The punk band X signs records at B-Side in 1984.
The world has changed a great deal since 1982, the year B-Side Records set up shop on State Street. A few days before the store opened, Billy Joel's 52nd Street became the first album to be released on compact disc. A few weeks afterward, Michael Jackson's Thriller hit the airwaves, becoming the country's best-selling album of all time. The Moonwalk wouldn't be invented for another five months, and the Walkman was still considered new technology.
Audio formats and dance moves aside, music has the power to be virtually timeless. It also has the power to enact change, not just illustrate how time marches on. It can alter opinions, start revolutions and give a voice to the voiceless. These are just a few of the reasons Steve Manley has devoted his career to selling albums.
I chatted with him about B-Side's history on the eve of the shop's 30th anniversary, which will be celebrated Saturday at the High Noon Saloon. The party starts at 4:30 p.m. and includes performances by local bands Post Social and the Low Czars. Here's how our conversation went.
The Daily Page: First things first. What made you decide to take the leap and become the owner of B-Side?
Manley: Becoming the owner was part of a long-term plan. The original owners promised me they would sell, and one of them sold me his share about seven years ago, the other sold me the rest about four years ago.
What are a couple of records that changed how you think about music, and how did you discover them?
There were a couple of Frank Zappa records that seemed to alter the way I experienced music when I was an adolescent: the mostly instrumental album Hot Rats and the more comical album Apostrophe'. For a little while, those albums spoiled other artists for me, just a bit, anyway. Of course I got over that mild ruination, but still love listening to Frank.
There have been many albums that sort of struck me at the time as a revelation, but one other example is an album that made me realize how punk rock could be both snotty and smart, funny and fascinating, and with insanely good guitar playing to boot: Blank Generation by Richard Hell & the Voidoids.
What's one of the strangest, most exciting or most memorable things to happen in the store?
It has been fun when music celebrities have shopped here. The signing party for the band X in 1984 was great. It was amusing when MTV brought in a camera crew to film a segment with a trendy band at the time, Good Charlotte. Meeting The Edge when U2 played Madison in the early '90s was pretty exciting. I did my best to act cool when he brought a stack of CDs to the counter and had his giant bodyguard peel a $100 bill off a wad of cash to pay for them. I attempted small talk about Brian Eno and whatnot before asking for his autograph. It's always heartwarming to meet musicians who are very down-to-earth and unassuming, like Billy Bragg, Colin Meloy, Flea, Henry Rollins, Charlie Haden, and the singers in TV on the Radio, to name a few.
I'm interested in how you've dealt with the public's shift from CDs to mp3s, albums to singles. What's helped to keep B-Side afloat during this transition?
It's been difficult, or at least a struggle, for most record stores to make the adjustments brought on by the sea change of the iPod and the rise of downloading, legal and otherwise. We still stock the store with CDs, primarily for older customers like me, but some students might be surprised to know that more than a few of their peers still like to buy CDs. So the CD market isn't just for old folks, not yet anyway.
On the other hand, the majority of my customers under the age of about 30 go straight for the vinyl bins. This has been a surprise to almost all of us who've been in this business for 20 or 30 years. I would be shocked to see an example of anyone from 20 years ago predicting the resurgence of vinyl that has taken place. Even now, some middle aged folks wander in to the shop and are amazed that there are all these LPs still being manufactured, and even more amazed to learn that young people are the ones buying them. This phenomenon, more than anything, has kept us alive as a business over the last eight or 10 years.
Tell me a little bit about your process of selecting music to sell.
I read a fair amount about new artists and releases, and subscribe to some music websites to try to keep up with what's happening, and try to get a feel of what people might be looking for. Some friends who work at WORT radio help to clue me in on some artists, as do my customers. It's not possible to cover all the bases, but I have some sense of customer demand by interacting with customers every day.
What does being an "alternative" mean to you? In other words, what is B-Side an alternative to in 2012?
B-Side, even in our name, was founded with the idea of "alternative" in mind, with the b-side of a record being viewed as the more obscure or underground piece of music. Sought after by collectors and all that. Before most of the chain record stores went out of business, we sort of prided ourselves as the alternative to the corporate, faceless, bottom-line-oriented chains. We cultivate a hand-picked, sort of custom-curated type of selection, not as concerned with charts and sales figures, more concentrated on quality and music that lasts, more than just the "here today, forgotten tomorrow" type of stuff that people get distracted by, for a moment.
These days, the record stores that have survived probably all have carved out a niche like we have, by staying engaged with their customers, and keeping up with what works and what doesn't. I still love running a record store, and I hope it shows.