The Origami Vinyl Effect: How Record Stores Are Changing The Music Industry
After being laid off from heading the licensing department at CONNECT, Sony’s digital music service that ultimately failed against iTunes, Neil Shield went through a brief period of soul searching.
He started by taking a box of his parents’ unused vinyl records and attempted to sell them at a yard sale. Within just a matter of hours, Schield managed to sell about 40 records, a surprisingly high number, and unbeknownst to him, a childhood passion re-emerged.
“I was shocked by the number I sold,” Schield said on a balmy afternoon, perched behind a cash register and a stack of newly released records. “Partly because I didn’t know how many people would still be interested in [vinyl]. So I started joking around about owning my own record store, and that joke sort of became a rekindling of the dream.”
As the founding owner of Origami Vinyl, a popular record store in gentrified Echo Park, Schield is part of a small but growing group of people who have chosen to take on this specialized career path, essentially, the business of selling nostalgia.
Today, the vinyl industry is quickly gaining more influence in the music industry with sales at a record high.
According to the Nielson Soundscan, a data collecting system that tracks the sales of music products, 3.9 million vinyl albums were sold in 2011, a jump from 2.8 million sold in 2010. Although the statistics might come as a surprise to some people, Schield believes that the difference in sound quality between vinyl and digital songs is a defining factor as to why records sales are on the rise.
“I think some people long for tangible goods and there’ll always a market for that,” Schield said. “Records were never extinct; they never went away. A record actually sounds better than an MP3. Younger people have started to see this and they want to interact with it and see it. This is an experience that people always want.”
For those involved in vinyl business, connecting customers with a medium of music that mainstream media has abandoned decades ago, is more than just a profession. It is a new way of life.
In the last decade, L.A. has seen more than a dozen record stores opening their doors and introducing new customers to the world of analog music.
Although digital song downloads are still going strong, market trends show that CD sales are on the decline because consumers are starting to gravitate towards a different medium of music.
Big box retailers like Tower Records and Virgin Megastores, which have gone out of business, have paved the way for independently run mom-and-pop vinyl shops, specializing in hard-to-find, vintage records to the latest releases.
In 2008, the percentage for vinyl record sales surpassed that of CDs for the first time, and that number has been steadily on the rise ever since. Even as digital downloads prevail and thumbnail-sized MP3 players with the storage capacity to house tens of thousands of songs become smaller the resurgence of record stores is a sign that newer might not always be better.
After growing frustration from the lack of jobs in the music industry, Schield returned to his childhood dream in 2009, despite his doubts and concerns from his family and friends.
“When I seriously made the decision, ‘Ok, do I really want to do this?’ I thought about things like, is this type of business transferrable to other parts of town or even the country” Schield said. “I laid out Los Angeles and saw that what happens in the music scene really happens in the Echo Park and Silver Lake area for the most part, so for a record store, it is ideal."
With the help of some of the contacts he had made in the music industry, Shield managed to acquire one part of an empty warehouse facing a bustling section of Sunset Blvd, a place that once occupied a furniture store in the predominantly Latino neighborhood, and turned it into his shop.
Three years later, Origami Vinyl has seen walk through its doors everyone from up-and-coming artists to visitors from around the world to legendary musicians like The Who's Pete Townshend.
The store is named after Schield’s interest for Japanese culture. His father, who worked for an Asian motorcycle helmet distributor would take frequent trips to Tokyo and bring him back trinkets, including the intricate folded paper sculptures the store is named for.
At just 400 square feet, the shop is an inviting yet narrow space. Heavy wooden crates of 45s and 33s vinyl records line both sides, with each album personally picked by Schield, who is also the store’s buyer. A graphic mural that he commission from a local artist acts as the focal point of the shop.
“I want to continue to make this place a destination. We’re in the midst of building a listening station and next week we’re going to install iPads and that will allowed people to listen to the 10 records that we’re been really loving. From what I’ve been talking to at the record labels, we’re the first vinyl store to ever implement iPads in this way,” Schield said.
His consistent push to integrate technological advancements with a century-year old medium of music is one of the reasons his customers keep coming back to the store.
With Origami Vinyl paving the way for a slew of other vinyl shops to open in the same vicinity, Echo Park and Silver Lake have become hubs for records stores to thrive.
Opening around the same time as Schield’s store was Vacation Vinyl, a quirky store for analog music in the midst Sunset Junction in Silver Lake. One of the store’s managers, Pete Majors, a burly, tattooed, death-metal fan is in this business because it helps brings him closer to the music he loves.
“Music means a lot to people at whatever point they are in their lives,” Majors said, in between giving customers recommendations for his favorite records. "Being a rock star is not realistic for everyone.But when you are inspired by a song or an artist and you feel connected to it because it motivates you, owning that, in a sense, makes you feel closer to it.”
Although Vacation Vinyl is just four miles south from Schield’s shop, both employers feel that there is more camaraderie amongst the record store community instead of competition.
“All the record stores are in the trenches together,“ Majors said. “We’re just happy we exist because together we’re furthering this format that was through the 90’s considered a dead concept.”
This spirit of support transcends beyond just the record store community. It is also embedded within the very neighborhoods themselves. Schield attributes part of the success of his store to the relationships that he has formed with the other local businesses.
“What’s cool about Los Angeles, and it is the same in the band scene, is the record store business is not a competitive scene,” Schield said. “We love and support what each other does. We’re all very passionate about this.”
He also uses his resources and knowledge of the music industry as a platform to promote up-and-coming acts by holding in-store concerts and album release parties that are free and open to the public.
“For any sort of store, it is a really great place to be in. And now that we have been here for three years, we have become close friends with many of the businesses to the point where we have worked together on shop hops to art walks to beer crawls and all sorts of events,” Schield said.
Like the anticipation for freshly wrapped presents on Christmas morning, over 700 independently run record shops eagerly look forward to the third Saturday in April for Record Store Day.
Conceived by a small group of music enthusiasts in 2007, Record Store Day is a benchmark event to help bring worldwide attention to how the brick-and-mortar vinyl retailers are revitalizing the music industry.
At the sixth annual Record Store Day, last month, Schield, who has been preparing for the event since January, made sure that this year would be his greatest celebration yet. Customers began waiting outside the store at 4:45 am in order to get their hands on limited edition records and goodie bags as well as to watch free performances at an Origami Vinyl showcase at the Echo.
“This Record Store Day surpassed my expectations,” Schield said. “The most important thing about that day was that it got people to think about independent retail, shopping locally and evangelizing the vinyl medium.”
Reach reporter Candice here.