Memphis Record Stores Keep The Flame Of Vinyl Burning


On the racks at Audiomania
  • On the racks at Audiomania
In addition to being a boiling cauldron of musical creation, well documented in this week's cover story, Memphis is a city of world-class record stores. Both Goner Records and Shangri-La Records have been celebrated, by Rolling Stone and others, as being among the best in the country — or in the world. And there are others in their ranks as well, as reported thoroughly last year by Cady Jones in the Choose901 blog.

To cap off this week's celebration of all things musical in the Bluff City, I reached out to some of the finest purveyors of vinyl here, hoping to hear some good news about their continued survival.

But the first person I contacted offered a more sobering message. Paul Williams ran Audiomania for 30 years before shuttering it for good, a month ago. In an email exchange, Paul reflected on his years in the business and that rare magic to be found on certain corners in the city.

Memphis Flyer: What are your thoughts on closing down Audiomania? It meant a lot to many music fans, and not just in Memphis.

Paul Williams: First of all, Alex, I’m glad you’re the one writing this, since you were my first customer, back in 1990, when I opened up on Poplar. You came in with Alex Chilton. I think you told me a while back that you still have that Wreckless Eric album. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so long ago.

I would have kept going if it hadn’t been for the extraordinary situation that we find ourselves in. Audiomania had survived fire and flood, but I draw the line at pestilence. It seemed like the right time to get out of the tourist business, and it feels good to lose all the overhead expenses.

I got married a couple of years ago, and we’d been talking about it for a while, even before all this. Thirty years is a long time to do anything. Business was okay, but not great, and having a brick-and-mortar business can be a real ball and chain. I started working in record shops when Frank Berretta hired me at Poplar Tunes in 1982, so that’s a long time to be in retail.

I’ve been decompressing the last few weeks, chillin’ with the wife and Furry, our kitty, fixing things around the house, doing things I’ve been meaning to get around to for 30 years. There are things I’ll miss. I made some wonderful friendships, and met people from all over the world. I enjoyed regaling the tourists with local lore. There’s an old adage that if you stay at 2nd and Beale long enough, you’ll meet everyone you’ll ever need to meet. Madison and Belvedere was like that for me. I always loved hanging out in record stores, way before I ever owned one. I met my wife at Poplar Tunes back in the ’80s! Record stores can be magical places.
Paul Williams at Audiomania - PAT RAINER
  • Pat Rainer
  • Paul Williams at Audiomania

After connecting with Paul, I picked the brain of Eric Friedl, co-owner of Goner Records, to see how they're coping with this time of physical distancing. And he had more positive news, sorely needed in these times.

Memphis Flyer: I've read online that Goner has really pivoted to mail order these days.

Eric Friedl: Yeah, out of necessity. And surprisingly, to me, we have been doing a lot of local pick ups, that have been through people shopping on the website but picking it up. And I guess these people were customers that would come in and buy it in the store, rather than online customers before. So I think local customers have kinda transitioned to doing it that way too, for the time being. And that's been a big chunk of the business. We're used to sending records to people all over the world, but Memphis has been a really big part of that now. Local mail order!

Obviously we don't know everybody's back story when they're ordering, but people have been spending money, buying records. When all this started coming down, we had no idea what everybody would do. Even if you had a job, you might clam up and hold on tight. But people are using their money to support things they like. I look at it as kind of a charitable kind of thing. Like, "We want this to stick around, I'm gonna spend my money," Rather than, "I'll hole myself up and when I come out of this thing, I'll be okay, and nothing else will exist." I don't know that for sure. We've definitely gotten lots of support from people. Words of support, people saying they'll help any way they can, and I think we've seen that. But the orders have been surprisingly good. And maybe it's just that people are home, they're looking to stay entertained, and keep up with things and buy records, and have record parties at their house during the quarantine.

It's also a way for musicians without gigs to share this music: records! This way of sharing that's been around for over 100 years.

Yeah, it's been so atomized these days. Basically, you listen to one song in a playlist, then it's on to the next thing. That's how radio always worked, but not in your personal listening as much, I think. But yeah, it's a great thing for bands to be able to connect with people and sell their stuff, and get a little more than your Spotify plays are gonna get you, unless you're huge. It's such a small number. It's an intimate way to share your music. The numbers are so low now, you're pressing up 300 - 500 records just to see how they're gonna do, but still, you get money out of that.

Speaking of that, what is happening with record production in general, since the big fire destroyed the Apollo Masters facility this February?

That was a lacquer supply place. And all this, the coronavirus was coming down, that fire happened, and a whole lot of things got thrown into disarray at the same time. The people that use lacquers are the mastering places that master to a lacquer, then send it to be plated, and then they get pressed up. And our mastering people said they were fine for a few months with their supply. And everything kinda went on hiatus during the coronavirus, just because people didn't know how sales were gonna go. I don't know if the shortage is real, or if the shortage is just on hold, and once everybody starts cranking up, we're gonna find it harder to do. It's really not clear now. I think we're better off than it sounded like when that fire happened, but it's definitely a big deal. There's a couple other things happening. There's only a few places that do plating in the United States, and at least one of 'em, Mastercraft in New Jersey, is run by a guy who is getting up there in age and can't do it forever. And it's the kinda thing where one piece like that goes out and it can change the whole industry. So it'll be interesting to see.

How does the lacquer fit into the whole manufacturing process?

You send the recordings to the mastering place, and they cut the audio files into the lacquer. Then you send the lacquer to the plating facility, and they make the metal stamper off of that mastered acetate. And then you use those plates to stamp out all the records. All these processes are really 20th Century technology. They're dirty. When that acetate place went up, they said, "Well, if there's a need, someone will do it again." But you have to find a place that is able to do that and is set up kinda in the industrial space. It's not green in any way.

We'll see. Right now, everything is rolling. We've got four records that we're working on, and it looks like they'll come out in the fall, into next year. We delayed them a little bit, but not too bad. And everything is rolling. Tours are not happening to support the things. This Quintron record had a tour behind it that doesn't look like it's gonna happen as planned, but I think the demand's still gonna be there, especially as things hopefully get better towards the end of the year.

And new product is still arriving, right?

Yeah. People have stuck to their release schedules, despite everything. They've split the Record Store Day that was supposed to be in April into three different smaller days. [August 29th, September 26th, and October 24th]. And they're still trying to figure out what that means. There's a bunch of stuff that was supposed to come out earlier in the year, that's gonna be coming out at different drop times later this year.

We've been lucky. We've been able to take advantage of some of the assistance that's been offered. And we're still out there, scrounging for more help, trying to make it work. So far, so good. 
Eric Friedl and Zac Ives of Goner Records - MICHAEL DONAHUE
  • MIchael Donahue
  • Eric Friedl and Zac Ives of Goner Records

Finally, I reached out to Jared McStay, who co-owns Shangri-La Records. And his perspective got me thinking: Maybe, just maybe, there can be room for record stores in the new abnormal that life will inevitably become.

Memphis Flyer: How is Shangri-La dealing with this shelter-in-place era? Any plans on reopening?

Jared McStay: John [Miller] and I are having a big meeting about this today. We're trying to figure out exactly how we're gonna reopen. What is it gonna look like? We talk about it all the time, but we're really trying to figure out actual policies that we're gonna do.

For now, we do car service and we do online. Still doing mail order. We're buying records from people, via appointment. And when we reopen, it may just be by appointment. I'm sure we're gonna demand that everybody wear masks, and maybe gloves. We're gonna have some kind of sneeze guard station up by the register, so whoever is running the counter will feel safe. We're planning on reopening at some point, but I couldn't tell you what day it'll be.

Right now, during the week there's someone here from noon to five. So we have lots of people who look at our page or our website and they'll just shop that way, and we bring it out to their car. And we do a lot of hand deliveries, mostly around Midtown. But really anybody who lives close enough that we can drive to, we'll just hand deliver it. And then a lot of mail order out of town. We're trying!

I don't even know exactly what Phase 2 is. I imagine if we do reopen, we may do it in concert with Goner. I wouldn't really want to reopen before they did. We've talked to them a little bit, but not anything definite. Obviously, they can do whatever they want. I don't want to open and force them to reopen, and vice versa. Honestly, ever since the city loosened stuff up, I've kinda wanted to wait at least a couple weeks, to see if Memphis became a hot spot again. But at some point, we're just gonna have to bite the bullet, if everybody else is opening. It's just that we don't want to contribute to anyone getting sick or feeling unsafe. At some point, everyone's gonna have to reopen, but it just doesn't feel right yet. But we can't go on forever as we are right now. And I don't know if I'd want to. People want to shop at a record store. You can only do so much of this. Eventually, people want to come in and look at a record store.

One way or another, we're gonna muddle through!
Jared McStay, co-owner of Shangri-La Records - J.D. REAGER
  • J.D. Reager
  • Jared McStay, co-owner of Shangri-La Records

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