welcome to our new series on record sellers! first up is:
Name: Tracy Wilson
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Operates: Turntable Report, Courtesy Desk, Record CollectHer
Has worked at: Flipside Records (1988-94), Deep Groove in RVA (2010-2016-ish), and has been running Courtesy Desk since Jan. 2021.
Bands: Dahlia Seed (1992-’96), Positive No (2012-2020), Outer World
Music lifer Tracy Wilson has been involved in independent music since 1988, starting out as a music-obsessed teenager working at the legendary brick & mortar New Jersey shop Flipside. Many of you know her emo band Dahlia Seed (1992-1996). Then she landed at Caroline Distribution working as a store rep and project manager (1996-2006). When the pandemic hit, Tracy started Turntable Report, a newsletter that does some deep dives to find some of the coolest unheard music out there. As the subscriber base quickly grew, she found her readership was having trouble locating certain titles, so she established the mail order Courtesy Desk. She also does an Insta series called Record CollectHer to correct one massive problem in the music world: the lack of female voices, especially when discussing collecting music. She also does pop-ups in Richmond, Virginia, that offer new records from Courtesy Desk and some used titles, including detailed pricing stickers letting customers know about the record with a description, a RIYL, notes if it might be color vinyl, limited, numbered, or anything else that might help the record find a home. Interview by Mike Turner + Images courtesy Tracy Wilson
This is the first in a new series of interviews with people from independent music retail.
chickfactor: Have you been surprised by the success and growth of Turntable Report? What made you want to launch a newsletter?
Tracy Wilson: Absolutely floored. Popular culture carries deep nostalgia and quite honestly, I have heard so much of that music for the bulk of my life, I don’t need to hear these older “classic” records ever again. I’m good—ha! I have had a long-standing obsession with new music and have kept tabs on it for decades—whether I was working in the music industry or not. As our band Positive No was wrapping up in Jan of 2020, I wanted to fill this hole in my life with a new project that meant just as much to me. I had no idea how many people were looking for a newsletter hyper-focused on new, underground music so I released my first report with zero expectations. It went out to fewer than 50 people at first. It has grown to nearly a thousand readers with zero promotion over these past two years and I am so honored to have these subscribers. It gives me hope that there are a lot of people out there who want to discover new voices and open themselves up to new talent. I know there is no shortage of truly remarkable new records out there, so it is really thrilling to be able to share these finds with a community of people who are equally as passionate about taking these paths less traveled.
When Covid hit, you and Kenneth were doing lots of Facebook DJ party live streams until they started killing the livestreams due to copyright. Did this help spark the next steps of Turntable Report into Courtesy Desk and then Record CollectHER? What is your goal with Record CollectHER?
During the early days of Covid, we had no idea what to do with ourselves. Even though it was only two years ago, it feels like a lifetime ago. The entire world was fumbling through the dark, trying to make sense of things, and find ways to make the days that all blurred together have purpose and meaning. I felt especially desperate to turn my panic into something productive. We went from being very social people who had spent nearly a decade in a busy touring band and spending a lot of time at events centered around art and music. We suddenly found ourselves stripped of all that stimulation and like everyone else, coping with a never-ending parade of never experienced before horrors. Live streaming DJ sets was a way to connect with friends and fellow music fanatics without having to use words we didn’t have yet for what we were all experiencing. The Turntable Report was already happening; however, I now had less distractions to take me away from it. As my discovery of new music grew along with the number of subscribers, I was surprised to learn that this community of readers didn’t just want to read about these records or hear them, they also wanted to own them. Almost as shocking as it was to discover how few media outlets new music fans have to rely upon, was learning that most record shops are not selling these smaller, underground artists either. Courtesy Desk was born out of the necessity to offer readers a place to purchase the music they were reading about. There is power in numbers so rather than just one of us paying to import just one copy of a record which is terribly expensive, if there are 10 of us who all want this record, I can import it in bulk at a much lower cost so not only are we rewarded with the music we want, but at a savings that I get to pass on to my readers who are now also my customers in some cases. I only sell the items I write about so my shop is highly unusual in that sense. ¶ As a woman who has worked at various record stores throughout my life and have also been collecting records since I was a kid, I also know what it feels like to be an outsider in something I have dedicated my life to and am still passionate about. Minorities are often pushed out of these male dominated spaces and in many cases face extreme sexism/toxic masculinity. I created the Instagram account Record CollectHER to highlight and celebrate fellow minority record collectors who deserve to feel respected and cared for. I wanted to steer the conversation away from the flexing of who owns the most records or the rarest, and offer a comfortable place to share their personal stories about what their collection means to them and how it reflects who they are as a person. Record CollectHER is my humble way of bringing us all together and giving this family of music fans a caring home via our mutual love of collecting music.
Did you have a goal to launch Courtesy Desk and then push to open a record booth or physical location?
I never dreamed my newsletter would snowball into an online store so for a while I was selling records in the back of a beloved vintage clothing shop in Richmond but a recent rent increase put an end to that. If inflation continues like this, I suspect a lot of labels will not be pressing records in 2023. The overcrowded vinyl making/buying community is being weeded out because of insane costs of everything. While this isn’t exactly the resolve the industry was looking for, I imagine pressing plants will be less backed up as fewer people will be able to afford to run vinyl record labels and move over to other formats. You know what the music industry didn’t need? Another playground for the wealthy. One of the things I really love about record collecting was that it was an affordable way for anyone to own art. I am sad to see this evaporate, but music is such a huge part of being a human being that it will always find a way to carry on. The next generation will decide what that landscape will look like and to me aging gracefully is not only accepting what the future brings, but also learning to appreciate that the world keeps moving forward with or without you.
Do you have a goal to open a full record store or store front or have you given it any serious thought?
Tracy: It has been scary to think too far off into the future. I am still very much taking things month by month. Like most music industry lifers, I do not have much of a nest egg to expand into a larger business. If I were to dream big, I would want to keep a very curated, highly stylized, tiny shop, and have a larger back room space to house my personal record collection that could double as a private social club that invites DJs from around the world to play records, share stories about the music they play, and offer a space for those who want to learn how to DJ, to do so in a friendly space that is open to all. To be clear though, I am really struggling to make plans for a future that still feels so uncertain.
How do you find the stuff you cover in the Turntable Report and stock at Courtesy Desk?
Tracy: This is 30-plus years in the making. For decades I have been reading music mags and newspapers, subscribing to record store newsletters, and joining band/label/distro mailing lists. I love talking to shoppers and employees at record stores. In more recent times I follow hundreds of music-related social media pages, belonging to a network of fellow new music fanatics who are always sharing their newest finds. I listen to radio shows from around the world, check out the occasional music podcast, and follow an absurd amount of people via Bandcamp which alone is a seemingly endless supply of inspiration. I try to keep an open mind and keep my ears filled with as much new music as I can nearly all day, every day. My entire life has been dedicated to music so in turn my social circle is also mostly music people. These peers are also a remarkable resource that I am forever learning from. I may not be the world’s best music writer, but people would be hard pressed to find someone more dedicated to finding new music, lifting up new artists, and having a willingness to share it with others. Lastly, I work very hard to ensure I am not reliant on algorithms or people who are paid to pitch records to me. I want the music I share with others to be a pure reflection of my dedication, personal taste, and years of experience from being deeply invested in the DIY music community. People can be strangely competitive about finding the next big thing and like to keep these treasures to themselves. I feel the exact opposite way. This should not be a contest. Human beings are making art, pouring themselves into a craft, and they deserve as many of us putting a spotlight on their music as possible.
What are your thoughts about RSD?
Record Store Day started with the best intentions, and I think they believe they continue to do important work to drive customers into record stores. Their problem is that RSD has developed into a complicated beast that desperately needs to be reshaped to give back to the music community that helped realize their vision. I am disappointed that RSD has turned a blind eye to the monster they created IE expensive, non-returnable, insanely limited products that pit small businesses against chain stores, bottleneck supply chains that have been further ravaged during pandemic times, and makes life for struggling independent artists even more difficult because major labels continue to control the market and limited/valuable real estate in these shops. There is an ever-growing laundry list of issues that come along with RSD now. They have morphed into something closer to a mob boss backed by the major label thugs who are helping to turn affordable art for the masses into a cut-throat commodity that is closer to day trading than a celebration of human expression. RSD needs to take the time to listen to their community, hear out the needs of their partners, and make some much needed changes. If the music industry wants to survive and grow, RSD needs to help empower and lift the community that has been there for them since the beginning.
Do you find multi-color-vinyl pressings to be a positive or negative to the industry?
Ughhhh. I am so completely disinterested in colored vinyl and how it manipulates music fans to focus less on the art and more on obsessive consumerism. The industry has a long history of taking advantage of music fans and catering to big box stores who demand exclusive products. This is not realistic or affordable for most consumers to keep up with nor can independent musicians/labels afford this gross trend that further chokes up already overwhelmed pressing plants.
Do you find it scary to see the big box retailers getting back into stocking vinyl? Having been in the biz long enough, we know what happens when they pull out of it.
Seriously, the music industry has the shortest memory in the world and NEVER LEARNS FROM THE PAST. The bubble burst is coming and honestly, I am ready for it. Big box retailers are fair-weather friends who don’t really give a shit about the art at the end of the day. A product is a product is a product to them. I don’t blame them for jumping on the fad to make a quick buck, but the end is near. I am truly scared that the biz seemingly has no idea what the shelf life of their product actually is.
Do you think the CD revival has legs and are we getting near peak vinyl?
I am so nervous to make any prediction when there are so many wild cards in the universe right now. I am still not convinced that new generations will be as excited to own objects that take up space in a world where living spaces are becoming smaller and more expensive. Records, CDs, tapes, books, and DVDs are admittedly a pain in the ass. They take up a lot of space, are a nightmare to move, and more often than not, do not increase in value. In no normal world do collecting any of things makes sense in a digital world. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled it is still happening, but ultimately, even though I am a collector myself, I care about the art and the people who bring that art to life more. I want music to be affordable yet also allow these makers to survive off of their talents. The whole industry needs to be burned down to the ground and reimagined to be more eco-friendly, artist forward, and welcoming to all kinds of people.
There are so many ways to find records these days: mom & pop shops, box stores, niche curated online shops like yours, mail-orders, direct from bands/labels. Even bigger music sites like Relix and Brooklyn Vegan are selling music now. Do you feel like it’s starting to become over-extended? With this saturation of places to get records, where do you think the taste-maker like yourself fits into the puzzle?
Is this over-extended or more niche driven to meet the needs of a customer base that is more diverse than ever? Will it last? No. I hope I live long enough to see how younger generations transform the industry that us old timers beat to death/ recycle the same ideas decade after decade. A reckoning is coming, and it will include a spectrum of voices the industry stupidly left out of the conversation for half a century. Bring on the new and different. I am part of the dumb old guard. I am self-aware enough to know my days in the business are numbered and I am okay with just being a fan again because ultimately, that is who I am to my core.
What is next for Courtesy Desk/RecordCollectHer/Turntable Report?
I think a great deal about my age and where/if I still belong in a community that has been my second family for my entire adult life. I do not want to overstay my welcome. Aging out of the community that has been my literal everything for decades is really hard. I think music has allowed many of us Gen Xers to live a Peter Pan lifestyle and figuring out what aging gracefully means to me is a constant internal dialogue. A serious case of Covid early on in 2020 stole my lung power so I have already been forced to reconcile the fact that I am not the person I once was. Singing is much more of a struggle for me now, another thing that has been a huge part of who I am for most of my life. Making music is so important to me, my sanity, and it has also been at the heart of my relationship with my husband. We have been making music together for over a decade and while some couples have children, we make records together. I am currently working very hard to take care of myself after a very hard two years of health issues so I can continue to do the things I love: make music, support the music I believe in, write (poetry/memoir in the works), DJ, and travel. My biggest dream at the moment is to feel good first and see what happens from there. I think as the fog of the pandemic lifts, a large number of us will be making some major life changes. We have all been through a really scary, difficult time. For those of us who are lucky enough to still be here, I think many of us might be feeling better equipped to face the unknown and take some bold chances while we can.
What do you think needs to happen more than anything else right now within the music industry?
I cannot stress enough how ready I am for a total industry do-over. I want less old, white men running the show in basically all aspects of the planet.
With your extensive life within this mess we call indie-rock and so on what advice would you give bands / labels / stores?
I wish I had more confidence through my twenties and thirties to trust myself and my instincts. In the end I let my imposter syndrome get the best of me and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I would beg those who are creative makers and doers to listen to their own voices and ignore the static around them. Don’t be scared to fail because this is how we all learn some of the most important lessons and get better/ become better people. Life goes by so fucking fast and regret is the heaviest weight a person can carry.
Your honesty about getting out of the way is refreshing and I’ve been thinking and feeling that same way myself a bit before the pandemic. I have made some big changes and see my place as more of an information desk for people left out or to use my connections to bring some of the next generation up. To me that kinda feels like what you are doing with all of your projects as well. So instead of looking at it as a way to age out gracefully, could you see how your wealth of knowledge and true DIY spirit could be a resource and inspiration for a lot of folks coming up that haven’t made those connections yet?
There are a bounty of wildly talented people making music and releasing records right now. I see many of these creatives struggling to find their way and falling into the traps of an industry that likes to take advantage of them at their most vulnerable; vulnerable being that in many cases they are young, naive, and inexperienced. I may not end up in an above the board official music industry position, however as a caring human being, I want to help these people the best I can. The industry is like a hungry vampire always looking for fresh blood. As someone who genuinely wants nothing for these people other than success and happiness, I am dedicated to giving them honest insight and connecting them with the people I know can be trusted. My opinions are not clouded by financial ties to a band or label’s decisions, so when I offer insight to those who come to me, my answers come from a pure place and one based on decades of experience. I don’t have kids, but I am ready to mom tough love anyone in music who might need it. Money and power are of zero interest to me. I want to help nurture these people and their art in a safe and caring way.
What are you up to this summer?
Our pandemic home recording project Outer World is going to Kansas to record an EP at the relatively new recording studio owned and run by Caulfield from Sweeping Promises. It all came together rather quickly when their European tour was canceled, and they suddenly had some time available. I have been working on strengthening my lungs after two years of long Covid and I honestly wasn’t sure I would ever make another record again. At this point I think my insecurities and nerves after such a rough two years with my voice are my biggest hurdle to overcome, but I can’t imagine a better place or group of people to dive back into the deep end with. I don’t think any of us will ever say we feel like our old selves again, but making music again brings me at least one step closer. CF
Mike Turner is a music industry lifer who founded and runs HHBTM Records and Crashing Through Publicity. Mike also writes for Maggot Brain and God is in the TV, has hosted the Athens Popfest (2004-2018) and worked in independent music retail for decades with time spent in mail-order, corporate stores, and mom & pop brick & mortar.