The din of voices compete for ear space with the music, which is being played, discussed, haggled over and sold. The splash of colors from the posters and record sleeves attack the senses like a pop culture riot.
The vendors are collectors-the sort who have toiled away years digging through crates for very specific pieces of music. A b-side, a record with a pressing plant mishap or a little-known cameo... something rare.
You could base an entire record collection on such a gem.
This is the obsessive ambiance of the San Diego Record Show, an event where obsession often leads to disappointment because, no matter how much money you bring, it still won't be enough to buy everything you want.
Basically an indoor flea market devoted to music, the Record Show focuses on vinyl, but stops short of myopia. Aggressively shopping for music rarities is the main attraction, but the show has also become a gathering place for hardcore music fans of all ages-from the young hipster looking for a 7-inch Locust import to somebody's dad trying to complete his Beatles collection.
While no bands actually perform the event, it's likely that you'll run into a dozen well-known San Diego musicians before you make it past the first few tables.
“The idea of the whole thing was just spawned by me wanting to further my own collection,” says Alan Garth, the man behind The San Diego Record Show. “But I wouldn't feel right taking full credit. A promoter-‘Music Man' Marvin-started it and did them for 10 years or so. For whatever reason, he decided to stop and there was a gap between shows of a year or more.
“Somebody had to pick it up. Simply put, I didn't want it to die.”
Garth is no stranger to the music industry, having worked for Tower Records as the singles/vinyl buyer for seven years, followed by a three-year stint as a music promoter with Rawkus Records. These days he's a cable guy, but his obsession with vinyl has led to his role as the Record Show's promoter.
Speaking from his home in South Park, Garth is clearly a vinyl junkie who feeds his obsession through the shows.
“I have about 5,000 records, but realistically I don't play more than one or two a day,” he says. “I couldn't listen to all of them in even five or 10 years, so I have a core of favorites that I keep handy near my turntable. The rest are on a huge shelf in my room. Then shelves in the hallway. And then the rest are in the garage. Just everywhere you look, pretty much.”
The vinyl bug bit Garth early. As a junior in high school, he rode his bike 10 miles just to purchase his first 12-inch. Today-when, in two minutes or less, you can download a copy of a little-known club show Led Zeppelin played in, say, Chernobyl-that sort of personal odyssey is viewed more impractical than passionate.
During its heyday, part of popular music's cultural experience-and the appeal of the Record Show-was the thrill of discovery. The harder you search for something, the more you crave and appreciate it (see the Economics 101 textbook, chapter entitled “supply and demand”); that which is easily attainable is just as easily discarded.
So now, two decades after vinyl was declared dead, its popularity is on the rise. Big record labels, being the bean counters they are, understand how to tinker with the laws of supply-and-demand: killing vinyl only meant that they can now sell fewer units for greater profit.
“Sony, Warner Brothers, BMG, they all press vinyl, usually current 12-inch stuff off the radio and a few things they think might appeal to collectors,” Garth explains.
And vintage releases?
“There's always people looking for it and it's actually drying up,” he says. “Common records that I used to see and pass on, I just don't come across anymore. Now they're worth 30 or 50 bucks and I wish I would have picked them up back then.”
He also points out that a primary source of high-end collectibles-radio-is no longer a factor. Once largely dependent on vinyl records for airplay, most stations have fully converted to CDs. In the old days, after an album's rotation was finished, stations would dump it into the marketplace. Now, however, they're just dumping CDs (often selling them to used CD stores to fund things like office parties).
Garth admits he would prefer to make the show all vinyl, but doesn't want to turn anyone away. It's this something-for-everyone ethos-plus just good economic sense-that will ensure mass diversity among the Record Show's wares.
“This time there should be some interesting stuff as far as memorabilia goes,” Garth says. “And some vendors are bringing some old stereo stuff, vintage turntables and electronics, as well as old rock posters and all the usual things.
“Hip-hop and dance stuff is pretty hot,” he says. “And then jazz, funk and soul and some early '70s rock as well. We get a lot of DJs, but there's always collectors there looking for their punk stuff and some country, too. “
Tower Records has recently been put up for sale. Music Traders have shut down. Small boutique record shops are feeling the loss in sales. Even in this kill-or-be-killed environment, Garth doesn't think that store owners view The Record Show as competition.
“I don't think so, and I hope not,” he says. “Pretty much everyone that's there is a private collector, as opposed to a dealer. I also invite stores to participate. I take flyers to Off The Record and so on and have asked them if they'd like to get a table. They haven't taken me up on my offer, but Record City has, twice. I think if anything, it helps them. I hope so, anyway.”
After all, he asserts, he's not in it for the money.
“Honestly, a lot of times I'll barely break even money-wise, but my measure of success isn't about that. I always get good records there and that was my main reason for doing the shows, being a record collector myself.”