Interview with Frank, owner of Deep Groove Records in Phoenixville, PA.
How did you get into the record business?
I started my record career 35 years ago with a record company, with CBS Records, then the 2nd largest record company in the world. When I joined them it was just prior to their biggest release ever, Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. They had Bruce Springstein and a very large formidable catalogue of artists. It was really the hay-day of the record industry. The money was enormous and the business was exploding and it was growing exponentially each year. We were seeing new records being broken by artists who were selling 10 million copies, 20 million copies and in Michael Jackson’s case 30 million copies which were numbers unthinkable a decade earlier.
After a couple of years in that business I moved out of it with the thought that someday, maybe I’ll be able to get back into it. Thirty years later I had a long corporate career in an unrelated field and got an opportunity to retire early and took the early retirement and voila, I said, “What am I going to do with my back nine, if you will, my second wave?” So I opened up a record store, which is a labor of love for me and my passion. So that’s where I am today.
You opened a store that sells vinyl and vintage audio equipment. Is there a return to vinyl as a more tangible experience of music?
People are now rediscovering music after having gone through the last 30 years whereby they changed their buying habits from record collections to audio cassettes to CDs and now to digital downloads.
What they are realizing is that there’s no tactile experience with it (digital music). It’s ephemeral, it exists in their phone. That might be convenient. That might be great for their car or a set of ear buds but it’s not really a listening experience. In fact people who tend to have music in those devices tend to listen to it in brief periods of times, in snipets, or in the background, plug it into a dock and they’ll play it in the background. They’re not listening to the music. It just becomes atmospheric. So the whole connection with the music and the artists and what was being said and communicated in those songs really is getting lost.
Interestingly enough, I think either consciously or subconsciously people are beginning to realize that and they are searching out more tangible solutions, more tangible ways of reconnecting to the music, hence the rebirth of vinyl.
This phenomenon started about 8 years ago when digital downloads were hitting the scene. We crossed the threshold five years ago when enough small boutique record companies and or record pressers started producing enough vinyl that it got the attention of big record companies. What they realized is that they had to embrace this because their CD sales were falling through the floor. The digital download companies were cleaning their clocks. Today every major artist who releases a record today, releases it in a digital format which can include CDs and downloads as well as a vinyl press. If they are in the top 500 selling bands in the mass market they are releasing in vinyl.
The phenomenon is being driven by the need for something tactile. The fact that the people who are finding this music this way are across a wide birth of demographics, which is also an interesting phenomenon to the record companies and in general – it’s older people in my generation who had record collections and want to get them back, it’s yuppies and young kids today who are getting on board with this because it’s hip and cool. Then it’s hard core music listeners who’ve come to the same realization as the artists who have been saying this from the beginning, that the music sounds better in an analog format.
When you pick up an album what do you do, how does it become an experience.
The very first thing I do before I play the record is I examine the album cover and I look at the art. What is the artist trying to say with the artwork that is used and how is it representative of what I’m about to experience with the music. What does it say about the artist and what’s included in the vinyl, song-wise?
Then I flip it over and I look at the songs, information about the songs
-who wrote the song, who produced the song
-what engineers engineered the recording (for a person like me who is an audiophile that’s important because some engineers do a better job than others).
-also I look at whether the line-up of musicians in the band has changed or is it the same players who were previously associated with the band?
-when was the record recored. Where was it recorded?
-what studios were used? Those studios actually have a sonic imprint on the sound of the music as well. All of that information is usually discernible somewhere in the liner notes of the record.
I spend some time examining all of that and then I take the record out of the sleeve. (Frank pulls out the record I chose for him to talk about.)
Often times the inner sleeve of the album will include band photos.
That looks brand new.
This is Cars Greatest Hits. It goes back to 1985. This one is in mint condition. It’s probably not even been played.
I always like to examine the vinyl record as well. When I look at the vinyl record I want to see that it’s free of imperfections -that there aren’t plastic burrs stuck on the edge or anywhere near the runoff grooves at the end of the record. I look also in the runoff which is very close to the paper label. There’s a blank space which will include information, stamping information. That stamping information, to those people who know how to read that information, is in essence coded data which tells you about the record. For example, this particular record, after a series of letters and numbers is followed by an engraving that says B-1. B-1 is a designation that tells me that this record was stamped from the second stamper or the B stamper. Stampers are the original metal masters that the vinyl is pressed into and then peeled away from. So it’s sort of like the original source of the music. B-1 indicates that it is a second stamper and the 1 indicates that it is a first series of stamps off of the B stamper. This is a little bit arcane, but to someone who is deeply involved into record collecting and music sales, that’s important information. I want to know how close to the original source this record was.
All of this stuff goes into what I’m doing when I’m looking at a record. Sometimes there’s other information in there, usually a set of initials. Like in this case RTB. RTB stands for the initials of the engineer who did the mastering. The mastering is the process by which the original tape of the music recording in the studio is transferred to the metal stamper. It’s actually engraved into a metal disc and that engineering process is done by an engineer- in this case RTB, whoever he is- and that person usually has a reputation in the business for the work that he does and there are collectors who will search out certain intial sets.
Let me give you an example. There is a gentelmen, named Robert Ludwig. His intials R.L. are very meaningful to record collectors in the rock genre. R.L. was involved in the mastering of some of the most important rock LP’s ever made. He was involved with the Led Zeppelin catalogue- is a perfect example. His work was so universally recognized as superior within that catalogue and the other rock artists he did that when you are collecting records and when you are searching records, you might look for those LPs that have Robert Ludwig’s initials in the runoff grooves. Because you’re gonna know that that mastering process was the best it could possibly be. It’s going to be a very premier, hot stamp they’re called. His mastering techniques are as good as the rock industry provides for today. So people look for that.
You get into the people behind the scenes when you’re into the music experience.
There’s a lot of information in that record. All of this stuff goes into the very tactile, tangible experience of playing a record and getting involved and engaged in the enjoyment of that record.
Are we seeing a trend of people’s lives slowing down enough where they actually sit at home and put on an LP and listen to it?
Yeah- clearly, because every three months the New York Times runs another article on the amazing expansion of record sales globally and here in the United States.
I read an article just the other day on the web that mentioned Amazon saw a 780% increase in their vinyl record sales in a short time period. It’s happening. People are rediscovering vinyl records.
I’m parting with 95% of my collection but some of it has to stay with me forever.
What would be an album you would never give away?
I have some extremely rare records that are original first presses in mint condition- artists from the 50‘s like Elvis and Little Richard that are very valuable from that standpoint. They may not be the music I like to listen to most often but there are artists whose music I find absolutely indispensable. I’ve always been a rock-n-roll fan. There are bands like Jimmy Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones. They have albums inside their catalogues that are just essential for me. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Their music has to be with me every where I go. So now I’m gonna own them in CD. I’m going to have MP3s in my phone and I’m going to have the LPs but the experience I enjoy the most is sitting down in my listening room and putting the record on the turntable and just absolutely getting engaged in that music.
Your store is special because it has you who has a really good love, a passion for this music. But how special is this place in terms of if you were to drive in a ten mile radius how many cool places like this would you find?
There are record stores. The big chains are no more; what’s left is small independents. What makes my store, what I think unique, is a few things. We do records and vintage audio equipment. I have an enormous amount of records to be sold and made available through the store. I have a very large inventory of some of the finest vintage audio equipment that was ever produced during the golden age of stereo before surround sound. So this is going to be audio equipment that dates back to the 60’s and 70’s and it’s typically heavy in turntables; I have over 100 hundred of them. They’re going to be some of the best turntables produced by the manufacturers of turntables from across the world. And all of those turntables will be made available in my store over time. That’s unique. You’re not going to find that in other record stores. I sell the music that was intended to be heard on the equipment that I’m representing. So when you buy an album here you can also buy a stereo setup or turntable that was designed to be the best playback device for the music that you just purchased.
When that artist was making that record in 1975 he was probably hoping that you were going to play it on a product very much like one of the turntables I have in this store because it’s going to do that record justice. All of the engineering that went into that record was done with the intention that it be played back on a very good analog playback system So, there it is. Let’s marry those two together. I say if you’re gonna be in the record store business you should be in the turntable business.
The other thing I try to do with the record store is represent rock music from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80‘s, 90’s to current day. Jazz, classical, popular vocalists like Frank Sinatra, a little bit of oldies, classic soul and R&B from the 60’s and 70’s. We try to and keep it diverse and we try to supply very clean, often excellent superb examples of those records in our beds. And the other thing, on a final note, when you walk into my record store I want you to have a pleasant experience. I want you to walk in and feel like, wow, this place is clean and airy and it’s nice, and it’s got a great decor and the art work is interesting and the music this guy is playing is pleasant and familiar and it sounds good on that system, whatever systems he’s playing it on and so all of this stuff works together to provide a customer experience that is inviting and hopefully gets customers to return on a frequent basis.
Is there a meaning behind the name of your store? Did you have that name in mind 15 years ago or did it just come to you when you opened the store?
Deep Groove – It’s kind of like a musician’s phrase. It probably originated 50 years ago with jazz musicians when they talked about a song, how it had a deep groove- which can mean an infectious beat or a sweet, wonderful melody line or just a catchy kind of feel. They talk about the groove from the stand point of the performance or the sound of a song. That always stuck with me and I would hear that referenced a lot in interviews and in my readings when I would read biographies of musicians and their various thoughts on music. And the other thing is that the vinyl LP is essentially a long continuous groove that starts at the outer edge and works towards the center of the record. And the needle in a stylus or in a cartridge rides in that groove along the record. So if you look at my sign outside it says Deep Groove Records, on a record, which is on a turntable that hangs outside my front door. So you have the very obvious aesthetic of the needle riding in the groove and you have the groove of the song and the strength of the beat (as he pounds his fist into his hand) and that musical experience. Well I said, we are about the equipment and we are about the music so doesn’t it make perfect sense- Deep Groove. That’s what we are and that’s what we try to provide.