Thirty years ago, while Matt Vaughan was attending Seattle University, he established the monument to local music that is West Seattle’s Easy Street Records. In the interim decades since, Vaughan has watched the neighborhood around him change dramatically and watched friends, like members of Alice in Chains, rocket to stardom and then tragically fall. Vaughan was there when Sir Mix-A-Lot first began hustling his debut, Swass; there when Macklemore sold his first CD; and he’ll be there when the next sensations—Thunderpussy, Car Seat Headrest—rise to the top of the charts. No one has followed Emerald City music quite like Vaughan; in a way he is the eye of the local scene’s storm.
But when you speak with him about this history, he prefaces everything with a description of his hometown Seattle, especially West Seattle. Thirty years ago, he explains, this area was “blue-collar,” populated by Boeing engineers, shipyard workers, and artists. “When you get people like that together,” he says, “you get band rooms, recording studios, and backyard parties.” Vaughan summons stories of local bands rehearsing under the West Seattle Bridge and Soundgarden pressing their first 7-inch. Before them, he recalls the Sonics’ legendary recordings and Heart’s chart success and inspiration and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. He recalls a mythical studio off Admiral Way where Tacoma's the Ventures recorded “Walk Don’t Run,” which went on to inspire the Beatles’ sound. And he remembers how, in the late '80s, record shops were closing all over Seattle and the country at large.
It was then, though, that Vaughan pushed his chips to the center of the table. An employee at two failing independent shops—one in Bellevue and one in West Seattle—Vaughan, who grew up with parents in the music business, approached his then-bosses with a deal. He’d take the business names, the stock, the debt, and responsibility. But he’d own the businesses. They agreed and he moved everything to West Seattle, setting up Easy Street. The first record he remembers selling a ton of? Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Swass. That album, which included “Posse on Broadway,” foreshadowed a boon of iconic local releases and a boon for Vaughan. “The tide was changing,” he says. Seattle music was about to explode.
At the time, CDs were coming into fashion and a large portion of record-shop owners, having already gone through many format changes already, were ready to throw in the towel at the expense. “What I did,” Vaughan says, “was just hold on. I put a bed in the back of the shop, worked from 9 to 9 every day and thought I had it made.” He also created a CD club that allowed customers, after buying 15 CDs, to get one for free. “That was all based off Espresso Vivace and their little coffee cards,” he says with a laugh. And, in 1999, he introduced a restaurant in the middle of the store where people could eat or get a drink while watching one of the popular in-stores. As another benefit, the independent Easy Street could buy and trade used records, tapes, and CDs, which, Vaughan says, “created a partnership and trust between customer and employee.”
But there’s one partnership in particular that Vaughan is very proud of. “Macklemore,” he recalls. “Talk about a hustler. I’ll always love that guy. As he gets more and more popular, there are more and more haters. But he’s a born-and-raised Seattleite—from the same area of Capitol Hill I was brought up in. I remember the early 2000s when he would come in and pick up his Jay-Z CD and talk about a house party he’s got going on. Then he comes out with his own CD and asks, ‘Hey, can I try and sell these here?’ We took three. And he comes in a week later and we’ve sold two. He raises his fist in the air, like, ‘Dope!’ Soon enough we need 50, 100. Then he’s putting out The Heist and performing on Easy Street’s roof. Now, he’s selling out KeyArena.”
Vaughan cites the Head and the Heart as another band that rose quickly through the ranks. “We had sold 250-to-300 albums of theirs on consignment,” he says, “then we had an in-store and Jonathan Poneman [co-founder of Sub Pop] was there. Next thing you know, they’re signed. They were lightning in a bottle, what they were doing at that time with those shit-kicking harmonies.”
But perhaps the most humorous story regarding a new band comes from an interaction with Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces. “Troy Nelson,” laughs Vaughan, “he’s now a DJ for KEXP, but he worked for us for 10 years as our consignment guy. Troy didn’t know who Ish was, so when he came in, Troy decided just to take two copies of Shabazz Palaces’ first record. Ish is like, ‘Dude, you gotta be kidding me! Two?’ But Ish is arguably one of the most respected hiphop artists in the area, and we would go on to sell hundreds of his first record.”
In an age when digital music is supposed to be the supreme option, Vaughan notices that the people in his store linger more and more, as if shopping to younger generations who buy things almost exclusively online is new and interesting. And, Vaughan notes, younger generations do spend money on physical copies of music—something, he says, Forbes would not have predicted years ago. “You ask yourself, ‘Why would they spend $25-$30 on vinyl when they already got the damn thing streaming?’” wonders Vaughan. “It’s because streaming is the new radio—it’s all-day promotion. But if you fall in love with an artist, you want more of an emotional connection. That’s where vinyl comes in.”