It’s great when managers value their staff so much they reach out to tell us about them, how awesome they are, and that we should do a feature on them. When Alex who runs Torn Light Records in Cincinnati Ohio, reached out about Cleo, Hannah and Catherine it was a no brainer to do this feature. Cleo has been at Torn Light for three years and primarily handles pricing and listing things on the website. She also handles the book section of the store, buying, organizing, curating, and running social media for that section. Hannah is a musicologist and the blog writer for Torn Light writing a weekly blog that explores musicians, record labels, and organizations in modern composition, experimental, jazz, rock, folk, and more – also creating various weekly e-newsletters letting people know about upcoming events, new releases, what rare specialty items are available, as well as staff recommendations. Catherine is the resident project and social media manager at Torn Light, handing project management for in-house label releases, making sure deliverables are established and met in a timely manner. They also run the Instagram account for Fantastique, Torn Light’s B2B distribution company.
Torn Light Records is an independent brick and mortar record store offering a wide selection of new and used titles in-store, and online. Torn Light also operates Fantastique HQ Distribution, a wholesaler of highly curated import and domestic labels. They opened their first location in Newport, Kentucky in 2014 and have since grown to their Cincinnati location which opened in 2019. Here they maintain a well curated selection of both new and used records striving to be the type of store they like to see as music lovers. Besides a diverse range of titles they mention their wide range of genres from Hard Bop to Dream Pop, while also carrying a large selection of cult films and books.
In their free time, Cleo expresses her love of reading, painting and taking long walks around the neighborhood. Hannah enjoys movies, TV, writing, taking care of her plants, reading, and going to antique malls; as well as playing various musical instruments and singing, “…even if it’s simply by myself on my couch“. Catherine says “…weather permitting, I like trail running through the many hilly parks we have in Cincinnati. I also enjoy reading with a cup of coffee, listening to records (as if I don’t do that enough), and watching movies“.
How did you get into your industry / What motivated you?
Cleo: I’d been friends with Alex York and Dan Buckley, my bosses, for several years before working for them. I’ve always enjoyed being in used media stores and am grateful for the opportunity to make my living doing so.
Hannah: Through collecting records, I found I loved the process of searching for records, organizing my collection, and sharing my collection with others. Plus, I enjoy writing about music, connecting people to music resources, and helping them discover new things about the music they love or find a new favorite all together.
Catherine: I used to go into the store for music recommendations. Torn Light always had the largest selection of “experimental” music out of all the record stores in Cincinnati, and I loved to browse on weekends and on my days off. It was lowkey a dream of mine to work there, but I was in grad school or working at sales jobs elsewhere. However, as I was contemplating leaving grad school, I simultaneously came across a “Now Hiring” notice on Torn Light’s Instagram page. I originally applied for a warehouse position, but the owners looked at my resume and figured they could get more use out of me in an account management capacity! I was very pleased with the outcome, and it seems like everyone is working hard thanks to the creation of the “Project Manager” role.
What is a day in the life like?
Cleo: I usually wake up pretty early and read while eating breakfast, then I go in and take care of basic daily tasks (pulling orders, emails, etc) then I either price records or work on more specific tasks on my to-do list till close, then I walk home, eat dinner and read until bed.
Hannah: Each day at work, I usually like to spend about half of my time that day working on the upcoming email and the other half on the blog. For the emails, I collect all the data I need, i.e. links to the products, item descriptions, photos. After that, I’m ready to design the layout and insert all the information into the template. For the blog, I have a Google doc that I store all my research in throughout the week, including links to articles, videos, products we have, quotes and bullet point notes from reading, etc. Once I’ve collected all the information I want/can, I start writing and designing the layout. After inserting all the media and links, the blog’s ready to go.
Catherine: Usually, I will arrive at the office (we have a storefront as well as office/warehouse space at a separate location) at 11am. I’ll sit down at my desk and check my emails, and also send a message to the management group chat saying good morning (the owners are often at the store, and our salesperson is remote). I’ll establish deliverables for the day, make sure I know what is on everyone’s schedule, etc. Then I’ll get to work on my tasks, which range from sending out PR emails, to drafting posts for the Fantastique Instagram, to laying out timelines for future releases. I’ll get lunch, come back, do some more work, and leave around 7pm.
What has been your favorite sale / relationship made from behind the counter?
Cleo: Very hard to name a favorite. I’m grateful to have met and made several friends from behind the counter that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Even besides friends, there’s a long list of regulars at the shop that I’m always glad to see.
Hannah: I was behind the counter when someone bought my staff pick one time, which was really cool! It was fun to have a moment of connection like that where we both got to talk about the record and why we love it.
Catherine: I don’t work in a sales capacity, but it is nice to make friends with the artists whose projects we put out. People in this industry are typically pretty laid back and gregarious. Developing business relationships in independent music is so easy compared to doing so in the world of industrial sales (my previous job was as a saw blade salesperson). There’s no bullshit, LinkedIn-addict white collar pretense. It’s nice.
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?
Cleo: I’d say the coolest thing I’ve gotten from the shop is an early Sun City Girls cassette. I’ve discovered a lot of cool artists/labels that I wouldn’t have without the shop either, such as the label Small Mercies & the Mississippi Records Mixtape Series. For what it’s worth, I think the coolest thing in the shop right now is an original pressing of Judee Sill’s self titled album.
Hannah: A while ago, we got a bunch of local 90s punk and DIY zines that were fascinating to flip through. I got to research them to try to find as much information about them as I could for the listing. I remember getting completely engrossed in an intro to one zine where the person was talking about starting college and the difficulties they were facing. It was so intimate and also relatable even after all these years.
Catherine: Every time we put out a cassette, CD, or LP for which I was the project manager, I want to keep a copy!
What has been / is the most difficult part of your job?
Cleo: I sometimes take things to heart more than I should, and because of this I often have issues dealing with any brusque or difficult Discogs customers. This happens very infrequently (because we run an excellent store) but when it does, it can spike my day. My partner taught me a breathing exercise that helps immensely though.
Hannah: I think one of the tricky parts of writing the blog is developing an idea. Sometimes, a topic might be intriguing, but there isn’t enough information out there yet for me to turn it into a full-length blog post. Other times, I bite off a little more than I can chew and choose a broad topic that was a bit too ambitious for a week’s worth of research! Finding the sweet spot between that is key. For the emails, it’s occasionally challenging to organize the new products in a way that flows and that makes sense to a customer. I have to find connections amongst everything, group the products together, and order them in the email in an intuitive way.
Catherine: Sending out requests for coverage on projects we are releasing. The lack of responses can be discouraging, for sure.
What has been the craziest experience that has happened at the shop?
Cleo: A certain notable one-hit wonder songwriter was playing a nearby venue and came in to buy his own records and then tried to haggle with me about the price of them.
Hannah: While not exactly crazy, it’s been fantastic and occasionally mind-blowing to receive positive feedback from readers of the blog, especially if the feedback is from one of the artists discussed in the blog.
Catherine: Sometimes a legendary artist will stop by to say hello and buy records. Just last month, Mr. Dibbs just waltzed in during our last operating hour of the day.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into pursuing what you’re doing?
Cleo: Learn as much as you can about everything you love and be open to learning just as much about stuff you don’t. I don’t just mean in like a business sense or anything like that, I mean if you think you don’t like jazz (or metal or anything), learn as much as you can about it to at least figure out why other people like it. I used to not care about dub or reggae at all, but after being exposed to it so much at work and trying to learn about it, I find I truly do appreciate, and even love, it more than I thought I could.
Hannah: I definitely recommend becoming a regular customer at your local record store(s). Forming that relationship could be the jumping off point for getting involved. And of course, keep collecting and/or learning about records!
Catherine: Follow artists, record stores, distribution companies, etc. on Instagram. Don’t be afraid to call the store, or even send a DM. Asking for staff recommendations, also helps.
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.
Cleo: I’m colorblind, so I’ll admit bias, but I think color vinyl is the dumbest trend right now. Streaming and the way it leads to disposable commodification of music is very concerning to me as well, but there are many others who’ve spoken about it more eloquently than I could here.
Hannah: I’m really excited by how much people continually seem to crave physical copies of music. Although there are conveniences to streaming and downloads, I have a completely different listening experience when I use a physical copy. I’m more present, stare at the cover, read liner notes and booklets, etc. And I love seeing that others still desire that tactile experience with music too.
Catherine: Epic Games just bought Bandcamp, and I don’t know how to feel about that. NFT and crypto-based streaming platforms like Audius also have me a little confused. On the other hand, I think people will continue to value owning physical media, as real ownership of anything digital will be made either impossible (due to streaming-only ubiquity), or cost-prohibitive (due to NFT proliferation). But that’s just a theory!
Are you a vinyl collector yourself? What drew you to it?
Cleo: I don’t collect vinyl, but I’ve always collected CDs and tapes and have always enjoyed music. I think I was drawn to it because I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of holding a piece of art that I love in my hands. I’ve gone through periods of heavy depression, struggles with sobriety, etc, but the fact that I could go over to my shelf and hold my CD copy of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (with its water damaged booklet), genuinely kept me holding on through those times.
Hannah: I do collect records! I started collecting as a teenager before I even had a turntable, mainly because I liked the idea of records being artifacts from the past. Once I got a turntable, it also became about curating a personal music collection and sharing that collection with others. I love the search of looking for a particular record, plus that rush you feel the moment you find it.
Catherine: I am! I started out collecting LPs for some pretentious reasons related to the perceived superiority of analog (sometimes a record actually sounds worse), but now I just think physical media is neat. If I want to support an independent artist, I will probably buy their release, regardless if it’s vinyl, cassette, or CD.
During this time we’re currently in, what message do you have for music and vinyl fans? How can we support you, the industry?
Hannah: When shopping for records, buy as much as you possibly can from local record stores. While Amazon might be tempting, there are so many brick-and-mortar and online alternatives. It’s also much more fun and personal to shop at an independent store, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for in-person, record stores might be able to order it for you or Discogs can hook you up with independent stores around the world.
Catherine: It’s very easy to just pick a mood and play a Spotify playlist that will reflect it, without any concern for a particular artist or project. I would like to see people treat music streaming more like listening to a vinyl record: dedicating time to one album to really see what that artist is trying to say. Maybe you keep Spotify in offline mode and just download albums, to test this out!
Anything else you’d like to add, if not tell me what you’re listening to:
Cleo: Not really a genre or band, but I think everything that’s happening in Gothenburg, Sweden right now, particularly centering around the Discreet Music label is incredibly interesting and vital. Everything that Discreet’s put out will be talked about 30 years from now, the way we talk about shit like the Velvet Underground now.
Hannah: I’ve been listening to a lot of Mazzy Star lately, since I recently grabbed a CD of So Tonight That I Might See. I’ve been fond of them for awhile, but sometimes buying a physical copy of a record I’ve casually listened to before really seals the deal for me and I become a fan. I’ve also been digging the new records out by Cate Le Bon and Big Thief.
Find the Torn Light Records Team:
Torn Light Records: @tornlight