The Business: talking trash with Nick Rennis about selling new records today

Apple’s had enough. They’re ending iTunes because, after trashing the concept of buying complete albums (mostly on CD) in favor of “portable,” single, digital tracks (for a few good reasons, but mostly greed), they’ve had their asses handed to them by the likes of Spotify and Amazon (who’ve converted the world to the boring idea of streaming). Music is becoming wallpaper. Now, Bandcamp has apparently become bored, too, but for different reasons. With the potential of filling the global parking spot iTunes is vacating not tempting enough, BC is opening a flagship brick-and-mortar store in Oakland, CA, to sell… records (albeit, a shop that looks more like the waiting room of an expensive golf-pro’s office than any record shop I’ve ever visited). Why? Because, well, it must be cooler to have sofas and some… records… and shit hanging on walls. It’s no longer as cool doing what they claimed was essential: being the life blood of working recording artists. It’s hard to keep up with who no longer wants to do what.

So I thought I’d talk to a real record curator and distributor: Nick Rennis of The Business, in Anacortes. He’s seen it all and done it all. The Business is over 40 years old (Nick isn’t, he bought the place going on ten years ago). Nick’s been in bands, toured with bands, run performance spaces, hosted music festivals and radio programs and pod casts, sold every kind of merch. He’s been fighting the good fight for music and musicians his entire adult life. Today, he’s still doing a lot of that, plus driving a global distribution business that’s expanding every month. (He’s a friend, but this is my website.) The Business is one of the coolest record shops in the United States. That’s not just my opinion. Ask the world. He and I sat down to talk trash about the tragically broken, beautifully fragile business of selling new, physical media in this tiny-handed greedy-minded country-clubbing one-percent-aspiring world. Vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs, posters, all the joyful objet you can hold in your normal-sized hands. Bliss.

Nick Rennis, at his shop The Business, June 2019

Goat Palace:
iTunes is ending, it’s over. Thoughts?

Nick Rennis:
RIP. I mean, we knew this was coming. Every tech entertainment platform, ever, will not exist in five years. Corporations have an interest in having complete control over everything you access, and they don’t want you to own anything, so it’s not entirely shocking that they would say, well, “You can’t own even digital things any more. You can just listen to them, if we have them available for you.” It’s not shocking, and I don’t think it’s a huge loss. As a record-store owner, I also listen to things digitally….

GP:
My God!

NR:
[Laughs] I don’t tend to stream things. I tend to own MP3s, and we get a lot of promo stuff for the store to listen to, sent to us digitally. Things like Bandcamp, I think, are a fairly positive way people can interact with an artist, and actually buy digital content and own it, directly from an artist or a record label. So, I think soon, there will be some platform to replace iTunes for people who want to own their digital media. But the more giant companies remove themselves from what I do, great! Goodbye.

GP:
So you’re not sad?

NR:
I’m not sad, no. I feel empathetic towards the people who’ve been buying LPs and treasure the fact that they come with a digital download. It’s a headache for people because now they’ve put all these things they’ve purchased, and rightfully own, into something that wants them to convert it all into a cloud-streaming service. I’m empathetic towards that, but I also feel you should always be on your toes and know that anything you load into a system owned by Apple, or whatever, well, that might not last for long. So, use VLC [an open source cross-platform media player], or another thing.

My passion has always been new music, supporting exciting, fresh things in art.

Nick Rennis

There are some wags who say: vinyl records today are just some sort of consumer hat-trick, a nostalgia reboot. Thoughts?

NR:
Nostalgia is our enemy, it’s our common enemy, you and I. I think there are a certain amount of people who buy vinyl records looking for that nostalgia rush. But, that’s not really the space we operate in. That’s not our world. People come in here frequently… I can hear them outside the door, saying “Oh my gosh, I haven’t been into a record store in blah blah years… Should we go in?… Oh, let’s go in…” Hoping for a nostalgia kick, they do one lap of the store, and they get scared because I offer no nostalgia anything for them. They don’t recognize anything. And if I did, I would be a different type of record store, and I would appeal to nostalgic record buyers who are looking to reacquire things they sold, or that their moms threw away when they were in college, or whatever. But I have no interest in that. You have so many opportunities in the world to get that nostalgia rush. I don’t need to add on to that pile. Even Record Store Day is now a nostalgia rush. Every year we have less and less of an interest in doing Record Store Day because it’s not our mission, it’s not what we do. I don’t think it’s fair to say that’s what this medium is about.

GP:
You frequently talk about your record shop, this space, as your project. What do you mean?

NR:
I call it a project because Evie [Evie Opp, Nick’s wife and business partner] and I don’t know what The Business will be in a year, or five years, or 10 years from now. The Business has always evolved from one type of store to another. You certainly can’t say that The Business has been a record store for 40 years. The store has existed for 40 years, but it hasn’t been a record store for 40 years. It’s been other things. My version of The Business, like some previous owners of The Business, is a focus on it being a record store. That’s about 50% of what we do. There’s another 50% that’s related to that, which was never planned. We have a mission which is supporting independent voices.

Just talking about iTunes, this landscape is constantly evolving, and you have to constantly be dodging and changing things if you want to survive as a creator, or distributor, or a seller of any of this… stuff. I presume the record-store portion will remain relevant for as long as it’s viable. And we’ll do that. But there’s another whole portion of wholesale distribution, mail order… I’m constantly asking our labels and artists… What else do you need? What would be helpful to you? What aren’t you getting that would make your life easier, so you can focus on making your thing that we think is important? So, when people have ideas or things that we’ve not thought of to suggest that we can provide, we want to figure out how to incorporate those things into our project. So, I think it would be really short sighted to say that we’re just a record shop. Or just distro. Those are all things that we do, under the wide umbrella of project, but we also have a mission, and we want to do a multitude of things to achieve those goals.

I don’t think we compete with Amazon because we don’t have what they have.

NR

Your record shop is different. You don’t have, for example, records by artists who today we might call… heritage acts… in vinyl form, inside this shop. So, what makes your shop different?

NR:
There are a lot of things that make our shop different. We exist in a weird, small town. In order to be a record shop anywhere you have to offer something that people can’t just get on Amazon. We have to carve out a very special niche. It would be a losing battle for me, especially in a small town, to offer things that you could get for cheaper, and tomorrow, online. So, I have no interest in offering those things. Not to mention, again going back to the mission, there are increasingly, despite the talk of a vinyl Renaissance, and that vinyl sales are through the roof surpassing digital sales this year by whatever percent, you’re not seeing record stores cropping up on every corner right now. It’s not like we’re being inundated with this shit. It’s still a very, very special, hard-to-find type of place.

And the places that do exist often have to play the game to some extent, especially the ones in larger cities. I feel lucky to be in a small community with a very distinct niche, and close enough to other larger record stores that I can say… “Well, you should actually go up to Bellingham, probably, for X,Y, and Z. They totally have what you’re looking for.” Because that allows me to narrow in on the stuff that the few record stores that do exist don’t have, because they don’t have a bunch of money to spend on weird drone releases, limited to 500 copies, that each cost $17 wholesale. Record stores have a difficult time taking chances on things in this landscape.

So, I want to be a record store that only takes chances. Everything on my shelves is very special, often unique to this place, things you won’t find in other shops. And then there’s the wholesale aspect, having so much of what we do stock, being labels and artists I really like, who I feel should be more widely represented. Getting smaller stores to take those same chances. Showing them, look at this piece of amazing craftsmanship in this limited release. Having one of these on the shelf might be gamble because their customers might not know who this person is, but it’s going to speak to somebody. Somebody is going to see it on the shelf and go… “Wow, I gotta have this.” I think we’re different in many respects, but certainly that being foremost: we only work with independent labels and artists, and only ever will. You won’t ever find the featured shit on Spotify, like on an end-cap in my store. I think that’s a losing battle. Why would I want to play that game?

A streaming service is like a funnel. Sometimes things just won’t ever get to you, if you’re just going through top charts, or the recommended playlists, or whatever. Or even what your friends are listening to. There’s something limiting in that.

NR

Music streaming services are all the rage now. They’re everywhere. Everyone wants one. Love them? Hate them? Don’t care? Thoughts?

NR:
That question’s so broad! Truly, I mostly don’t care. Because again, I feel like it doesn’t affect my life. It’s not a part of my world. But, I know most of my peers, and probably almost everybody has a Spotify account, or whatever, that they’re streaming things on. I’ll tell you an optimistic view, and a pessimistic view. My optimistic view is that a streaming service can be an awesome tool to find new things. There’s so much stuff being made. None of us, even those of us who are in a record store all day, every day, listening to new things, none of us will have time to hear all the new stuff and find the things that we’ll like in our lifetime, which is terrifying.

An optimistic view is that a streaming platform provides people with an opportunity to discover things that they’ve not heard of, ideally. Now, that’s often not the case because there are algorithms involved that get you to listen to certain things. If you use it as a discovery tool, you’re using recommendation engines that are generating the same shit to everybody. So, there’s always going to be stuff that’s left out that’s never discovered. Maybe it’s not even on the streaming services because the artist can’t afford for it to be there, or don’t have an interest in it.

Another extremely pessimistic view is that people think that by giving Spotify $10 or whatever the fuck it is every month, that they’re doing their bit. “I pay for music! I have unlimited music delivered to me for $10 a month.” Which is a complete farce. We have problems associating value to art, we always have. But there should be a disclaimer, as you’re signing up for whatever, that says, “By the way, you’re not actually supporting any of these people.” It’s like a digital pat on the back, the $10. “I give artists money, I stream things, they get some amount of that…” There’s a kind of ignorance is bliss thing going on. “I don’t know how much artists are making, but I presume it’s fine. I presume that their arrangement has been agreed upon, and everybody’s fine with it.” And it’s not.

We work with over 80 artists and labels. I think for one or two of those artists, streaming works for them because they’ve figured it out. I totally applaud them because it’s hard to do. They’re like, “This is how people are listening to music, I need to make money this way. I gotta find a friend at Spotify to put me on these playlists!” And it works! If you can do that, fine. But not everybody can. And again, if I’m going for like a drone artist, that person’s not going to end up on a playlist because it’s going to make people cancel their Spotify subscriptions. [Laughs]

So, as a discovery tool, fine. If you think you are supporting the musicians that you like by giving a corporation $10 a month, you’re deluded.

Distribution for us means, simply, labels and artists, from all around the world at this point, get us new releases, and we find other interesting stores, around the world, to connect with, who will stock those records.

NR

You mentioned earlier, you’re a music distributor. Most people don’t know what that means today in our digital world. What does that mean?

NR:
We’re responsible for getting things that we really like out, not only on our shelves, but to other stores, and making as many people who will see it, interact with it in a meaningful way. It’s always been a curated group of people who we often know personally, in some way. But vary rarely do we actively recruit new artists or labels to our roster. It’s often artists or labels coming to us and saying… “We really like what you do, we need help with this. Can you do that?”

Unfortunately, because we’re a small operation, it’s just Evie and I, we often have to say “no” more than we say “yes.” But I think that speaks to the fact that there’s a dramatic need for this. Independent artists and labels are having a hard time getting their stuff into stores. We want to help as much as two humans can.

GP:
You mentioned earlier that people are putting more of their dollars today into buying physical media, like records, versus downloads. So, having those records from your distro, on as many shelves as you can find, feels more important than it’s felt for some time. Thoughts?

NR:
The ways you can interact with downloaded, digital media are decreasing. So, as corporations say they can’t do that anymore with their service, or this thing is only streaming now, of course, the sale of digital downloads is going to go down because somebody has said there’s no value in that anymore. They’ve made it more difficult. So only people who are really dedicated are going to go to the effort of finding another way to interact.

I think those numbers are deceiving. I think showing physical-media sales are far surpassing digital sales isn’t that great. There’s something more nefarious going on there. None of these numbers are increasing necessarily. That ratio is just changing. Probably more are going to streaming services, or out completely. I think there are a few people who are saying… “Fuck this, I’m going to just buy the music I like on a physical format, and if it doesn’t exist, I’ll get a download, or whatever.” So, I think those numbers, if you just read them straight across, would indicate that’s happening way more than it is. I don’t discount the fact that’s happening. But I think the real story is the most common ways people interact with music are instructive of how you need to change your consuming habits. So I think it’s actually more of a net-loss than a net-gain for physical media.

Going back to what I said earlier, it paints a deceiving picture of, well, if that was really the case, then you’d see record stores cropping up all over the place. Cashing in on this moment… “Whoa, all of the people who are consuming music are buying physical media again.” That’s not true. In fact, record stores are struggling. The few stores that do exist, I don’t interact with any that are kicking back, and watching the cash roll in. These stores are, truly, all still hurting. Nobody is winning in the current landscape.

We are all running towards a dystopia, but I feel fairly confident that that’s at least a little ways off.

NR

Why should people buy physical music?


NR:
So your options, if you buy physical media, are always greater than you’ll find anywhere else. I mean, if you go to a record store, if you come into my store, if you go to a show and you go to a merch table, I think it’s easily evident how much time and effort goes into making an object: an LP, a CD, even a tape. These are beautiful objects that can’t be removed from the music. The music is there, it exists, sure. But, there’s an equal amount of effort that’s put into each and every one of these things. Having gone through the process and made records ourselves, both of us, we know how much of a miracle each one of these things is. You can hold up anything. Even if you know that you don’t like the music connected with the object, you can say… “It’s amazing that this exists!” And it truly is. Physical media doesn’t just happen for most people. Most artists, most artists as a label, it’s a struggle to create these things and have them come out as beautifully as they do in the independent-media world. It’s a pure joy.

The apathy, nihilism, or straight up ignorance of consuming music today, and towards music in general, as wallpaper, as you like to say, comes from the fact that if you don’t engage with something physically, on some level, of course it’s always going to be wallpaper to you. I’m not the record-store owner who’s going to tell you how much better an LP sounds compared to your CD. That’s the most boring conversation to me, that older guys come in and have with me… constantly. It’s more about the whole thing. Getting up and engaging with a record means you are listening to the music. You get to see everything that’s included. Why is this poster included? Why is this lyric sheet included? There’s a zine in here that has nothing to do with the lyrics themselves. This is all part of this artist’s statement.

So, interacting without any of those pieces is an incomplete experience. And that’s, of course, not to mention the fact that it’s easily one of the best ways to give an artist or a label your financial support. That is not a thing to be taken for granted. What an amazing world we would live in if the artists that we all enjoyed could just spend more time making more stuff for us to enjoy, than having to work a second, or third job, to hope to have time to write more stuff. I want to surge toward that utopian idea, not this bizarre world where it’s all just wallpaper, it just appears and who cares who makes it, I don’t care what it sounds like, it’s vaguely pleasing to me… What’s the point?

I think a lot of artists struggle, rightfully, with trusting anybody to not rip them off.

NR

What’s the most discouraging thing you’ve seen in your industry, as a record-store owner, in the past three years?

NR:
There’s a lot of individually disturbing events and trends. I think the single, biggest one that repeatedly comes up are people in services claiming to be a solution, or aid to artists, who are actually only there to take advantage of those artists. You could list a multitude of things that still exist, that repeatedly crop up in news articles, things about unfair portions of sales, companies that go out of business because they can’t afford to pay what they rightfully owe, and what they made selling, to the people providing them the stuff to sell. This has been a trend in music and art for probably as long as art has existed. So, it’s not a new thing.

We work with so many artists and labels. At one point in time we were joking about how our whole roster, it felt like we just had bunch of these refugees who were downtrodden, and just like… “I don’t care….” The emotional state of these people was not good. And showing them that it’s maybe better to have a completely transparent operation, where you own all of your shit until somebody else pays for it. I’m never going to inflate what’s going on here. I’m never going to pat you on the back and say… “This whole thing sold out,” if it’s not sold out. I’ll tell you straight up… “We sold three copies of your record over the last six months. Here’s $30.” And I think there’s more value in that, rather than saying… “Yeah, baby, keep ’em coming, get me another repress!”

There’s an element of honesty that’s missing from our world. And when I say, “Our world,” I don’t even mean the music world in general; I mean the independent music world. It’s shocking to think that in this little microcosm, there are still vultures out there. It’s really sad to think that we’re not all united in tearing down a monolith like Apple or Spotify, or whatever, rather than screwing over an artist who’s having a hard time selling 20 tapes. What is the joy in taking money from a person who is doing that with their life? It’s baffling. That’s the thing that’s consistently discouraging and amazing to me, and part of why I wish we could help more people than we do. Because I know there are so many people in those, honestly… like, abusive situations, that will probably stop making things because they don’t have the money, or the will, to do so anymore. That’s tremendously sad to me.

GP:
What’s the most inspiring thing?

NR:
I think the most inspiring thing is crafting these relationships with artists and consumers who are all in this weird little fight together. We’re all outsiders. We don’t belong to the mainstream in any way. We would all struggle in the real world. [Laughs] It’s amazing to meet other artists, it’s amazing to meet other shop owners, it’s amazing to meet music buyers and fans who are all in this weird microcosm together. Those are the things that boost you up. When you meet somebody across the country, or across the globe, who’s working on the same thing you are. In the mainstream, that would be seen as competition. And you’d be, like… “Fuck that guy, I’m doing it better.” But in our world, you get this feeling of, like… “OK, if we can get 12 more of us, we’re going to OK! Punk records will be made forever if the 12 of us can do this!”

I think that there have always been, luckily for us, a small group of people who somehow find each other and say, “OK, we don’t care what’s going on in the world, this thing is still going to exist.” I see that all the time in the shop. When people who’ve never been here before open the door, maybe even thinking, “OK, I go to record stores all the time, it’s going to be the same giant Joni Mitchell section, and whatever…,” and then they don’t find that, and the people who respond to that positively are, like… “Oh shit, this is my place! I don’t know what any of this is!” That’s thrilling! “Oh my God, look at this weird ambient section from… Switzerland!” Great! Curating those interactions more, having more of that shared feeling of… “Yeah, yeah, we can keep this thing going altogether.” That’s easily the most inspiring thing. Simply the relationships between all those different participants.

The rest of it’s all trash. [Laughs]

The distro stacks