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It’s that magical time of the year again–Record Store Day! It’s a day when musicians release special vinyl additions of their albums, re-pressings of your favorite old school bands get put back out on wax, and almost every record store does something special. Get ready for in-store performances, limited addition merch, and vinyl deals like you’ve never seen before! (Except maybe since last year’s Record Store Day…)
BTRtoday wasn’t about to miss out on all the festivities of such a wonderful holiday! We’re presenting you with this very special interview with the manager of the Big Kahuna of Brooklyn’s go-to vinyl store, Rough Trade. George Flanagan is the store’s manager, he see’s the inner workings and behind-the-scenes of this flourishing New York record store.
Music fans can go to Rough Trade to not only find that gem of a vinyl, but to also see their favorite bands play in the live concert venue in the back; take a few shots at the bar; drink some artisan coffee; look at some contemporary art; play some ping pong; read some books by and/or about bands and musicians; take some pictures in their personalized photo booth; or simply tag their grungy, yet infamous, bathroom stall. This is the type of record store dreams are made out of!
In 1976, an English guy named Jeff Travis created the record store Rough Trade. He had done some traveling the year before and during those adventures had racked up tons of vinyl purchases. By 1978 it was the beginning of the punk rock era and Rough Trade had started their own record label. Even though they signed bands like The Violent Femmes, The Fall, and The Smiths, it didn’t last long. The store went on without the label until the early 2000s when they made their come back by signing The Strokes.
Now, the record store and label are thriving–selling vinyl and signing bands such as Alabama Shakes, Warpaint, and Parquet Courts. In 2013, they opened a mega store in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg with a venue in the back that is currently the hot spot for any music rat in the scene.
BTRtoday (BTR): How long have you been working at Rough Trade?
George Flanagan: I’ve been working here since November of 2014, so about a year and half. I’ve worked at record stores for almost all my life, since I was 16. Up until six years ago I was at Virgin Megastore and then they closed, so I was pretty convinced that that was the end of my record store employment. I ended up at the Metropolitan Opera, of all places, for a few years doing something similar, but obviously, it wasn’t a record store. When Rough Trade opened I was thrilled that there was a store like this, not like a little hole-in-the wall store, but like a big store, so I was really excited to come on board here.
BTR: How have you seen this store grow?
GF: Growing with Rough Trade, I watched it define itself as being a store that curates really cool music and that prides itself on being on the very cutting edge of what’s cool. When the Taylor Swift album came out on vinyl, everyone here wondered, “are we too cool to carry this?” but then people kept coming in and asking for it. So then it was like, “ok… no we’re not.” So we brought it in. I enjoy seeing when we step out a little. We can kind of be everything to everyone. We can have the obscure esoteric post-punk record from 1981, and we can also have Taylor Swift and we will sell both. It’s really exciting to be in that environment that’s not so specific—it can be all encompassing.
BTR: Had you known of the company before it opened in NYC?
GF: Yeah! If you’re in the record store world Rough Trade is pretty epic in terms of what they mean for music culture, especially in the U.K. They definitely have not made the inroads of the US, yet. In New York the awareness is growing and that’s great, but in the U.K. it’s a huge meeting point for a lot of important punk music, reggae. It’s [Rough Trade] a very cool scene that was just sort of the common place for everyone to meet and cross paths in the ‘70’s. It was a very important record store in terms of what they wanted a record store to be. It’s not just a place to buy records, but also a place to hang out, share ideas, and congregate.
BTR: So Rough Trade is kind of a big deal?
GF: Well, I think I knew about it before it came to New York because it’s also a label, which a lot of amazing records have come out on. I kind of had a higher regard, personally, for the label. Then I went to England a few years back and I absolutely checked out the store. For me, though, having worked with so many record stores, I think every one is great. I’ve never been like, “oh, this is the best record store!” That’s the cool thing about them. You could pop into one and finally find that gem that you haven’t been able to find at seven other record stores. A guy with four boxes on the sidewalk selling records is just as exciting to me as walking into here [Rough Trade], because it’s that whole allure of, “what am I going to find?” So I’ve never put Rough Trade on a pedestal. However, I do think having worked here and seeing how they run their business, how we’ve taken cues from the UK stores, I feel proud to be part of what they’re about.
BTR: How has NYC taken to the store?
GF: It’s been pretty cool to see. When I first came on board so many customers would say, “oh, I had no idea you guys were here!” and these would be people who lived in Brooklyn, and I barely get that anymore. We also have a huge tourist base, because, just in general, Williamsburg is a kind of a tourist spot for your hipper tourist. Also, a lot of Europeans already know about Rough Trade so they make a point to get here. It’s been more important to me to see the local crowd seek us out.
BTR: Speaking of locals, how have the Brooklynites been reacting to the store?
GF: A lot of people at first we’re like, “how, absurd that there’s this record store opening,” because it was in 2013 when all these other shops were kind of going down. Especially a store of this size—it’s 10,000sq. ft., and that was kind of unheard of. I think we had to win over a lot of real super hipster-elitists that just saw us as the “corporate store,” because we existed in the U.K.
Honestly, it’s been really cool to see people realize the want what we have to offer. I get extremely positive vibes from people coming in and saying, ‘this store is so cool!’ What’s really gratifying is doing in-stores for bands that maybe we hesitated about before. An example I like to use is this girl Marina, Marina and the Diamonds, this very poppy thing, that isn’t necessarily Rough Trade per say, but we were like whatever let’s do this as in-store, and it brought out this huge and devoted fan base of teens that probably had never even stepped into a record store before. They were just so exited to be here and thought it was so cool, and these same people have come back.
It’s also cool to have the venue, so people will come here to see a show, and then they’ll stumble into the record store, so it’s a cool partnership to have the venue to build the traffic and awareness.
BTR: How long has Rough Trade included this large concert venue in the back of the store?
GF: The venue was pretty much from the get-go, always going to be here. Rough Trade partnered with Bowery Presents, who runs a lot of shows around here around the city. So the game plan was always, “wouldn’t it be cool to have a venue?!” Rough Trade in the U.K. has a lot of in-stores in their shops, but you’re basically looking at clearing some of the people browsing records out of the way to set up a band in the middle of the store, which is cool in the intimate factor, but to have a dedicated live space is a whole other thing. It works both ways—people come into the store to shop and they hear a band sound checking back here and they think, “oh my god, there’s a venue in here too!’ So it’s a great connection to have.
BTR: What’s been one of the best shows Rough Trade has put on here?
GF: There’s been a lot of shows of bands right at the point where they’re on the rise, like the Father John Misty show last year or the Ezra Furman show at the end of last year, and Weezer did an in-store here a couple weeks back. So those are really cool in terms of people being really excited to see an artist that they wouldn’t normally get to see in a 300-person room. Personally, for me, there’s this band that I’ve loved since I was a kid, called The Church, this Australian psychedelic band that played here. For me that was special because they hung out, I had coffee with one of them, we chatted and then to come see them where I worked half an hour later was pretty amazing.
BTR: What’s up with vinyl?
GF: Well, I think there’s this cool factor with vinyl. There’s nothing necessarily cool about CDs like there is about vinyl. Even though it’s an older format and it’s more antiquated—that’s attractive to people. I’ve seen younger people buy the record just to buy the record, they don’t even own a turntable, but they think it’s cool to put it up on there wall—as long as it has the download code. It’s cool to see those types of customers really get it.
When I was growing up it was all about, “let’s go hangout at the records store!” that’s how we discovered new music. I totally appreciate the Internet and other ways to discover music, but there’s something to be said with actually speaking to human beings, in the flesh, about music—there’s more of a connection.
BTR: What does the future of vinyl look like?
GF: It’s still a very small percentage of music sales, but it’s definitely significant and still growing. So now the question has become, “when is it going to peak and dip?” I want to believe that will never happen. I like to think that there will always be the type of music fan that values the tactile experience of buying a record, bringing it home, and the way you absorb music is so different than if you were streaming something, it demands your attention for those two sides.
Also, a lot of people I talk to now, they listen to music in different ways, they maybe will only buy the vinyl if it’s something they really love, so it’s kind of like only the best stuff. I think there’s always going to be that, especially in a neighborhood like Brooklyn. You can probably only have a few different places in the country where you can support a store like this. So I’m going to say the vinyl boom is just going to keep going—I don’t think it will ever be what CDs were in the ’90s or what vinyl was in the ‘70s, it’ll never be that, but I think, if anything, when music is so accessible and so immediately in front of you, you can have a whole band’s catalogue in a matter of moments with a few clicks of a button, it speaks to the true music enthusiast that prefers to have it on vinyl.
I just hope it doesn’t become too much of a collecting thing, that’s the only thing that bums me out. People just collecting it, but not listening to it and they don’t even open it. That to me is weird. I don’t get it. I get the idea of, “I want the blue colored vinyl, because it’s more limited,” but I’m still going to open it and listen to it.
BTR: What’s the record selection process for Rough Trade?
GF: We try to bring in everything, which is really hard. We definitely can be a little selective. Obviously if there’s a local following, even if it’s not a huge band, if they have a presence here in Brooklyn, we’ll bring them in. We do a lot of consignment, which means buying directly from the artist. We’re trying to cover our bases. We have really deep catalogues in jazz, world music, our electronic music section is amazing, and I’d say the best in the city. I think there’s a lot of knowledge between different employees here, decades of expertise on what sells.
The other cool part of this, and this is very important to me, is that nobody is dumb enough to say that they know everything. We’re always being surprised by things that catch us off guard, so we try everything. We’ll bring in ten copies of something new and then sell out of it in a day. So it’s always education, everyday, and there’s so much music and stuff going on. Not working in a record store for those years I was at the Metropolitan Opera, I thought I was keeping up–I would be online, I was buying new music, but then I came back here [to Rough Trade] and I had missed so much. It’s work to have an opinion on music and to be in the know. It’s tricky, but I like to think we do a pretty good job.
That being said, if anyone comes up and asks for something we don’t have, that’s a great indicator of, “ok, two people asked for that today. We should have it.” It’s always kind of growing. We’re never like, “sorry, we don’t carry that here,” it’s never been that type of vibe.
BTR: What’s the plan for Record Store Day at Rough Trade?
GF: It’s going to be huge! Insane! Obviously, we’re bringing all the exclusive titles, and I always say, if you’re looking for something this is your best place to go. Yeah, there will be a lot of people here, but we bring in quantities, a lot more stuff than most stores do, and so you’re odds are better.
We’re also going to have a big mark down sale, and live music and DJs all day. Some highlights of that: this band Nothing is playing, these legendary garage rockers, The Fleshtones, are playing, which I’m very excited about. We have Zia from Dandy Warhols DJing, it’s a pretty balance mix. Mr. Lif, a hip hop artist, he’s got a new album coming out, he’s going to be performing. It’s a great day of 6 or 7 acts that are a nice mix of different types of music, and it’s free all day. There’s going to be a cool limited addition silkscreen poster that we made to celebrate vinyl. So yea, it’s going to be crazy and super fun—it’s the happiest day of the year!