Working at a record store in the early-to-mid 2000s gave me a firsthand look at how the internet was damaging small businesses. It also afforded me an intimate view of how some small businesses combatted the internet and found new and creative ways to thrive.
I worked at Easy Street's Queen Anne location for 10 years—about eight of them serving as the "local consignment guy." If you or your band made an album and pressed vinyl, CDs, or cassettes, I determined if it was worth shelf space.
"Why not just take everything everyone brings in and try selling it?" you may ask. We tried that. There are so many people making albums, and even a store the size of Easy Street lacked the space to stock them all. Plus, nobody was buying any of these homemade, cracked-jewel-case, bedroom-recorded CD-Rs.
So it was decided that I would listen to every consignment release. If the packaging was good and if I felt the music—no matter the genre—was adequate, then I'd call you back and say, "Bring in three copies; we'll start there." I was very loose with this rule, because I make records, too. I know how hard it is to get your music out there. If your product sold, we'd split the money 60/40, favor to the artists.
Working at Easy Street over the years, I have been lucky enough to meet some of the most fascinating individuals through these consignment interactions. On the downside, I saw a lot of broken dreams. One band put out five albums during my eight-year consignment tenure. They worked so hard and spent so much money on these recordings. They'd bring me these beautifully packaged albums, and I would consign them every time because of the effort involved, even though I wasn't totally into the music. None of them ever sold. It was so sad, and their failure confused and frustrated them. That bummed me out, but their drive inspired me.
I've seen so many band members split off into other bands, and then split off into other bands, and so on. I've also heard some of the strangest and most distinctive music ever created. In my collection of what I call "oddities" are records made by people who record with just a Casio keyboard and GarageBand, or just a voice and a drum machine. They have a laptop and do what they can with no outside help, which makes for some of the most original and intriguing music I've ever heard. I realize that I'm the only other person who's heard this music, so it's like possessing the "holy grail." I often visit these albums to remind myself what music means to every walk of life.
In the 21st century, anybody can make an album, and many people do, so you can imagine all the strange and interesting music I've been blessed/cursed to hear. Then there are the few recordings that go on to be collector's items, as their creators later became world-famous.
I remember Robin Pecknold coming into the store to consign his band's first EP. I remember feeling the chalky texture of the CD's homemade screen-printing job. I also remember that the name of the band, Fleet Foxes, stuck out to me because there were so many "animal" bands at the time. Not too long before the first Fleet Foxes EP came in, I consigned another album from a Seattle kid named Chris Taylor for his New York band, Grizzly Bear. Some months went by, and then Fleet Foxes were issuing a full-length on Sub Pop and Grizzly Bear were releasing a record on Warp Records. Of course, they both went on to have amazing careers and became admirers of each other.
That's the thing: There may have been many consignments that just sat on the shelf for years, but there were a few that sold so well that they ended up becoming our best sellers. We sold so many Blue Scholars albums that I was calling their manager every week ordering ridiculous amounts of CDs, thinking no way we'd run out of them—and then we would.
For a minute in the '00s, Seattle's hiphop scene was the new grunge. Albums from Grayskul, Jake One, Dyme Def, Grynch, Oldominion, Common Market, Boom Bap Project, and Lifesavers—among others—constantly came in and promptly sold out.
When I first met Ishmael Butler, he brought in some homemade CDs of his duo Shabazz Palaces. I had no idea of his past (Butler rapped with the Grammy Award–winning Digable Planets). Had I known that, I would have accepted his album on the spot! He was understandably agitated when I told him I'd have to listen to it first. He gave me a confused look and then slowly walked out of the store while staring at me. I thought, "Oh shit, I just totally pissed that dude off."
The CDs he brought me were in these cardboard sleeves with patches glued to the front. I had never seen anything like it. When I listened to them that night, I was blown away. The music was so damn trippy and original. We definitely laugh about that encounter now, but I remember asking to start with three or four copies. They all sold that day, just hours after he left. Then I asked for eight. They sold within two days. Then I asked for 10, thinking that should last a week. Nope, gone within days. Eventually, I was calling Ishmael and asking if we could just buy boxes and boxes of the CDs up front. Those first two Shabazz Palaces albums are masterpieces and went on to rank among Easy Street's best-selling albums ever.
Speaking of monster album sales, I met Ben Haggerty in 2005 when he came in with his debut CD, The Language of My World. I remember thinking it was pretty good and he was really nice, so we started with three copies. A couple copies would sell, so I would call Ben to let him know, and he would collect his $14 or $15—hilarious to think about now!
Every month or so, Haggerty would check back in and we would chat and I'd give him his cut from his modest sales. That record didn't necessarily take off, and eventually he came in less frequently until I didn't see him for a few years. I remember occasionally wondering about him, hoping that he didn't quit music, because I had seen some of his filmed spoken-word performances and they were captivating.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I was handed The Vs. EP by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. We sold so many copies of that EP and its "Redux" version in 2010 that you could sense something special was brewing. Shortly thereafter, Macklemore & Lewis were performing on the roof of the Queen Anne Easy Street in preparation of his soon-to-be- released album The Heist, which went on to top the US album chart.
As successful as that album was, nothing could save Easy Street Queen Anne, but it's amazing to think that the artists who made this music on their own actually sold so well that it helped a small business stay afloat for longer than expected.
Big banks often have little sympathy for small businesses, and that led to Easy Street closing in 2013. The West Seattle branch still thrives, though, and I will always cherish my Queen Anne store memories. For better or for worse, I got to see music retail shift in the digital world. I'm applying these lessons while attempting to help current artists.
Troy Nelson is a KEXP DJ, member of the Young Evils, and co-owner of Killroom Records.