Wax Poetic: The Secret Life of KC Vinyl
The afternoon of February 6th, 2020 played out like a funeral. My phone was pinging with condolences at an alarming rate, and I was steeped in overwhelming disquietude. Usually, in times like this, I would put on a record and sink into cacophonous oblivion. Now, though, my usual comfort had turned to salt in my wounds. Earlier that day, a fire had broken out at Apollo Masters Corporation. To most, this was but a blip in the news cycle. To the world’s audiophiles and vinyl-lovers, it was devastation. Apollo was one of only two factories in the world that produced lacquer discs. Over 70 percent of them, in fact. Unless, like me, you have more records than friends, that doesn’t mean much to you, so allow me to analogize.
Picture a chalkboard with writing on it. The surface is smooth and the writing is legible. Copying down said writing would be easy to do. Now imagine instead that the chalkboard was packed with nicks, dents, and rough patches. Writing on such a surface becomes nearly impossible, as does copying the illegible notes. What Apollo made was the vinyl version of the chalkboard—a blank, perfectly smooth disc into which grooves are cut. The grooves, like the writing on the board, serve as the template to be copied onto all other records in the pressing. The notes copied from the board equate to the sounds that the consumer hears on their specific copy of the record. So, on that February morning, the world lost 70 percent of its chalkboard supply, jeopardizing the entire vinyl industry. No lacquer discs meant no masters. No masters meant no copies. No copies meant… well, what did it mean? Whatever the empirical results, the world of vinyl is about to be put to the test. The passing of which is made even more imperative by Record Store Day.
The first Record Store Day took place on April 19th, 2008. Conceived by independent record store owners, the yearly event focuses on the promotion of vinyl culture through supporting local, independent record shops. Limited pressings, special releases, and event exclusives line local bins, an incentive to go offline and in-store.
Like the years before it, Record Store Day 2020 was set to be held on the 3rd Saturday in April. Due to unfortunate timing, the event has been indefinitely delayed. Even after normality returns, questions will still remain about the vinyl industry’s ability to recover. Will the secondary supplier of lacquer discs (MDC of Japan) be able to keep up with increased demand? If not, what other methods can be used in vinyl production? Can the upwards trend in vinyl sales continue in spite of February’s catastrophe?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. In fact, these questions arose after I had pitched this piece. The initial intent was to explore the beauty of KC’s local vinyl scene. I wanted to showcase the people within it, and the small differences that have added up to a unique ecosystem of musicality. But now, due to a fire all the way in California, that ecosystem may be in jeopardy. So, like your mom introducing you to her friend’s handsome doctor of a son, my goal is to make you fall in love with it.
• • •
I’d been in the small shop before. Enough times, in fact, to have a nearly-full punch card bearing the store’s insignia. Who says loyal consumerism is dead? Whoever it is, they haven’t stepped foot in a record store in the last five years. Especially not one like Records with Merritt.
The gentle whoosh of air created by the door opening causes an employee to look up, her face already bearing a welcoming smile. I recognize her immediately as Ann Stewart, the woman who gave my daughter her first record. It was a Thomas the Train sing-a-long that, after 50 consecutive plays in an afternoon, mysteriously “disappeared” from my record shelf. If Ann wasn’t so nice, my eardrums would still hold a grudge. To her left sits Marion Merritt, a well of calm in a chaotic sea of sound. Beneath Merritt’s serene demeanor lies a depth of musical knowledge beyond the comprehension of most; including myself. Slightly intimidated by this, and not quite knowing where to start, I clumsily ask how they came to love music. Vinyl, in particular. All intimidation factor melts away as Marion lights up at the prospect of musical conversation and dives into her origin story.
“I’m older, so I’ve always had a transistor radio next to my ear. My goal was always to—if I heard it on the radio—to be able to sing it word-for-word as soon as possible. Songs have always been my inspiration for things, my motivator. I have a whole group of songs that get me going in the morning. So it’s a big part of my life. And I grew up with vinyl. We just didn’t treat it the way we do now. We just kind of—it was a disposable item we got for $2.99 and just played it on the little portable record player in your bedroom.”
Ann follows, recalling her childhood exposure to music, both via her parents’ love of Broadway, and her older siblings’ guidance. “I was the youngest of four kids, and it was the vinyl era, in the 70’s. I remember my brothers playing their albums and laying on the carpet listening to them, looking at the record covers. And I remember my oldest brother bought me my first record, which was uh…Heart…” Marion fills in the blank without hesitation, “Heart, Heart.” Ann nods in appreciation of her partner’s encyclopedic knowledge. “Yeah! Then Pink Floyd, The Wall. And it was just—what is this? And I’m sure my mother was like ‘Why are you buying your 9-year-old sister Pink Floyd’s The Wall?’ But I was just mesmerized.”
The conversation drifts to Marion’s start in the music sales industry. For over 15 years, she worked in the basement of Barnes and Noble on the Plaza, managing the music department. It was here, she says, that her education really took off. Daily, inadvertent challenges from customers pushed her to explore and expand her musical world. She elaborates, “You think you know something until someone asks you to explain, ‘What’s the difference between that opera and this opera?’ Then you have to say, ‘Okay, I’m either going to stand here, or I’m going to learn.’” Barnes and Noble was not only the origin of Marion’s mental catalog but a catalyst for passionate customer service. Ann details a remarkable following built at the corporate store including celebrities, record collectors, and even a blind customer in Alabama. All of whom continue to trust Marion with their euphonic fates.
Despite having a cult following, the switch from corporate to local wasn’t easy. “It was a big leap. It was a scary leap,” Marion says, looking over at her partner, “but I think Ann had more confidence in me than I did. And once I started working on it, it just became this way. I think the hardest part was finding a place we liked. We have a small space, and we don’t want to grow that much. We want to keep it tight, and our customers appreciate that. Some of our customers know the inventory better than we do. And here, you can shop for five minutes, or two hours.”
Looking around the tiny shop, it’s easy to see how one could lose an entire afternoon to space. Sitting in front of me is a bowl of candy. (The good kind, none of the dum-dum and lifesaver bullshit banks try to pass off as a treat). To the left of me, water, soda, and beer bob in aluminum tins while boxed wines line a small table adjacent to the front counter. Before anyone asks to see their liquor license, they’re not selling it. It’s free. Records with Merritt doesn’t just want your money, it wants YOU. For Ann and Marion, the best part of this joint endeavor is the community that constantly evolves within the store. They’ve created a family that includes regular customers as well as other record shops. When I ask which record shop they suggest I visit next, I’m met with a list longer than this 3,000-word piece could possibly hope to cover. Overwhelmed, I decide to start with one I already know.
Still chewing a mini Twix from Merritt’s candy bowl, I walk into Josey Records. I’m greeted by Britt Adair, a willowy woman with thick black eyeliner and an outfit that conveys effortless, voguish grunge. Next to her stands Chris LeBeau, the store manager. Four and half years ago, they, along with a small crew, put the first records on Josey’s shelves. Which must have taken a while, because the building is approximately four times the size of Records with Merritt. This observation is accentuated by the soothing chillwave music echoing against the high ceilings. While Chris assists customers, Britt sits down with me for our interview. Despite its size, the store manages to feel intimate. This combined with a focus on local artists suggests a local owner very in touch with their city’s music scene. So I’m taken aback to find out that Josey is owned by a few House DJs based out of Dallas, Texas. Still a small company, there are only four locations; Dallas, Lubbock, Tulsa, and Kansas City. As it’s the only non-locally owned shop I’m interviewing, I asked why the owners chose to establish a brick and mortar store in Kansas City. According to Britt, the owners’ choice boils down to the local scene.
“They’re huge lovers of soul music. And Kansas City is kind of a hub for that. So they came here, loved the culture, and wanted to open a shop. When Streetside Records closed, there was a lull and a need for it in KC. Chris actually used to work at Streetside Records. He’s been in the record game for 20 years. He was working for himself for a while, and then he got the offer to come here. And how could you resist working in a record shop? I mean, you don’t just stop loving working in record stores.”
The last statement rings especially true, as Chris and Britt have both worked in other KC record stores. The visual art booker, Laura, used to work at Streetside Records and Vinyl Renaissance. Another employee, Ryan, worked at Mills Record Company. The entire staff of Josey records seems to be addicted to working with wax. The owners of Josey Records knew this and used it to their advantage. Essentially, they compiled a team of incredibly knowledgeable record enthusiasts and gave them complete control over a store. Chris does most of the ordering, and Britt books the bands for in-store events. Laura schedules a different local artist each month to provide a visual installation for the store. The profits from any piece sold go entirely to the artist, creating economic support for Kansas City’s art scene. They’ve even recently added a DVD section. All of this done at the employees’ discretion.
To some, that may sound like a recipe for disaster (or just employees with very full shelves). Ultimately though, it has created a thriving store full of variety and dedication to local interests. While it’s in their own shop that they’ve found their niche, this doesn’t stop the Josey team from appreciating other stores. When I ask about what makes the KC scene special, Britt immediately answers, “If we don’t have a record someone wants, we call Revolution Records, because they’re right around the corner. It’s good to work as a team and to work together. Most of the shops do support each other. We all love music and want to be a part of it. All of them do have their specialties, though. Like, Records with Merritt is just brand-new vinyl. Revolution Records appeals to a younger community, and they have lots of live shows. We go shopping at Brothers, 7th Heaven, Records with Merritt…every shop has its own vibe. ”
• • •
A week later, I’m investigating said vibes at Mills Record Company. Because I’ve forgotten a jacket, the main vibe I’m getting is cold. I follow Judy Mills to her office, and she offers me a blanket while turning on a space heater. She’s an affable but focused woman, with a cascade of silver hair that she brushes back from her face as she sits down. She doesn’t hesitate to start a conversation. “What’s your angle? What’s your perspective? Are you a record fan?” I give a barely coherent answer, discomposed at having to answer questions instead of asking them. Is this what being interviewed feels like? She listens and smiles kindly as my inarticulations stop. Regaining my bearings, I start the interview by asking her what made her decide to open a record shop in Kansas City. She started from the beginning.
“In 2012, there wasn’t anywhere you could go into on new release day and get a new release record. And I tried, but I was kind of scoffed at. And I thought, ‘I cannot be the only person.’ About four months before that, I realized I didn’t own anything. I had gotten seduced by the digital world. I didn’t own anything. So that’s when I started collecting records. And I discovered how hard it was to do that in Kansas City. I had a year off of what I was doing, and I had a decision, you know? Do I go back into the corporate world? And I thought, ‘You know what? I think there’s a niche for this.’ And so, I opened up, and it was all-new vinyl. So that’s how I wanted to contribute to the scene. But if you want to be a community resource, you have to sell used, too. So about four months in, I caved and started selling used. But at that time, we were the only ones [selling new]. At the time, there also wasn’t a place where regular in-stores happened, and that was something like, ‘We’re gonna do this.’”
When I find that Mills, like Merritt, started her career in corporate sales, I am unsurprised. Her attitude towards business belies an understanding of how to grow a local scene and maintain a wide customer base. She professes that her least favorite type of customer is a music snob, and emphasizes the importance of accessibility. While she’s okay with putting record nerds behind her counters, they also have to be approachable. According to Mills, no one should be too intimidated to walk into a record store. This philosophy has garnished her widespread support, as evidenced by Mills Record Company being voted Kansas City’s Best Record Store multiple times over. “If you give customers a good experience, they will decide to leave the house, walk into a store, and discover a record. If they don’t love the process, then they won’t do that. It’s a lot of extra work. Employees aren’t here to show off what they know, there’s here to provide an experience, help them discover music, and give them a reason to come back in. Most employees live within 10 minutes of here. All profits stay in Kansas City. Everything I get, I put it into the employees or back into the store. It’s kind of a circular process that I’ve really come to value since I’ve started this.”
• • •
At this point, dear reader, I have approximately 400 words left to sum up the vinyl zeitgeist of our town. A daunting task for any writer anywhere, but more so for those who, like myself, live in a city overflowing with musical promise. Within that summary, I would be remiss to ignore the female badassery of Promise Clutter, manager of Revolution Records. Her store boasts not only the most adorable shop dog in town, but also books, visual art, zines, and a calendar laden with a plethora of in-store events.
If you’ve been to a musical event in Kansas City, you’ve likely been in the same room as Sherman Breneman, manager of 7th Heaven’s Vinyl Underground. By Ann Stewart’s own admission, he carries an encyclopedic knowledge of music to rival that of her partner, Marion Merritt. These commendations extend even beyond KC. Brothers Music in Mission, KS was recommended to me by nearly everyone I’ve interviewed, and Lawrence boasts Lovegarden and Orange Cat, two more local favorites.
The best part about all of the aforementioned record stores is that they were each recommended to me by the owner of another shop. In my personal and professional investigations of Kansas City’s vinyl culture, the most defining trait of the scene is the support each shop lends to the community at large. Recognition of each other’s strengths and a store’s own weaknesses has allowed a staggering concentration of similar businesses to thrive across the city.
However, these businesses cannot thrive on each other’s recommendations alone. They rely on local support and loyal customers to keep them afloat. This has never been so true as in the wake of the Apollo Masters fire. The future of the vinyl production industry has been called into question, and so too has that of record shops everywhere. But Kansas City can do something to help. Buy as many albums as you want. Buy as many albums as you can afford. Support your local record stores by taking inventory off their shelves and creating a demand for more. Then go home, and put the wax on the turntable, and drift off into bliss.