Today would have been Record Store Day 2020. Due to current times that has been postponed and even in June will it be safe? …We just don’t yet know. Now more than ever it is critical to support independent record stores; and why this week I wanted to introduce you to Lisa Foster of Guestroom Records in Louisville, KY. When I lived in Nashville I was able to visit Guestroom and immediately loved it. Not only did they have a great selection of music in general, but a nice section of the things I dig for. She was also playing The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul (Complete & Unbelievable) which is such a good record.
Lisa runs the store with her partner and serves as Director of Media and Marketing — managing the store’s website and social media accounts, heading up label and artist promotions, and organizing in-store performances and public events. She consults on new product ordering and promotion. She also manages the property their store is located in, and runs an Airbnb over the shop.
When she’s not working she enjoys playing records for people and is a founding member of the all-femme DJ collective Spinsters Union of Louisville. She loves baking and reading excellent cookbooks. “Check out Jerrelle Guy’s “Black Girl Baking”—it’s great food storytelling and the chocolate chip recipe is divine.” She is also currently reinvigorating her love affair with writing after taking a much-needed post-academia detox. She adores good architecture and travel photography and when given the time will devour books and articles on midcentury design. “Oh, and trivia night with my peeps of course. I’m terrible, but I love it/them“.
How did you get into your industry / What motivated you?
While I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, I took a part time job at Waterloo Records and Video (it was 2002, R.I.P. video stores everywhere!) and noticed that the culture of sharing and exchange between employees and community members felt very akin to the theories of musical public making and democracy I had been working on in my scholarship. The people I met there introduced me to music that changed my life and grounded me during an incredibly stressful time.
When I left that job for an academic position at the University of Oklahoma, I continued writing and teaching about music and the public sphere, but soon realized that the particular position I was in was not a good fit. By the time I hit the job market in 2008—there was an economic collapse that grounded most academic job searches and I had started dating Travis Searle, the person who would quickly become my life partner. Travis was the co-owner of my local record store in Norman, OK the very first Guestroom Records.
In 2011, like many couples do, Travis and I began contemplating our future together. Our career paths weren’t compatible, but the record store made sense with the core values of what had led me to my career and I saw a vision of Guestroom that had room for me in it. In 2013 we moved to Louisville, KY and opened Guestroom Records here, in the city I was born in, and the state I love.
So in a way, I was motivated by love, by commitment, by a desire to give something back to my home state of Kentucky, and by a fierce passion that record stores can be a vital part of our communities and our democratic lives.
What is a day in the life like?
I wake up, make breakfast while listening to Morning Edition on NPR, take the dog for a walk if he’s lucky and put together a daily to-do list. That’s where my work day starts. Each day can be radically different from the next, and this centering and organizational moment before entering the store is really important. Depending on the day these lists can look quite different. There is always time spent combing company emails for promotions from labels and distributors and local show promoters. I scan our Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds for questions and notifications. I usually read an hour each day about new artists or reviews of recent albums I may have missed. I pay attention to store regulars accounts to see what they are listening too and enjoying. I follow a weekly plan laid out for myself for promotions on social media and try to balance time between new releases, used LP arrivals, and local artists or shows.
I listen to music all day, every day. Travis and I spend a lot of time discussing upcoming releases and orders. We don’t have a back room, or fulltime staff other than ourselves, so there is also a lot of clerking that happens in between these things too—buying records, selling records, talking to customers, etc. Some days end with the list I started for myself because it didn’t allow for anything other than being present in the store. That’s okay, I just start earlier the next day. I often have building issues to attend to as well. We are housed in a turn of the century historic property so there is typically some regular maintenance to perform or schedule. When you run your own business days can be a little bananas, but they are rarely boring.
What has been your favorite sale / relationship made from behind the counter?
Right now, sitting in a closed store, I’m gonna say all of them. Every single relationship made at our counter is important. I miss my community and talking to people in close proximity about music. I particularly miss nurturing young women and femmes who shop at the store.
In your opinion what has been the coolest thing to come through your shop / the thing you had to keep / almost couldn’t put out for sale?
I will not lie, I have kept some REALLY cool records before they hit the floor. The only time it was a non-negotiable though was when a still sealed first pressing of Liz Phair’s “Whip Smart” came in prior to its reissue. The record is not that rare, nor is it the “coolest” thing I’ve ever snagged, it’s just the very first record I ever listened to that made me feel like a badass and I will love it forever. Thank you Liz Phair.
What has been the craziest experience that has happened at the shop?
We once had a squirrel fall out of the ceiling and into the metal section, he really didn’t want to leave and that was a problem. We were robbed twice at what seemed to be gunpoint the first December we were open. That was nuts. The ceiling erupted in a Kentucky downpour right in the middle of a truly beautiful but very quiet Aoife O’donovan instore. “It’s cool,” I said to the audience while holding multiple buckets, “It’s just our rain effect.” Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips) once signed autographs for fans for more than 4 hours and then running late to his next stop asked if I could walk across the street and buy him a stone mermaid from an eccentric junk collector. I did. It was memorable. Closing the door for a worldwide pandemic is ranking up there in the crazy column too.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into pursuing what you’re doing?
I’m sitting in the middle of the hardest phenomena my business has ever had to weather. So, first, you have to be able to thrive in adversity – emotionally, intellectually, and I’ll say it, financially. This is not a life path where success is measured in amassing profit; it’s about making just enough profit to continue to invest in the store that you love (in personnel, in place, and in product) and maintain a quality of life that works for you.
Second, an interest in both music and entrepreneurship is key. I’ve spent a LOT of time studying media and economic theory and that has paid off. I can often forecast curve balls ahead of the pitch because I taught critical media studies for so long and knowing how media corporations make moves that privilege profit over independents helps us anticipate changes in industry patterns.
Third, you have to love the format and believe that there is place for physical media in the future. Cultivate curiosity and a love of vinyl and your knowledge base will follow.
Are you a vinyl collector yourself? What drew you to it?
Yes! I love my records. I started buying records because I wanted to support record stores and make a financial investment in physical media that wasn’t on the decline. I started buying LPs in 2007 and haven’t looked back. I love the history records tell. I love finding Van Gelder marks in dead wax. Records, new and old, ground me while I’m listening. I like the physical nature of the engagement and having a library I’ve cultivated over years of listening. I’ve never been one for endless choices or digital interface with music. Maybe it’s because I grew up bootlegging cassette tapes, I don’t know. I still like collecting those too.
What has been / is the most difficult part of your job?
Sexism. Mansplaining. Being underestimated, overlooked, and continually viewed as secondary to my male partner or even our male staff. I will be honest, I had no idea what I was getting into in this regard. I had always felt welcomed and empowered in record stores, even though they were predominantly male spheres, but customers and capitalism can be quite different.
I left a career where I had been valued and respected so I can admit that my ego took a big hit in the move. Unlike the institutional sexism so many women encounter in their work places, I ran straight into societal norms I truly thought we had moved past. 95% of the people I work with regularly are wonderful, but the 5% who are not and the ways in which I see women systemically disempowered in the record industry, are definitely the most difficult part of my job. I can deal with this pandemic easier than entitled masculinity and corporate hegemony if that tells you anything.
What types of things are happening in your industry / with vinyl that you’re excited or worried about? i.e. innovation, or trends you’re seeing.
Before March 2020, record stores were already weathering some intense industry difficulties. Major label distribution of vinyl in the U.S. consolidated to a single warehouse in April of 2019 causing a backlog or cessation of product shipments. Regular restocks took months and many new releases arrived weeks after street date. Labels moved toward one-stop distribution channels which put record store buyers in a quandary. You could now get more of the records lost in the distribution pipeline, but you were forced to pay more for them thereby losing your competitive place in the marketplace.
A February 2020 fire at the Apollo Masters Corporation shook the vinyl industry. The plant provided by some estimates almost 80% of acetate masters, one of only two places in world making those blank lacquer discs needed for the pressing of vinyl records. Increasing direct to consumer, third party record clubs, and vinyl-only production for places like Target and Urban Outfitters have also made life difficult for stores. If we don’t have access to products on an even playing field with other retailers then independent stores suffer.
All this was before the global pandemic that has now shut stores across the country for more than a month. And somehow, I am still hopeful. There are more pressing plants and higher standards for vinyl pressing than we have seen since the resurgence began. There are more new records coming out on vinyl than we have seen in 30 years. There is a whole new generation of consumers who are more interested in listening to records than acquiring specific and unique pressings of them. While I love collectors, they are hard to satisfy. Having folks who are happy to buy a reissue of a record, who are learning about classic albums for the first time and who are being raised by parents who love records and foster support for independent business is of tantamount importance to the continued existence of record stores.
I also see vinyl as part of a larger return to and love for material culture. As we look into a future spending much more time at home with our puzzles and our plants I think more and more people are going to see how spinning records at home can upgrade their lives too.
Tell me your favorite thing that you are listening to right now?
During this time we’re currently in, what message do you have for music and vinyl fans? How can we support you, the industry?
Dear Music and Vinyl Fans,
First. Stay home. Stay well. Live lean where you can. Throw your dollars toward the indie record shops, artists, labels and venues you love. YOUR ECONOMIC CHOICES MATTER MORE THAN EVER. This pandemic closure will be a marathon and not a sprint and we JUST started the race. STAY THIS COURSE WITH US. Here are some steps you can take now:
1) Become a critical consumer. This new world is going to ask more of us than the old one did. We are going to have to think about every purchase and view even the smallest expenditures as investments in the people and places we want to keep around. Your store might not get a limited color pressing of an LP because it was made available to a different retailer. You are going to have to ask yourself over and over again which is more important—having a local store or having that color pressing. Think critically about what is marketed to you and pause before you put it in your cart. Do you need it? Does it support a store or an artist you care about? Will your dollars grow in your community when you click purchase?
2) Use your platform. Those IG stories, Retweets, and Facebook shares are more powerful tools than you realize. Share your stories with others. Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Schiller just published a book about Narrative Economics that argues narratives can drive the economy in an unprecedented way. Be a voice for the stores and the industry you love. Ask your favorite artists and labels what they are doing to support stores too.
3) Be ready to adjust. You might have to pay for shipping. That’s okay, because when you do, your store is going to send you a record through the U.S. Post Office who also desperately needs your help right now! You might have to work with your store to figure out how to virtually dig in their racks. You might have to wear a mask and gloves when we reopen, we don’t know yet, just be ready to adjust your expectations, roll with it and be a partner with your record store as we all figure it out together.
4) Commit to the long haul. Decide now that your store is not going anywhere because you won’t let it. Invest in its future. Buy gift cards to spend when they reopen. Check-in and ask them if there is anything they need. If you have time on your hands and skills to offer, pitch in. They’ll love you for life and probably give you some records.