A Living Diary of a Dying Industry is a new column about people who still manage to earn a (perhaps not always decent) wage in the business of music.
While everyone says the music industry is dying, there still seem to be quite a few people who make a living on it. Some on the fringe of the industry, some independent artists, and others who’ve been selling music their whole lives and don’t intend to stop anytime soon. In an attempt to understand what’s really happening, we’re talking to the folks who actually make a living from music, and while we admittedly are no Studs Terkel, we will attempt to work it. I’m sorry for that pun, but I had to somehow tie his book, Working, into this.
The inaugural discussion is with John O’Neil, who manages the largest record store in Idaho, The Record Exchange. JohnO hired me, because I once bought a used Can CD, and I was able to have a coherent conversation about Magma, which made for an entertaining interview. In the years that I spent working at the store, JohnO simultaneously hated and loved everyone and everything, but he’d been in the business for a long time, and all of us felt a little like he was our voice of reason (also the voice of paranoia, as he often spoke at length about the economic decline and how we should be hoarding rubber for end days). He’s my music and grumpiness inspiration, and the perfect person to start the conversation, which he does here, before I can even ask my first question.
John O’Neil: Oh, I just drank some orange juice laced with special K, and I smoked some weed with angel dust, just to be ready. Lets hear it.
Ok. Good question. I started work at a 1000 watt radio station in Roseburg, Oregon, called KYES. 950 AM. I've had records since I was five-years old
VICE: OK. Wait. I didn’t ask anything.
I used to listen to my older brother’s and sister's records. Have I told you how much my legs hurt these days?
No. Is it because of all those heavy records you have to lift? Probably not. Let's start in the middle first: When did you begin your foray into the business of selling music?
1983 at the House Of Records in Eugene, Oregon. I was hired as the guy to replace the other sole employee, whose name was Spider. I think his name was John too.
Did you get a nickname as well?
No. None that would be said to my face at least.
Anyway, it was a rigorous interview process, and it was down to me and one other guy. I got in the running for the job, not because I was qualified to do it, but because I knew a little bit about a lot of different kinds of music, and one of my friends talked me up to the owner of the store, and got me the interview. I was OK at stuff. I guess. I had a lot of odd jobs to get by, and was living in a quad by the University of Oregon campus.
I was trying to get into a band. I had been living in Eugene for about a year trying to get things going. I was pining for some foreign exchange student at the time. I got the job, and started working there in October of 1983. I left in October of 1989 when I moved to Boise. I guess it paid the bills. I don't remember. I wasn't exactly getting rich. I wanted a flexible job so I could do the band, and do something. I fell into the calling there. I think it was what I was meant to do. I always collected records, and things just snowballed as I worked the business. I did some buying of new music, learned about old music. It has been an education. Along the way I met people I still know today.
The guy who is the Relativity Entertainment Distribution rep at the store I work at now was my first salesman, Terry McGibbon. John Crawford of Homestead, who now works for Atlantic Records. Garry Henkel and Seymour Glass of Systematic Records out of SF, Calvin Johnson, I'm sure there are more, that is all I can remember now. Benefits? A huge record collection. interesting people.
Yeah, with all the inevitable standing on your feet, talking to weirdos, and telling people with shitty records they can't sell them to you for $40 just because they're Beatles LPs, what keeps you there?
Being in the middle of things. Talking to weirdos. The parade of curveballs in the dirt.
Tell me about your favorite weirdos?
We have a superstitious belief that if you mention someone’s name out loud, it will make them appear in the store. This seems to only work for people who are noxious to you personally, so it is a very powerful thing to play with.
It is hard to do some of these people justice. I know a lot of their names, but when I refer to them, I try to invent signifiers for them, kind of like nicknames, but different. So you don't bring them around you. Let's see. Deafy Post, the guy who is into the kinds of things that a hip 60-year-old man would be into, like all of Bonnie Raitt’s musical followers. Everything you say to him, you have to repeat, because he never hears you the first time. He has a distinctly agitated presence. "EHHH? EHHH?" I didn't know there were people that actually talked to you like that. I have started just yelling at the top of my lungs at the guy, just so I don't have to repeat myself. It must be great for anyone else in the store at the time.
Deafy Post? Jesus. Who else? What about those folks from the Greyhound station?
The Raspberries Guy is another agitated presence. He is another guy who gets all of his new music news from Rolling Stone magazine, just like the guy above. He always asks you for information, then acts doubtful that you know what you are talking about. I try to give him one-word answers to everything. "Yeah, No, Maybe"
The bus station people? They are not the same as they used to be. I don't know if the bus comes through at different times than it used to or what, but only occasionally do I see the travelers come by. Usually with a roll-around suitcase, or a dirty backpack. I liked it when they would come around with their CD collection to sell to help them with their travels, but in the streaming/MP3 era, this doesn't happen as much. City bus people are great, like The Paper Cadge, who turns out to be a good enough customer, even though his intro to the store was our free paper rack by the door.
OK, tell me about mp3s. Do you have a large mp3 collection now?
MP3s on my computer at home are burned from my CD collection. Or from promos at work. I have a ton on the computer, and it is a convenient way to listen to music at home. Trouble is, I'm not that interested in convenience. I like to play records. I like to play 78s. Because they are hard to play.
You also have a laserdisc collection. Why play something because it's hard to play?
Most of the time when I am home, I am not listening to music. I am trying to do something else. I listen to music at work for a living. I am a contrarian. I like to be difficult. I like records. I like how records sound. But, I have too many things right now, and no time to listen to things. I am so disorganized. It takes organization to have a record collection. Or a laserdisc collection. Things are kind of out of hand right now.
I want to sell all my cd's before it's too late. Hard to play: I like the ritual. I don't convert vinyl to files. It's partly because I don't like how they sound, but it is also a matter of organization. I am not organized enough to do it. Someone is playing Stevie Ray Vaughan on the instore system right now. It's kind of odd to hear. It's the kind of thing I like to play in the store. I like country right now. I play country music in the store a ton. Not hipster country either, like the alterna-country bands, or the old-timey country things that hipsters love to ironically champion. Fuck them.
What's hipster country? How do you feel about irony?
I used to love irony, now it bores me. I'm tired of sarcasm, although that is a joke that a person such as myself finds hard to throw off. I try to be earnest, and say what I mean, and keep my mouth shut when I don't have anything to say. It's harder than it looks. I'm trying to learn how to be a person in my fifties who is not an asshole. I'm failing.
Even though you're trying to keep your mouth shut, can you tell me which album from the past year you think could either be the worst or best thing for the music industry?
I do this teenage-boy job, for not much money, because it is what I do. It's hard to come to terms with being an anachronism.
Are you really an anachronism? Aren't there guys like you all over the country who grew up with records and kept working with them? Record stores can't all be tall, thin, hip guys with varying degrees of facial hair.
The industry? I think about albums and the industry a lot. Mostly because I have to ponder it. It's kind of interesting. You have putzes like Lefsetz talking about dying paradigms, and championing streaming services, yet when he talks about music he loves, it's singer-songwriter stuff from 1974. I really like the guy’s writing, though, even if he rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
There probably are guys like me who do this. I try not to think about that. I have always been all over the map. Failure to commit. Yet I have stayed at the same place of employment for an incredible length of time. I have stayed married for a long time, to the same woman who brought us here to Idaho.
Seems strange that a guy who talks about failure to commit has committed himself for such a long time to his place of business.
My band still exists even, although it's easy because I write and sing the songs. I know, but if I had fully committed, I would have my own shop. Doing things my own way. And have been out of this a long time ago! I'm stubborn. Seriously.
Yeah, but what would happen if you crossed that threshold from manager to owner?
I would have a hard time because of my lack of organization, and capital. Unorganized guys can hire people to do their organizing for them, but they have to have capital. I have been shitty with money my whole life. I'm old now, and I have very little.
Is 50 actually old, or is it just a number?
I do a lot of things, and I talk about them as little as I can. I don't want to jinx anything. I feel old, like I have little time left. It makes me not do things, and it makes me do too much shit. I do not self-promote. It interferes with the mission. 50 is not old. It's older than I thought I would be.
The mission is forward motion. The mission is staying interested. I don't know how to describe what my mission actually is. Seeing things, talking to people, communicating, helping.
You said you wanted to sell all of your CD’s earlier, before it's too late. What do you think is going to finally make CD's obsolete?
CD's will be made obsolete by the decaying energy grid, economic collapse, and changing habits. Although, they could be around forever, the players will not last forever. I could find a windup 78 player and listen to it.
Being in the largest city in Idaho, surrounded largely by nature, do you see yourself and the store as a kind of conduit for the outlier folks?
Well said. I think we attract them. Technology moves pretty fast, but people do not. I still have people buying cassettes, for godsakes.
Where do you stand on illegal downloading, assuming you could stand on it?
No comment. The major labels cheated artists for so long, they had it coming. It's a shame that people at our level here in retail have to suffer for it. But you have to move forward, to keep providing value for people. When you stop doing that, you are done. Illegal downloading is another scam. I'm sure it signifies something else. This whole country has turned into a get-rich quick scheme, a lottery. But with any casino, the house always has the upper hand. The house always wins.
How long do you see yourself staying with the record store? How long has it been now? Are the labels the house?
Six years in Eugene, 22 years in Boise. What else am I going to do? Multi-national corporations are the house, bankers are the house. I will ride this out as long as they let me.
What if that final economic collapse happens, and all record stores are officially out of business. What do you think would happen?
It's hard to imagine a world without stores. So I don't. I will figure out something. I will play my guitar on the street corner. Or barter for something. I don't think we should be counted out yet.
Hey, you never answered my question about the best and worst releases. Also, are people only allowed to listen to Wilco now if they have children and a mortgage?
There may not be an actual regulation on the books, but, yes, you must own your own house to listen to Wilco. It's part of Jeff Tweedy’s deal with Satan, when he was rescued by Nonesuch. I think they have to be urban farmers, with chickens, as well.
Have you ever read his book of poetry? I think we had two copies at the store for a good six years.
I think it's OK if they say they WANT to get a chicken coop someday. Tweedy? No. I hit the eject button.
You want to give me your best and worst albums...
I am thinking hard about "the album" as currency. I see people like Ty Seagall, and Thee Oh Sees release multiple ablums a year, and see it as a micro niche of sorts. I don't know if the industry can be saved by things like this. All that I concern myself with is, one customer, one thing at a time. You don't sell things by the million anymore, which is kind of discouraging for the executive with a huge system to support I imagine, but it's just the way things are now.
Is that sustainable for artists if they don't have the aim of getting development support?
It must be. You make your thing, you go out and play to the ten people in town who want to see you, and move on. Maybe they buy it. Maybe they don't. The artist must strive for excellence, or to at least make a connection. Connect themselves to the person who finds a use for the art.
Like Jeff Tweedy.
The artistic avenue is a two way street. You need someone to call you a genius before you are a genius. Tweedy? More power to him. I would probably like him if I knew him.
I am so tired, April What the fuck am I doing? Darrell Scott and the Devil Makes Three are doing things right. Playing live, writing songs, getting things done. Doing it wrong? Nearly everyone at the Major label level.
Lady Gaga. Odd Future. Tevin Campbell.
People will do what they will do, consume what they will. I hear that the CD will be outmoded, but the mail is still full of promos, and people still make and record music.
These are exciting times, really. things are what they are. Write a song that people will want to hear. Maybe they will hear it. Maybe they will choose you. There are so many bands, so many voices, so many things being said. Say your own thing. See what happens.
In a way, it almost sounds like the early 90s again.
I don't know. History doesn't repeat. But it does rhyme a lot. Don't hesitate to ask if you need more. I have to go back to my life. Hey, I'm supporting you! I support you!