The Record-Selling Biz: A Chat With Jay Nations

A Q&A with Knoxville's vinyl kingpin (and former owner of Raven Records)

Lunch with Jay Nations is always a pleasure, particularly at King Tut Grill. The former owner of Raven Records is one Knoxville's true originals—an affable fellow who now enjoys earning a living by selling vinyl records and CDs at shows and in local shops. While he's put the retail life behind him, he's still got plenty of opinions on the music business and how record stores can survive in the digital download age.

How did you get into the business of record sales?

I was a rabid collector from about age 16, and it just made sense—I was all the time buying stuff that I thought was under-priced that I could trade in and make a little bit more on for myself. So the opportunity to get into a record store fit real well for me.

How did you go from owning a retail store to becoming a roving record seller?

Business was still pretty decent (at Raven Records), but I could tell things were coming down the road. CDs were swamping vinyl sales. When I opened Raven on the Strip, ¾ of my floorspace was vinyl. By the time I closed, three years later, it was 15 percent. And I wish I had held on to everything and put it in storage, but I liquidated everything. I was so sick of records at the time, I worked for Metro Pulse for three and a half years. And I swore I'd never get back into it.

But a guy from McKay's showed me how to do stuff on eBay, and I checked that out and started buying up collections. I've been able to support myself going to record shows, I've got a couple of booths where I sell vinyl, though I've pretty much given up on eBay. I've just never gotten organized enough to take a picture of something and list it online, and then sell that one thing and take it down to the post office. I'd rather take a whole bunch of really good stuff on the road and sell it. I got sick of their fees and nit-picky rules, it just doesn't appeal to me anymore. Although they still have the market—it's hard to beat. I'm trying to find a site that caters to vinyl buyers and gets a big enough audience to make it worthwhile.

What made you finally close Raven?

It was the perfect storm. I was just burnt out. I had opened a shop out west that didn't work out, I had put a lot of energy and money into that. My rent was ready to go up 10 percent, my margin was going down all the time, my competition was fierce. There were a dozen things I could reel off, but there wasn't any way I could keep doing it.

And I didn't miss it. I still don't miss having a store. I don't really want a retail experience for myself, and the way I do things now suits me a lot better. Because when you have a shop, you're married to it—it takes a lot of energy to run a good shop, a lot of hours. And the guys I see doing it really well are young guys, or guys that are hiring young guys.

Has digital downloading affected your own business?

There are a lot of CDs out there—the good part of it is a lot of stuff made in the 80s isn't being made anymore, so there's an out of print market that I look for.

How do you see business going for retail outlets?

The retail outlets that are going to make it will have a strong community component. Having live shows, promoting live shows, just being really in touch with the local music community is a big part of it. Because the really successful shops—like Harvest Records in Asheville and Grimey's in Nashville—both promote a lot of shows and they're keeping their names out there that way. And they just really have a strong, loyal clientele. Disc Exchange does that to an extent, but I would encourage them to do more community type stuff. They have the live in-stores, which are really cool.

Vinyl is essential. There are a lot of younger kids coming in, and there's so much more information on collecting now than there was 20 years ago. I mean, I have kids coming up to me at record shows that know more about original pressings of Jimi Hendrix records than I do. It's really cool! There's a lot more cache having a record collection now than there used to me, because so many kids have grown up not even knowing what it is, and just bringing out this arcane looking software—pulling out a record—really impresses their friends. Plus I've seen kids lining their walls with records.

When did vinyl sales start rising again?

Last couple of years. And the guys who sold their collections years ago are trying to go back and rebuy it all again. Cut that! I don't want anybody to be discouraged from selling their record collection to me! (laughs)

What are the signs of a great record store?

Seeing people younger than myself. It's spooky when you walk into a record store and everybody is over 45. You know they've lost it.

The industry itself, the labels, and what have you, have pretty much shot themselves in both feet by eliminating singles. The immediacy of getting the hot track, and having a physical thing to listen to and collect it—I think that's what used to get kids hooked on collecting and interested in music anyway. There are so many distractions now with video games and facebook and myspace—so many things that chew up your time besides going to the record store. That's why industry-wide, CD sales were going down 10-20 percent a year lately; that's the sign of an industry dying there. It's really awful. And they're trying everything they can to prop it up—they're starting to reissue a lot of vinyl, but they've got really high prices. A lot of them are $25-30. I can't understand why they can't reissue them just like they used to be and put them out for 10 bucks. They can do that. But they're so greedy.

Are you ever afraid they might stop making CDs?

There's always going to be a group of humans that have to have stuff. So I think there's always going to be a market for stuff; that's what I'm counting on for the rest of my career, anyway—selling stuff to people. Paying a dollar a track on iTunes doesn't make any sense to me—you could drop that device they're in and poof, there goes your collection.

And there are guys hooking up their hard drives and swapping stuff now. I met a guy last week who has 450 gigs of music files now that he's gathered now. Talked to a guy at the show who's got a terabyte of stuff—more music than he can possibly listen to in his lifetime. He got it all by just swapping around. I'd like to see a terabyte of vinyl, that'd be pretty cool.

Can record stores still be relevant to consumers?

Oh yeah. The experience of going in and seeing all the different images, they turn over their point of purchase, plus they're selling the auxiliary stuff, T-shirts and posters and magazines. That all adds to the experience, I think. It's all pretty essential. There aren't many shops that are selling strictly music anymore, you have to have some auxiliary stuff. You've got to get some margin in there—the margins are so tight on new product, you've got to have a strong turnover on used stuff to pay the bills.

What do you think a record store provides to the community?

Community in general is what it provides—people seeing each other, and networking between musicians and their fans. Plus just the experience of hearing whatever they're playing—"What is that? I want to buy it." And also, as far as buying, it's a lot more organic way of buying music, flipping through it and seeing, instead of going through a list on the computer. I think it's a lot more satisfying to find something that way.

I found this EP at Disc Exchange called Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybars. They released it on vinyl and download only, and it had a little sticker that said ‘Garage Soul.' I could tell by the graphics it was going to be a pretty cool record—and it was a pretty cool record. I picked up their CD that came out last week, too. I would not have noticed that online.

What would we be missing if all the record stores closed?

Oh, man that'd be awful! Terrible! Let's not think about that. Gosh, that'd be a true depression. The world would be a sorry place without record stores. Of course, I'm the guy that places cities by their record stores. It's just an essential part of a real city—you've got to have a record store.

I love Harvest in Ashville—I drop a hundred bucks every time I go there; and Grimey's, for that matter, in Nashville. On their logo, they say ‘Quality Preloved Music Since' whatever year they opened, which is something I used. And confronted him on it, and he said, ‘Oh I don't know where we got that.' I got it from a used car lot, so…