Evil Genius Finds Virtue in Vinyl

And lo, a new record shop is born

by Gordon Campbell
Photos by Rose O’Connor

During the past few years, independent record shops have been dying on their feet under the onslaught of…well, take your pick. The retail music industry has been dying because of (a) the growth of legitimate online purchasing (b) the growth of illegal downloading (c) the bulk purchasing deals enjoyed by chain stores (d) cut-throat competition for the leisure dollar (e) the global economic recession…For a slew of related reasons, bricks and mortar record shops are going the way of the dinosaurs. Much loved, but headed for extinction.

A few months ago, Werewolf published an article called “Record Shop R.I.P.” about this trend, and things have only gotten worse since then. The Real Groovy shop in Wellington has closed, and ditto the Marbecks outlet in Cuba St. On the same street, Slowboat Records continues to trade, buoyed by the fact that it owns its premises and therefore isn’t bleeding to death from rent payments each week. The fundamentals though, have not changed. Which makes it a source of some wonder that two new record shops have opened their doors in Wellington in recent months : Rough Peel Music (RPM) in Vivian Street, and a store called Evil Genius in Berhampore.

RPM looks like a clearing house for the Real Groovy shop in Christchurch. Evil Genius, too, is something of a refugee from the Christchurch earthquake. It opened its doors in Lyttleton only four days before the February 22 quake laid waste to its premises, and to the neighbourhood. Of the two shops Evil Genius offers the more interesting business model, in that it is a three-headed beast.

Primarily, it is (a) a record shop specialising in vinyl collectibles, with the music side of the store’s operation being under the care of former Wellingtonian Ben James, and Apa Chappel. It is also (b) an outlet for T-shirts, posters and other design materials created by the Chilean /New Zealand artist Oscar Guerrero, and thirdly, it is also (c) a coffee shop run by Rosie Smyth, recently a manager at Olive Café in Cuba St and the Lone Star outlet in Lower Hutt.

All the coffee on site comes from the Lyttleton Trading Company. The Evil Genius fusion of cafe culture and niche music is not unique – Baobab in Newtown is another community café with strong links to bands like Newtown Rock Steady and Nudge – but it does offer a homely feel to the shop, while providing an alternative source of income for Evil Genius on days when the music sales are running a bit slow.

As always, the cost of rent is a factor. When Ben James last lived in Wellington three years ago, the rents in formerly bohemian Newtown were still within reach. Now they aren’t. That’s one excellent reason why Evil Genius has set up in Berhampore, but this is still something of a mixed blessing. For years, the Berhampore cluster of shops has languished partly because there is so little in the way of available parking. Evil Genius plans on being the first good reason for people to make a conscious decision to go to Berhampore, and to stop there.

Yeah, yeah…there are plenty of reasons to be less than optimistic and Ben James has heard most of them. People tell him that record shops are going the way of the blacksmiths. “I hear all that. I don’t know if its because lots of my friends listen to records or love records…but I feel that vinyl is the one format in the industry that is always going to continue. It doesn’t seem to die. There are still new bands coming up that still want to release their music on vinyl. So in that respect, there must be a market out there for that format.”

Socially, there’s a perception that record shops serve as a kind of drop-in centre for over 30 year olds. “That’s true,” James concedes. “ But that’s changing with this whole hipster influx of young kids trying to look into the past and see what’s happened, and who also want to look into the future and see what’s coming. A lot of people are releasing on vinyl, and it makes it a cool thing for people to have. Not for everybody. But there are definitely young kids who seem to really like vinyl. They seem to be into buying a turntable and set-up, and collecting records.”

Hopefully, there will be enough of them for word to get around, and for Jthe Evil Genius crew to eke out a living. Some 90 per cent of what the store will carry, James estimates, will be rare second hand items. As always with vinyl, the packaging and freight costs of getting the stock in – and mailing some of it out again – in good condition, can push the prices to the brink of affordability. Nationally, the vinyl resurgence has been helped immeasurably by the existence of the two main New Zealand-based importers and distributors of vinyl – namely Southbound Records run by Jeffrey Stothers, and Andrew Tolley’s Kato Records operation. For Evil Genius, James says, both will be affordable sources of the rarities and niche music that he’s interested in stocking.

Which will be what, primarily? “ We’re really going to try more for the rare and interesting albums than your stock standard new issue vinyl.” Some will come from his own (and from friends) private collections. “There’ll be a lot of progressive psychedelic rock like King Crimson. A lot of old surf music. A lot of 50s and 60s as well and blues rather than…” The usual drum and bass? “There isn’t going to be any drum and bass.” Even with hip hop, the focus will be more on the 1980s Sugarhill to Run-DMC pre-gangsta era. “It will be more the origins of hip hop, rather than where hip hop has gone. The thing that we’re really going to push with Evil Genius is being a destination store, and appealing to collectors.”

With vinyl comes the love that doesn’t really apply to CDs, or to the typical CD relationship with their computer or their Ipod. “CDs, it seems to me,” James says with a sigh, “are just like…this donkey. You take the stuff off the donkey and chuck it on your computer and then its done. The CD is not valid anymore. But with records its a valid object already, and you store it away carefully and keep it nice and clean. Its also far harder to copy vinyl into a computer – you need special amplifiers to get in onto a computer – and most of the time, it won’t sound good anyway.”

Okay, but this seems to be running counter to the lessons of history. Surely, when the likes of Spotify arrive here, they will become the music equivalent of cloud computing. People may not even buy CDs or tracks from Itunes anymore. They’ll be more inclined to rent and stream their music from Spotify, rather than own it. Are hold-outs like James saying that some sense of primal ownership will always be a big part of music appreciation ?

“Yeah, And, if you’re into art and music, LPs are a really good format. It’s a large format designed to be enjoyed. Especially if it’s a gatefold that opens right up and you’ve got this very beautiful art work. It serves as both an art piece and music at the same time.” Moreover, with vinyl there is a ladder of sonic excellence ? “ Yeah. With CDs, you don’t get a different grading. They’re all the same. But with records you can get 180 gram up to 200 gram and then different coloured records. And these days you’re getting your MP3 download with your vinyl as well, so you’re getting both formats in one hit. So it’s a sensible format to go with, I reckon…”

Young hipsters aside, the vinyl resurgence can’t help but seem like a throwback to the period 30 or 40 years ago when vinyl ruled the roost. Back then, importing records was often an exercise in frustration and bureaucratic compliance, before there was any prospect of a joyful experience. First, you had to negotiate to get a money order from a bank in order to pay the exporter in London or Birmingham and then had to wait for months for the precious album to arrive – only to find (50% of the time) that the vinyl had been bent out of playable shape in the post. Arggh!

Thanks to people like Jeffrey Stothers at Southbound, most of the potential for that kind of grief has been taken out of the equation. If there are any vinyl pressing plants left in Australasia, Stothers says, he doesn’t deal with them. He imports all his vinyl from the US or Europe. Sure, freight is an ‘absolutely massive’ part of the cost structure of his operation. “A box of 50 bits of vinyl from the UK from the likes of Music on Vinyl would probably cost the equivalent of about 200 CDs in weight.” That adds substantially to his costs, and eventually to consumers. That’s understood, at least by most of them.

Much of the mystique around the superior sound quality of vinyl focuses on the gram weight of the recording.. A standard record usually weighs 120 to 140 grams. A heavy, socially superior record is in the 180 to 200 gram range, or beyond. Since a heavier record is thicker it enables the grooves to be deeper, allowing for more dynamic mastering and for the stylus to track the record better. All other things being equal, a 180 or 200 gram record is flatter and quieter than the standard pressing. (All of which can be cancelled out of course by the condition and quality of the cartridge and stylus, by turntable belt slippage and rumble, and by a whole raft of storage and care issues before, during and after playing the record.)

What we do know, Stothers says, is that CD sales – or at least the income from them – are falling, while vinyl is on the increase. Are the arcs intersecting at a point where say, the falling profits from CDs are being compensated by the return of vinyl ? Not any time soon. Even for Southbound, vinyl comprises only 6% of Stothers’ business, up 2% from last year. In this business, one looks for good news where one can find it. With that in mind, the range of options available on vinyl is definitely on the increase. “Four or five years ago,” Stothers says, “ you could probably go to any online shop or any distributor or wholesaler around the world and they probably had 500 jazz titles on vinyl That’s all it would have been back then.. Now, there’s probably as many as 5,000 in stock with some distributor or wholesaler.

People know they like. The 200 gram full weight King Crimson vinyl pressing of In the Court of The Crimson King for instance, had had to be repressed three times to keep up with demand, in runs of 500 to 1,000 each time. That’s the stuff Stothers would increasingly like focus on. “I’ve always sort of wanted to be doing 180 gram or better as the market I’d prefer to be servicing. Those are the people with reasonable turntables who are going to be looking at it and going…Its 180 grams, and yeah that’s the price, but I’ll buy it ! ”

In many respects, vinyl is a format ideally suited to impulse buying. People suddenly see in the racks a cherished object from their past – like an old friend that’s been forgotten about – and they want to reclaim it. When Stothers imagines his customers, are they mainly the middle aged boomers who never really fell out of love with the LP, and with the gatefold ? “I think it was, but I don’t think it is now. I’ve got a daughter who’s old enough to be at university, and her boyfriend got a turntable for his birthday. His dad turned 50 and his mates chipped in and got him a turntable because his son had one. That’s the spectrum we’re now talking about. ”

Sure, there is the some truth to the stereotype of the grey-haired fellow in the second hand shop flicking through the racks looking for a bargain, or for that elusive Bowie album on vinyl…”But the vinyl scene is now across all age groups. That’s one reason why I’m opening a shop.” [on Mt Eden Road, later this month] Sure, he adds, New Zealand doesn’t have quite the same wealthy elite as in fashionable London stores like Rough Trade East, where the store can routinely charge 20 pounds for a bit of vinyl. But some price expectation is built in, even here in New Zealand. “That’s the good side of the [vinyl] industry. It isn’t discounted. No one feels that it has to be cheap.”

Vinyl will always be there. It may be the last format, Stothers believes, even after the CD has gone the way of the 8 track cartridge and the cassette. Have I heard, he asks, of an artist called Delaney Davidson ? The Christchurch guy? “Yeah…Well, some 50% of the orders for his new album were for the vinyl. And I sold out of vinyl before the CD. I didn’t get enough of either, but half the orders were for the vinyl.” Same with the re-orders, which are running at about 75-80 % in favour of the vinyl. “People want that real package. “

In sum, the return to vinyl is about retaining a human dimension to music. Word of mouth, Stothers believes, is therefore essential to the wellbeing of stores like Evil Genius, perhaps even more so than having a presence online. For years, Slowboat and the late lamented Records Records in Dunedin put a human face to the storage and selling of music. The younger likes of the Evil Genius crew are very much about picking up the same torch. While providing some good coffee.

“There’s definitely a need for a good coffee shop in Berhampore,” James says with his usual positivity. “ I know that much. When we were painting the exterior, one of the things passers-by kept on asking was whether there would be coffee. We’ve got listening posts at the store, incorporated right in the café. So hopefully…people will come along, get a coffee, put a record on that they’ve never heard before and go whoah, that’s pretty damn good…”

He laughs. No- one, he concedes, is ever going to get rich out of this operation. “ We’re pretty humble dudes, though. We’re not in it for the money. We’re in it for the love.”