Ahead of this year’s Record Store Day (RSD) hoopla on April 21, the real story in Knoxville is how six independent record stores are flourishing in a city of this size. The fact that the flagship campus of the University of Tennessee is located here might be a contributing factor for why this is the case; it can be credited for spawning a diverse and ever-expanding music scene. Below the surface, however, lurks another reason for why each is finding success.
While the six local stores combine to cover all of Knoxville’s music needs, four stores in particular – Lost & Found Records, Raven Records & Rarities, Magnolia Records and Basement Records – seem to have figured out that, by embracing an ethos of comradery, there just might be “enough records to go around,” as Matt Adkisson of Basement told me early this month during a conversation concerning the upcoming 11th annual RSD, an unofficial holiday recognizing the creative/cultural impact independently owned stores have made in communities across the country.
Started in 2007 by a gathering of independent store owners as a means of spreading the word about some 1,400 stores scattered across the United States, RSD since has grown to become the single biggest event of the year for these kinds of businesses – both domestically and internationally. In later years, artists have been dubbed as RSD ambassadors; Run the Jewels are this year’s representatives. As per usual, all of the local, independently owned stores will be participating in RSD18.
Several elements have led to the increase in RSD’s popularity. Despite an overall fall in total album sales in the music industry, vinyl sales are at their highest point since 1991. Perhaps the biggest indication of this trend is the fact that big-box stores like Best Buy have stopped selling CDs in their physical locations, whereas large lifestyle retailers like Urban Outfitters have latched onto the vinyl craze. In recent years, there has been a 19 percent decrease in CD sales and (surprisingly) a 20 percent decrease in digital downloads, but vinyl sales actually have been on the uptick annually for 12 straight years. According to the latest statistics released in January by Nielsen, there was a 2 percent increase in vinyl sales in the first half of 2017 as compared to the previous year. Furthermore, vinyl sales represented 14 percent of all physical album sales last year.
So while it is a prosperous time for vinyl providers, the market at large is fickle and difficult to predict. (Who would have thought that streaming services already would have supplanted digital downloads?) This instability is what makes the willingness of the owners of the four aforementioned stores to cheer for the others’ establishments so remarkable and refreshing. As far as cornering the market in these good times, look no farther than Lost & Found, whose owners Mike and Maria Armstrong, with help from local musician Tim Lee, have hosted the biggest RSD party in town since day one.
Like with many such events in years past, you can expect a full day of live music, food and beer – and, of course, records – at the Broadway business on April 21. Lee, who curated the stellar lineup of performers, will play a couple of times and will help set up/take down gear throughout the day. Music will start at the venerable shop at noon and will feature Atlanta’s Magnapop as its headliner. There even will be an afterparty featuring a tribute to The Stooges, with notable Knoxville musicians Rus Harper and Andrew Bryant leading the proceedings.
Maria Armstrong tells us ahead of this year’s event that, “Record Store Day is a celebration of making it another year in a brick-and-mortar store and having a place to gather with other music fans. I love having a place where young people can come and dig for records just like we did as kids.” Continuing with what will become a familiar refrain, she goes on to say, “Record Store Day is a huge day for all the stores in town, and I feel there is room for all of us. If one store doesn’t have what you’re looking for, maybe another one does. Just come out to your favorite store and show us all some love!”
Jay Nations, co-owner of Raven, echoed a similar sentiment when speaking about how the Armstrongs celebrate RSD. “I have always admired Lost & Found’s big party,” he says, noting that sometimes he makes the rounds to the other stores on RSD.
Raven, located on North Central Avenue in a revitalized section of Happy Holler that has seen tremendous growth over the last few years, is another of the city’s stalwarts. Nations and his partner Jack Stiles, who by all accounts provides the store with its “rarities” and a special, movie-memorabilia niche within the greater record-store landscape, oversee the shop in its current spot. But Raven enjoyed a glorious run in the ‘80s and ‘90s during the heyday of the Cumberland Strip before shifting music trends forced its closure in 1995.
The interceding years witnessed a fair share of trials and tribulations, which included a reopening on Kingston Pike and a subsequent move to its current location. Yet its owners never gave up on the idea of maintaining an independent record store. The present version of Raven opened in 2011 and has remained a trusted name for collectors in Knoxville ever since. It even maintains a booth featuring a highly curated selection of CDs, records and collectibles at Bargain Hunters Antique & Flea Market Mall at the intersection of Chapman Highway and East Moody Avenue in South Knoxville.
When Nations, who has been in the record business for well over 30 years, is asked how Knoxville can sustain so many stores, he jokingly says, “[I’m] not sure, but I like the fact that all the other shops started as my customers.” He then adds, though, “We are all cooperative and look out for each other.”
Are you sensing a theme yet?
As for what Raven has planned for RSD this year, Nations says, “Although it’s the biggest day of the year and huge fun, it’s exhausting, and I spend weeks beforehand prepping. Jack and I will have the shop packed with goodies [and] specials, and [we] will be opening early at 10 a.m. We will also have a limited run of RSD18 commemorative T-shirts available.”
The newest kid on the block, so to speak, is Magnolia, located just north of downtown in the same building that houses Knox Public House and situated just around the corner from the Mill & Mine. Co-owners Carey Balch and Paxton Sellers point to the closing of Hot Horse in the Old City and the demise of the iconic Disc Exchange for providing them with the push they needed to start their venture. “I wanted to have a place that was more focused on new releases/reissues, and the combination of both Hot Horse and Disc Exchange closing made it seem necessary,” Balch says. Sellers adds, “The Disc Exchange announced they were closing, and that made my gears start turning about a possible opportunity to open a record store.”
Balch contacted Sellers about the possibility of opening a store jointly, and the pair – along with a third partner, Stephen Greene – opened Magnolia to coincide with the 2017 edition of Big Ears. The store celebrated its one-year anniversary near the end of last month, but success hasn’t come easy. According to Balch, “We’ve definitely taken our lumps within the first year, but it was expected and has all been a valuable experience.” He explains that being in the vicinity of Lost & Found certainly has helped their cause. “We’re all covering different bases, which has created mutually beneficial relationships. It’s vital to prop each other up, period – but especially in this current retail climate.”
Adkisson of Basement began his record-store journey in 1989 by working at Turbo’s, a Morristown outlet. He earned a business degree and cultivated a path that eventually led to him owning his own record store. Adkisson credits the upswing in vinyl roughly 10 years ago with motivating him to parlay his love affair with music into a solid business model. “The love of music just happened to be a good business opportunity, also,” he says. Ironically, Adkisson took over Basement in 2012, the grand re-opening under new management occurring on RSD that year. He says that Basement likes to “keep it simple” by focusing more on the releases than the event itself.
And in keeping with the communal attitude shared by his peers, Adkisson believes in supporting his fellow small-business owners. As he puts it, “Music is a friendly business, and there’s plenty of vinyl to go around.”
Another commonalty connecting all of these store owners is the passion each has for music, as they all are collectors and appreciators of the art form, as well. “I have been buying records as early as I can remember,” Sellers says. “My first memory is my mother buying me 45s at the drugstore every week. Of course, I really did not have my coming of age until I heard my first punk tape around 1987. Then my quest for new music began, and I actually started to collect music.
“I collected punk tapes and then went on to CDs. I really did not start collecting vinyl until I started college in the early ‘90s. I have gone on and off of collecting, but I really started to ramp back up again in the mid-2000s and have been going strong ever since,” Sellers says, noting how now he focuses the majority of his collecting on “rare soul and spiritual-jazz records.”
Knoxville is fortunate in that each of these stores offers something unique for everyone. Whether it be Magnolia’s focus on new releases and independent artists or Basement’s classical and jazz offerings, each store gladly will refer you to another if they do not have what you’re looking for. “We’ve been told that coming into Lost & Found is like coming into someone’s home and looking through their record collection,” Maria Armstrong says. “We love music, and we love people who love music. And when we can connect someone with music they love – whether we have it or not – it makes everything we do worth the effort.”
So regardless if you’re a serious music collector, a novice record buyer or you simply want to see what all the fuss is about, go out and support these fine stores on April 21 – or whenever fits your schedule; they’re open other days of the week, too. If nothing else, you’ll meet some nice folks and get a taste of the comradery and spirit that make our scruffy little city so great. For more information about these stores and their events, please consult the following:
214 W. Magnolia Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917
Lost & Found Records
3710 N. Broadway, Knoxville, TN 37917
Raven Records & Rarities
1200 N. Central St., Knoxville TN 37917
5009 Chapman Hwy., Knoxville, TN 37920