This interview originally appeared on the blog for Brooklyn-based author Chris Ruen's new book on the past, present and future of digital piracy, "Freeloading: How our insatiable hunger for free content starves creativity."
A few weeks ago I emailed James Bradley, whom I interviewed for "Freeloading," about carrying the book at Sound Fix. Turns out it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, he said, as the store would soon be closing. Bradley requested that we sit down to talk; that he had some things to get off his chest. Anyone interested in the future for record stores (specifically those that sell new music) or wonder about the viability of vinyl should read the interview below. As you might imagine, it isn’t a particularly rosy picture. Bradley also reflects on the changes he’s seen in Williamsburg over the years and the role Sound Fix played in the local music culture.
Thanks again to James Bradley, and everyone who worked at Sound Fix through the years, for providing a great service to the community. I have many youthful memories of wandering off of Bedford Avenue into Sound Fix and writing in their old cafe/bar space, The Fix. I discovered Eluvium and Nobody and The Monks there and bought scores of great albums from Bradley’s counter. The place will surely be missed.
Those in NYC can visit Sound Fix, on N 11th in Williamsburg, for their final day: this Saturday, April 20th (Record Store Day). Sounds like they’ll have a few copies of Centipede Hz on sale…
CR: I’ve heard rumors in the past of Sound Fix closing. What happened?
JB: A realization sunk in that this was a losing battle. What clinched it for me was the record industry and what I perceive as their decision to give up on retail as any part of their formula. They are looking at licensing/digital to stay alive and they’ve given up on retail.
The record industry and specifically the majors were never pressing enough LPs. They would never meet the demand. I would order 50 of a new Black Keys album and get 15. We would sell out in four days and then wait six weeks before we got them back in stock. It would be the same thing, over and over.
Then you’ve got another problem with majors who do an initial pressing and that’s it. You talk to label owners about vinyl, even indie label owners who are down to earth—not all dollars and cents people—and they’ll tell you the same thing: that it’s a bitch. Pressing vinyl is a bitch. They are barely making even on vinyl, if that. I’m sympathetic in that regard.
“Spending money on music is the very definition of discretionary spending.”
The other thing hurting me is you can’t do vinyl returns. We can return CDs but nearly all labels forbid vinyl returns. So what does this mean? It means when a new album comes out I have to be on the conservative side when I order, because you never know. An album may seem like a sure-fire hit but… I’ll give you two examples from last year: Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors. I don’t know why the Dirty Projectors didn’t sell well.
I’m surprised. That was a great album.
I thought so too. The one before that [Bitte Orca] went though the roof. So I got 60 copies and we sold 35 or 40 and we had to sell a bunch at cost. The Animal Collective one was admittedly a god-awful album that everyone hated. That one—I took a bath on that. I got 50 and we sold 15. So they’re in my throwaway bin. I’m selling it for like $10. I spent $18 on cost on them.
For a record store that depends on selling new vinyl, a workable model just doesn’t seem to be there.
No. And frankly I don’t see how it can work.
Because the labels aren’t profiting enough to see incentive in investing in that market.
The only two exceptions I see these days are Sub Pop and Matador, which are as close to commercial as an indie label can get. They’ve got Vampire Weekend and Beach House and Fleet Foxes and these artists can go Gold. With those exceptions, a retailer can’t survive without wholesalers. And if the records aren’t being made in sufficient numbers, and they’re not going to cooperate and try to come up with a formula that can help us… they’re adamant. “Sorry. We can’t take them back.”
If they accepted returns, it would help a lot.
It would help a lot. I would order more with the realization that I could return them. I mean, no one wants to do returns. They’re a drag. But sometimes you gotta say, “This one was a flop.”
Between the time we talked for the book, two or three years ago, and now, what’s been the story for CD sales? Consistent decline?
It’s very peculiar, CD sales. The Black Keys do great on CD. The last Cat Power did great on CD. And I know you can say the fans are a little bit older—I think there’s some truth to that but also certain artists have found a way to make their physical products interesting to fans. They try to make their albums work as a unit from beginning to end rather than as a la carte singles.
So there are exceptions to the decline.
But few and far between.
What’s interesting is we do great with classic rock titles, which now are hugely popular again. The major labels have slashed their prices dramatically. Sometimes as low as 4.99 – retail! The Talking Heads catalogue, The Doors… The kids coming in and buying these CDs—they do realize what they’re listening to on their computers and phones is junk.
The great recession—that was huge. In the span of one month we saw our sales plummet. And that’s not everyone discovering Limewire, that’s just not having money in their pockets. Spending money on music is the very definition of discretionary spending. And I think a lot of people moved to alternative models and habits in this period and now they’re stuck with them.
Then Spotify filled a big gap for people. I have a friend who had a big CD collection and boasted, “I’ve never downloaded a song in my life and I never will.” About a year ago I went to his home and he was almost apologetic to me. He said, “It’s all sitting here on Spotify and I can’t spend $15 all the time when it’s sitting right here.”
I guess it makes people feel a little less guilty because you’re not technically stealing anybody’s music. But I’m sure you’ve heard from musicians. John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats told me he gets checks for fifty-six cents in the mail. So I don’t know how anyone’s making money on this. I can’t imagine they are.
A few labels like Drag City refuse to do Spotify and I applaud that. And I think more are going to have to make a statement that these are artists that have worked hard and deserve to be compensated for their work. We can’t just give them pennies.
The old phrase is, something’s gotta give. We might be seeing it now for all I know. This year, music has been terrible! If people can’t make a living in music how are they going to make music?
People need to eat and put a roof over their heads, first and foremost, no matter how much they “need” to make their art.
You know, the history of art—it’s filled with examples of artists getting screwed. We don’t have to talk about African-Americans in the ‘50s and ‘60s having their music stolen, getting pennies for it. It’s interesting how people have managed to make a living doing these things. You always hear about writers living in tiny studio apartments living on food stamps. They do it cause they love it.
And then they kill themselves.
Yes, and then they kill themselves.
Because they love it.
Ha. Right, because they love it. Yeah…
What year did the store open?
Same year I moved to New York. The store has been here in Williamsburg during this media explosion; explosion of creativity and money. And thinking back to The Read being in the space we’re in now, which was a grimy, cramped coffee shop… And the environment of Sound Fix now, surrounded by condos… Do you have any reflections on what you’ve seen?
I mean, this is a classic story of gentrification and big money. All because of location.
Which the store definitely benefited from in its early years.
I came to Williamsburg at a time when this place was becoming a nexus for artistic types. They weren’t poor—they seemed to have some money from what I could gather. But we didn’t have the sort of professional class that we have now. So I do feel like there’s been a changeover in the population.
Our core customer was a kid living in a rental with three other people that loved this whole environment… concerts and music and the festivals and everything. Williamsburg really was unusual in a few regards. Williamsburg didn’t have a “sound.” People would come up to me and ask, “What’s the Williamsburg music scene like?” And I’d say, well, Haight-Ashbury in the 60s had a sound. Detroit Techno in the 90s had a sound. Williamsburg has no sound. There’s TVOTR and Animal Collective and there’s folk and there’s psych. And there’s indie rock. Yeasayer… There’s people doing all kinds of stuff.
It’s just that they were in an environment—a real artistic flourishing—and they fed off that. And I felt that we were a part of that. You know, I don’t want to speak for Kyp Malone, but I feel like we turned him on to a lot of music at my store. And he put out a solo album years ago called Rain Machine, which I thought was fantastic, and it was real folk-and-experimental oriented. I felt like Sound Fix played a small role in the kind of music we led him toward. That always felt really good to me that we were shaping people’s identities to some degree. For a while we really fed off that excitement.
We had to move unfortunately in 2009 and I underestimated the loss of the bar; I underestimated the loss of Bedford Avenue. I wasn’t happy about these things, but I thought, Eh! A block away. We’ll do fine.
And then last year the owner of Whiskey Brooklyn came to me and said, “We might want to expand. We are interested in buying your lease.” And I was going through changes to my personal life at the time. With a lot of reluctance and sadness I took their offer. And that’s where we are now.
I just think things were only going to get worse. 2009 I’d say to myself, I’d kill for the sales we had in 2008. In 2010, I’d be saying, I’d die for last year’s sales.
How much of the sales decline has to do with challenges all stores are facing and how much has to do with the population change in the neighborhood? Do you think the newer population is simply less interested in music?
Yeah. My block does not attract the finer elements. It’s a real kind of frat boy atmosphere. You’ve got Brooklyn Brewery. Brooklyn Bowl. Whiskey Brooklyn. The football jerseys and backwards baseball caps. They’re loud. They’re unruly. I don’t think they live around here.
Where are they coming from?
Long Island, New Jersey, some from Manhattan. You know, they were not the audience we spent seven, eight years cultivating.
And where is that audience now?
Bushwick. Any neighborhood in Queens. I’m always really touched to see an old customer that moved to Sheepshead Bay or something and pops in his head to say hello. But you can’t expect them all to be making regular trips to Williamsburg.
Any positive memories that might define the life of Sound Fix for you?
I remember once, the year we opened, it was a Sunday afternoon on a summer day and it was beautiful and the store was just packed with people and we were playing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I think “God Only Knows” was playing. And this kid walks up to me—he’s young, early twenties—and says “What’s this playing right now?” And I didn’t snicker, I never do, and just said, “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys.
“It’s pretty good!” And he walks away.
And something about that moment for me… we created this atmosphere that people warmed up to. The idea of a place where you can soak up the whole experience, where music was performed and sold and embraced and artists came there. Some kid was in the store one day, and Tunde Adebimpe was shopping. And this kid said, “Is that the guy from TVOTR?” And I say "Yeah, go talk to him. He is a very nice man I assure you." And he walked up to him very nervous and said hello… it was nice to see.
But, so many great concerts in the old bar space, by Mountain Goats and Art Brut, who put on the best shows. And Michael Hurley played here twice! A hero of mine since I was a kid. I have more great memories than I can count. Of course, it’s sad to see it go…
Record stores were places that made me happy. I’d go in there and buy a record and bring it home with me and for two or three weeks my life would be lifted a little bit. And I loved playing that role for people. But, as they say, it is what it is.
I’ve really been happy with the response to the store closing. Warm emails from everybody. Even the Brooklyn Vegan comments were nice.