had inferior sound. And the reason that CD's had better sound to some people is because their records were not taken care of very well and they had a lot of scratches. But there also wasn't anything being done to enhance the sound when it was being transferred to CD. It wasn't until people started recording digitally that it transferred well over to CD, or until there was good re-mastering being done by the right person. But there has always been a quest to get better sound.
But if there was the right format today, would people come back from file sharing to a physical piece of product? It's a possibility. But for a lot of the people that are into digital delivery, it's also the only format they have ever known so it would be very difficult to get them to change. But there may be a way to have those that grew up with the CD and vinyl to come back to a more physical product.
AAJ: What is your opinion of the quality of the music that is being produced through file sharing?
TC: It's an inferior sound quality but when digital came out in the very beginning, it was all free. And there is something about consumers accepting a lesser quality of goods when it's free.
AAJ: When you look throughout history, people seem to look for things that have more depth or meaning when there is difficulty. Do you think there is a possibility of this happening today?
TC: Yes, but I don't think the music means as much to a lot of the younger generation. I don't want to stereotype a generation because there are people who really appreciate it in the younger generation. But if you look at the 70s, there were only several TV stations and there was also the radio along with movie theaters and those were your sources of entertainment at that time. And then video game parlors popped up and cable TV brought in hundreds of channels. Computers then came along and now there are wireless phones. There are so many things that are available for young people to choose from that they just don't have the concentration to place into any one thing. And this is also why the digital single is working so well. People like to hear that single song. But the whole album experience was very important to most of the music buyers in the 70s and before.
AAJ: It's still difficult for me to believe that things will continue to go in this direction. Every generation is different in its own way and I think that there will be a generation that will come along and look for things in a different way.
TC: We actually might be seeing a renaissance right now as there are more and more teens jumping into vinyl. Things usually skip a generation and perhaps some of this new younger generation is rebelling against digital by going with vinyl. Kids usually don't go along with whatever their parents are into.
And it's a little different today in that there are parents and kids into the same kind of music, but the format seems very compelling to a lot of these younger people. Part of that could also be because of the sound quality itself but I think that teenagers buy vinyl for a lot of different reasons. Some of it has to do with the price for used LP's and I think that some of them buy LP's because not everyone is a vinyl person and so it's cool. It separates them away from the pack. And once you hear a good piece of vinyl against an MP3, there is such a difference in the quality that I think it provides a very compelling reason of why you would want to get into vinyl.
AAJ: Has the closure of some of the major chains helped the independents?
TC: What I have found is that people develop habits and some develop shopping habits. We thought that when Tower went under, the business would come to the independents, but it didn't happen. Only some of it did. When we closed one of our stores in a NW Portland, the customers that were in the neighborhood didn't necessarily go out seeking another record store. So a lot of that is just lost business.
AAJ: What are some of the misconceptions that the consumer has today?
TC: Many people follow the trends and believe that record stores are a dying breed and that digital downloading is on the way up. So the consumer has to ask themselves, what will they do under those circumstances.
When the Home Shopping Network came along, there was word that the record stores were going to go away in three to four years because people were going to shop on TV. And then Amazon came around and the word was that in three or four years, our business was going to be all dried up because the consumer was going to be buying physical goods on-line. And then digital downloading happened and we were going to be gone in three years. Well, we are still here... we are still here.
AAJ: Of the independents that are making it today, what exactly are they doing to be successful?
TC: The people that are passionate about the music are going to be the people that last the longest because they are determined to do it. And because independent music stores are rooted in the community, they react to the community a lot easier than the national chains who are based in one city and manage stores that are one or two thousand miles away. They have to make decisions that affect all of those stores even though all of those marketplaces might be different.
But what some stores have done over the last ten years is that they have increased their sales in lifestyle goods; meaning t-shirts, posters, non-music items that they feel will appeal to their specific customer. Some stores have diversified into other areas, such as Easy Street in West Seattle, which has a Café in their store. Some have coffee shops and many have increased their used product because it has a greater profitability than new product. There is a store back east called Rainbow Records that is in a town where they don't have a good book store so he incorporated used books into his store as well as a smaller selection of new books. So his staff champions their books in the same way they champion their music. They are trying to find things that will make up for the loss of revenue in selling compact discs.
AAJ: I have heard it said that file sharing can actually help independent record stores. Is there any truth to that?
TC: I don't think it necessarily helps the independent record stores but being able to market your music on the internet is a very inexpensive way of promotion. So an artist who is totally unknown has the opportunity to promote their music on a playing field that is a lot more level than ever before.
During the 70s, major distribution companies began forming through mergers. Warner, Electra and Atlantic merged together to form WEA, a major distribution company. Motown was an independent and now Universal Music owns Motown. EMI Distribution now owns United Artists which was also began as an independent and they also own Casablanca and Chrysalis, which also used to be independents. So beginning in the 80s, they began to have clear domination. But it started to change in the 90s. Independent labels were starting to make an impact and develop into respectable labels from the industry standpoint. Today, an independent label like Sub Pop in Seattle can have a gold or platinum record, which didn't happen at all in the 80s.
But I also think that independent record stores today are smarter as they have learned from all of the mistakes made by the major labels. They know how to operate and make money better than the major labels do. They are keeping their overhead in check and they don't have to pay million dollar executives. They are playing the game realistically and they are doing it in a smarter way and importantly, they are also more in tune to the consumer.
Additionally, the majors have been making cutbacks in their staff since the advent of digital distribution. And the people that they have gotten rid of are the street people that know the music and know what's going on. Meanwhile, the heads of state sit in their big corporate offices not knowing what the consumers really want.
AAJ: How would you define the difference between a major distributor and one that is independent?
TC: The major distribution companies are defined as WEA (Warner, Electra and Atlantic), SONY (Sony BMG Music Entertainment), Universal Music and EMI Distribution. Caroline, an Independent distribution arm, has folded into EMI and RED, also a distribution arm, has folded into SONY. And just this past spring, RYKO folded into SONY, and now in December of 2009, ADA has folded into WEA.
In actuality, the independent arms were doing more business than WEA. So all of this is all being done to reduce costs by laying off more staff and hoping that the remaining employees can be effective doing it all. ADA now has over 200 labels and there isn't any way that those labels will get the attention they need in this kind of situation.
Pretty much anything else that goes through the top independent distribution companies are owned by the four major distribution companies with very few exceptions. Then of course there are the independents who are distributing independently owned labels that are not owned by any of those four major distribution companies. And that's where you define the independents from the majors.
AAJ: One of the important if not most important aspects of independent music stores is the knowledge one can receive from those that work in record stores. That's where I received so many recommendations and detailed information on the music. It was inspiring and we seem to be losing that.
TC: Oh yeah, and definitely so. Record stores have always been the information sources. You can receive some of that information online, but there is nothing like talking to an authoritarian who knows their music. And most of the very good record stores have those types of people working for them.
We [Music Millennium] might not have anyone that knows everything about all music, but throughout our staff, we have a very good information source. If you want to talk to somebody about good straight-ahead jazz, there is going to be somebody in the store that you can talk to about that. The same goes for punk, classical or blues. Customers can always find that right employee who is on the same wave length as them. When a customer walks into the store, there is a comfort factor in knowing that there is an employee that understands the type of music that they like and one that can turn them on to new music. And that's missing from the internet.
Amazon can provide recommendations based on what you purchase, but in many cases, those recommendations are not going to appease that particular listener. I have spoken to musicians who have said that they wish Amazon would not make recommendations because the music they recommend has nothing to do with their music. And sometimes the customer's interpretation of what they are looking for and the way that we hear it are two different things. For some customer's, Lyle Lovett might be a blues record and that's their interpretation of blues music. But for someone else, it's Son House and for another person it might be Johnny Winter.
AAJ: Yes and for me, the knowledge base is one of the strongest aspects of independent record stores. I'm willing to pay a little more for that type of service.
TC: Right and record stores also used to be the base for their communities. Many people met their best friends in record stores through a connection in their taste in music. I also know of people that have even met their spouses. And I think that record stores could still be the community centers of the future but there has to be enough people interested in the physical goods to continue to come in and still make that a reality.
But like you were saying earlier, there has to be a generation that gets out and smells the roses. So many consumers today and so many in the American population and world population are in front of a screen of some sort for most of their daily lives. They're either in front of a computer screen, the screen on their cell phones, a TV screen, or a video game and it just takes up so much time in so many people's lives.
AAJ: You previously mentioned that you had your own independent record distribution company. Is that something that other independent record store owners are pursuing?
TC: There are a number of record stores that get involved with that. I once had Burnside Records and Sideburn Records but I'm only involved in the distribution as I sold the labels. But it hasn't been uncommon for independent record stores to start a label. And in most cases, it's because they have been trying to help artists in their community get their music out. We're very passionate about music but if you get too passionate, you start a record label (both laugh).
And though not many of us have been very successful at making money; it was never the priority. My first record label started with Johnny and the Distractions who had made records on A&M records in 1982. John was a regular customer of the store and we would always get calls asking if we had Johnny and the Distractions on CD, and we'd reply, "No." And so John was in the store one day and we asked, "Hey, do you know if A&M is going to put this record of yours out on CD?" He said he didn't know but that he would give them a call and find out. They didn't seem to be interested so we took the band into the studio and re-recorded some of their best songs and got them to cut a few new songs and put out a record by them. And we did it because our customers wanted to have Johnny and the Distractions on CD (laughs).
AAJ: That's a great story!
TC: It's interesting because there are a couple of record stores in Portland right now who have started labels. Jackpot Records has put out four or five releases of reissues of bands that came from this area. And they have done this because they are passionate about those records and they know that customers want those records. They also put out a couple of records by the Wipers, who were a very important band that was part of the Punk movement and very highly regarded in collectors circles. But they also put out a record by a 60s band called, A New Dawn, that was fairly unknown. They were an Oregon band that made this cool psychedelic record and the store owner wanted to make sure that people had the opportunity to hear it. He was that passionate about it.
There is another local label called Mississippi Records but they have only been putting out vinyl records of music from the 40s, 50s and 60s. They put out a re-issue of a guy that played fifty gallon oil drums on the street named Bongo Joe. It's amazing that they did it but they are passionate about the music and they are trying to turn other people onto that music because it's been long gone and out of print.
AAJ: I believe you have also been involved in other aspects of the music community.
TC: I was also involved early on in the Cascade Blues Association, which has been around for twenty-one years and is now one of the most respected blues organizations in the country. And this blues association was part of the catalyst of the first Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, which has turned out to be the largest Blues Festival this side of the Mississippi River.
I also started the Oregon Music Hall of Fame six years ago at the urging of other people, even though I said I didn't have time to do this (both laugh) and I caved in! And the main focus and goal of the organization is to promote and preserve the musical arts of the state of Oregon. And one of the primary things that we are trying to do is to raise money for music education, as music education budgets get cut within the school districts within the state. But eventually we would like to have a music program in every single school within the state.
Additionally, we are also trying to raise awareness of the rich culture in music that we have here in Oregon, as well as preserving the musical heritage of the people who have contributed to the musical arts throughout the years.
AAJ: And of course there is the Portland Jazz Festival that I believe you have supported.
TC: Yes, we have been a supporter of the Jazz Festival for the last few years which has turned into one of the major jazz festivals in the country. And we have always tried to be there to support at the very beginning of any new music related concept and give as much support as we possibly can so that it can become a reality. But in many cases, we are there at the beginning but we kind of move behind the scene as it becomes more popular and sponsorship money comes at a higher price. We get priced out of being that title sponsor but that's OK.
We were also the title sponsor for the North by Northwest Music Festival, which turned into Music Fest Northwest, and we have been involved with it ever since. We still contribute and I serve on the board of directors but I think you see that with a lot of record stores around the country. They get really involved in the music community.
We have always felt that the community supports us so we need to support the community. It's a little more difficult for us now, but when independent record stores were doing really well, it was a lot easier for us to give back both in money and time.
I might also mention that musicians have also shown their appreciation towards what record stores have meant to them. At the Rasputin music store in Berkeley, Metallica came out and did a record store signing on record store day, just to support the store. Metallica didn't need to do anything but they wanted to support the store.
Pearl Jam also recorded a live CD at Easy Street Records in Seattle and the CD was distributed at only independent record stores around the country. They believe in the importance of independent record stores and the West Seattle Easy Street record store was the record store that they all grew up around. That was their hang out and that was their record store. And even though they have made it to the big time, they haven't forgotten.
Record store owners are independent thinkers and we have enough common ground that we were able start the coalition but we clearly run our stores the way we think we should. And most of the store owners probably couldn't work for somebody else anyway (laughs); they are too opinionated (laughs).
There are so many frustrations that we have to go through working in our industry, but it's the music that is there; it's the stuff that makes me want to go to work everyday. To find the new music and turn the customers on to the new music, and that's what really drives me.