It seems wrong, on some level, to think of a for-profit retail store as a cultural institution in the same way we think of performance halls, museums or other centers of the arts. But for Amoeba Music, a lot of people are willing to make an exception. The same goes when it comes to applying a term like mecca to Amoeba in an actually more-or-less religious sense. So when the behemoth shop announced it was going to shift locations in Hollywood recently, there was a cognitive shift as music fans (and Blu-Ray buffs, too) began considering the idea of bowing toward Gower instead of Cahuenga.
Now, there are some more worrisome concerns for customers of the Hollywood outpost that serves as a symbol of the last stands record stores everywhere are taking on behalf of cloud-free music. The coronavirus crisis threatens to put a crimp in plans to either reopen for a season at the current Sunset Blvd. locale or easily move to the new one on Hollywood Blvd. (Of course, there are hundreds of smaller shops may look at Amoeba and wish they had its problems: No other brick-and-mortar store in the world can claim to have hosted an in-store Paul McCartney concert and have been rented out by his daughter Stella for a fashion show… as little as that legacy might be worth in a looming depression.)
On Monday, Amoeba started a GoFundMe in hopes of drawing support from regular customers, not just in Los Angeles but national and international visitors who’ve come to think of the Hollywood flagship as SoCal’s true Happiest Place on Earth. (The store’s older and considerably smaller sisters are in the Bay area.) “We would never have considered doing this in normal times,” says Amoeba co-founder Marc Weinstein, who is making the case that Amoeba and its furloughed 400-person staff are facing a rough road through the unknown number of closed months ahead.
Even for those who may not be interested or able to participate in the GoFundMe but remain fans nonetheless, Weinstein (one of the partners who started the first location in Berkeley in 1990) also has some interesting observations about how the store’s focus has shifted in recent years, and what to expect after they move in October… assuming there is an October.
(You can find the GoFundMe here; in it first 10 hours up, $35,000 of the $400,000 goal had been raised.)
VARIETY: Why the fund drive now?
MARC WEINSTEIN: We are launching the GoFundMe campaign before everyone’s tapped out to try to give our fans a chance to help us here. There are still so many unanswered questions about where we’re going to end up. We’re really just trying to get to opening our new store on Hollywood Blvd. We have this cool new space and a plan to get in there. But between now and then, we are trying to get whatever resources we can to help with the move and help us cover our staff. Every one of our staff is on unemployment now. We’re chipping in, in that we’re covering all their benefits, making sure everybody has health. But otherwise, everyone that works for us is on unemployment right now. Including me. [Laughs.]
Is your mail order business picking up, at least?
Our mail order has been plenty busy, but not really enough to cover much of anything. It represents probably, at the most, 10% of our (usual) business in Hollywood, and less than that obviously for all three stores.
Are you still hoping to move in October?
We’re just trying to bridge the gap between now and then. We were so blessed to be able to find something as appropriate as that spot, right in a very visible place next to the W Hotel, across from the Pantages. … We’re idealistic indie record store people. We represent all the small stores in the country. We’re trying to keep the culture alive and always have been. Because without us in the mix… you know, we sell huge percentages of a lot of new releases. We’re an absolute destination for hard copies for anyone who lives in or is visiting town — we’re kind of like a Disneyland in L.A. All those people in Cincinnati and Milwaukee who don’t have too many record stores left can come to L.A. and have that feeling again and that experience. We love being the people who can keep that going and provide that. And… I noticed Grimey’s in Nashville has Taylor Swift helping them out. We don’t have that kind of support in the wings that we know of. We’re just looking for any help we can get at this point to bridge between now and the fall, and keep it going.
Do you foresee that the Sunset Blvd. location will reopen before you need to move, or is that seeming like a lost cause?
Well, I hope so. But I don’t know the answer to that yet, because at this point, we’re negotiating with our owner-landlords and our financing with the banks. We’re just trying to work something out with them. And hopefully we can make some kind of deal that we can afford and open again where we are now. But mostly we’re keeping our eye on getting open on Hollywood Blvd. We don’t really know yet what’ll happen this summer with our current space.
Our thing is, we provide 400 record store jobs for real record nerds and people who are players — who are in the music scene and are integral in all of their communities. We are more than anything trying to keep all of that alive — their jobs. I mean, honestly, I have over the years felt most proud about all the jobs that we’ve created, as much as the environment we’ve created, and not about necessarily the success of our business financially by any means. Because it’s been somewhat of a struggle over the years. We’re wonderfully celebrated and busy enough that it’s kept us going all these years, despite the fact that it hasn’t been as profitable as it once was by any means.
The staffing is into the hundreds?
It’s 300 people at the L.A. store, and they’re such an amazing and caring staff. And from what little we’ve managed to stay in contact with them as a group, everybody’s holding tight and absolutely all about trying to make sure we get back up on our feet ASAP.
And most of those are part-time, we’d assume?
Uh-uh. I would say more than two-thirds are full-time. I’m not sure the exact number, but if you’re counting anyone up to 32 hours, I would say that’s at least 80% of our staff. We have so many people working in the back, upstairs, pricing, moving stuff, and then we have a warehouse, and all the buyers that are out there. I mean, the building is filled with activity, even in all the back rooms. It’s a lot of people.
The lease on the new location suggested you’re in this for a long haul.
We have an 8-year plus 10-year option at 6200 Hollywood, so that gives us some real legs, 8 to 18 years’ worth of lease. We want to keep the whole business going as best we can, and we know we’re a significant player for all the pressing plants and for all the artists. And obviously we want it to be a venue for all the up-and- coming artists that we can be there for. You know, where’s an artist going to do an in-store in L.A. if we’re not around?
Record Store Day would have been taking place this past Saturday, but it got bumped back two months. Isn’t it looking unlikely it can happen on the postponement date, June 20?
It does seem unlikely. I think it’s idealistic, the date in June, but I think it could still happen later in the year, maybe. God, yesterday was so strange in that way, just thinking about what it would normally have been like. I don’t really get up and cashier very much anymore, but I’ve always done it on Record Store Day, and it’s always a day where I see a lot of people I’ve seen over the years and it’s such a celebration. And yesterday was downright depressing.
People have started wondering if retail could come back sooner rather than later if social distancing was enforced. Record Store Day, whenever it does happen, would certainly be a different scene if the country is re-opening retail in a way where only a few people are allowed in a store at a time. You can imagine it with smaller shops, but at Amoeba…
Exactly, what a challenge. When I think about the line that goes all the way around the entire block on Record Store Day, if you had to put everybody six feet apart, that line would go all the way down to Santa Monica Boulevard and beyond.
Amoeba almost certainly draws the biggest crowds of anywhere in the world on Record Store Day. People think of that, and they see the sheer square footage, and maybe they think you’re too big to fail. And then there was the sale price when the current location was sold to developers years back. People may think, “Why do they need my help? They’ve got to be well off — surely they could just be retiring.”
We get haunted by that number because it gives such a wrong impression. Basically, we owed almost that much when we sold it. Honestly, we netted something like $7-8 million altogether when we sold the building, and most of that went to operating costs over the years. It wasn’t money that we were able to pocket. When that happened, we were just trying to stay alive. We’d kept going further and further in the hole ever since the last recession, and we lost all of our equity and all of our backup, which culminated in that sale. I don’t want to sound defensive about it, but it creates a terrible, wrong impression for us that is so not the case. (The three other partners) and I ended up with not much. … We’re not a cooperative, but we spread the money around every which way. All the managers at the stores are part-owners. And we have done everything we could to stay alive.
We’re not in a position to retire. Even more than that, our main cause is to keep this thing going, at whatever cost. Honestly, it’s always been our mission since day one is to do this. We care about music more than anything and we care about musicians. And it’s hard for most people to understand that we could be quite that idealistic. But I live in a rented house, and I’m not rich, at all. I’m just a freaky artist guy with not a lot of money, but a lot of records.
With the renderings and photos of the new location, it looks like a great space. But obviously it’s less square footage, which may have hardcore collectors worried who are going to want that one weird rare thing you can only get with a huge store. You’ve devoted a few spots where there used to be racks to more T-shirts, but basically the Sunset store still seems jam-packed. Is a lot of that inventory going to have to go to a warehouse when you move?
No, we’re going to be very crafty in how we lay it out. Honestly, we’re using about 75% of our fixtures in the new space. So technically we’re planning on having three-quarters of the display space that we have in the new space. And we think that (amount of lessening) is appropriate, because the sales have so declined in DVDs and CDs. But we’re going to make use of all the bins, (placing them) above and below — it’s going to be crowded with product even more than our current store. We have figured out on paper how to basically fit at least three quarters of the inventory we have now into the new space.
Some CDs and Blu-Rays can be sacrificed, but vinyl is probably the one thing you can’t leave even an inch less room for, right?
Oh yeah, we’re going to feature vinyl more than ever. You know, that’s our main thing. Our sales are almost half LPs. And we’re going to make sure that we’re appropriately stocked and featuring vinyl more than anything. But we’re going to continue carrying all the formats that we’re known for.
I mean, there’s a time and place for every format as far as I’m concerned. And in just the last 10 years, it’s been fascinating to watch CDs go from 45% down to under 20%, and watch vinyl come up from as low as 15% up to 45%. What an unbelievable shift that has been, but it’s great for all of us record geeks. We love vinyl the most, all of us. There aren’t too many people who are too attached to CDs at the moment, though I think there’ll be more of a collectors’ market for CDs as time goes on.
Because the thing is, for people who really care the most, we don’t think that (physical product) part of our culture is going to go away. We want to celebrate the artists’ work in the way that means the most. And digital is great for reference. Most of our customers use Spotify. But then when it comes time to really celebrate their favorite artists, they want the hard copy, whether it’s a record or a CD. These days, generally it’s records, especially for all the upcoming young collectors. They’re blown away by vinyl in kind of a similar way — even more so than we were in our day, because it was kind of the only way to get music when we were young. And now there’s this whole technological marvel that they’re looking at. I mean, I, for all my years in this business, still don’t really understand how a turntable translates the sound back out through the amp and the speaker. I mean, it’s magic! [Laughs.] How does that work? And in a way we’re selling magic. We’re selling magic not only in the form of man’s greatest art form, but we’re also selling it in the form of a technology that is still, to this day, after decades upon decades, completely magical in how it works.
Then there’s the question of, if people have a personal investment in the physical product, is physically going shopping still vital to that? But even if so, there are inventory questions that are arising more now.
It seems to me that Amazon is basically going to downgrade the importance of vinyl records in the future. I’ve gotten that word from a few different labels, that they’re not interested in anything below “A” catalog and top-shelf reissues.
It’s hard to know, after all this shakes out, whether any company will keep a focus on having as much inventory as possible or rethink priorities.
I mean, all of this (talk) seemed to happen right before anything having to do with the coronavirus. I don’t know enough to say, but it makes me nervous, because that would impact the whole market. And we feel like we have a lot of responsibility that goes way beyond whatever we want to do on a personal level to try to keep this thing alive, because it means so much to so many people. Really, I, honestly, from the bottom of my heart, am sincere about our level of idealism and our mandate to keep this thing going. I’m not trying to promote any propaganda here.
A lot of people in L.A. forget what it’s like in the rest of the country now. I grew up in Buffalo and I started at this place, Record Theater, that was a gigantic and amazing store for years, and they closed about five years ago. Now they’re left with just a couple of little neighborhood stores, and not even any ability to go out and buy most new releases, except for whatever niche each one of those small stores represents. It’s unbelievable that most of the big cities in the U.S. don’t even really have a store that services their market or their community sufficiently. But that’s because it is hard to do. We kind of represent that for the whole country, we feel.