"Any decent local record shop plays a role in supporting their scene," says Clay Scales, longtime proprietor of local independent record store 52.5 Records, a haven of recordings, books, DVDs, and know-how on Upper King Street.
Scales and his staff have a big selection of acts outside of the commercial mainstream. They carefully order and stock cool music of all genres that might not otherwise be available in Charleston. They also keep tabs on who's who and what's happening in the local music scene — from the huge shows to the house parties.
"We distribute and sell local music," says Scales. "As recently as 10 years ago, that role alone would have been considered a vital one. Now, with digital distribution, bands can easily get the music to their fans without our help. So the role that record stores play in the distribution of a physical product, vinyl, or CD, has become less vital. Local shops in general still play an important role in distribution, though. We distribute information, expertise, and knowledge."
Scales, 44, worked in music shops in Georgia and the Carolinas — well ahead of the advent of compact discs and digital music trading — before opening 52.5 Records at a small building on Wentworth Street in 1997. In 2000, the shop moved down the block, and in 2007, they reopened downtown at 561 King St.
Through the years, the shop offered more than just stacks of CDs and used vinyl; they provided clubs and bands with a room-sized kiosk for their flyers, show announcements, and "musicians wanted" posters, and served as a casual headquarters for musicians, scenesters, and newcomers.
"We're still trying to figure out what works for us," Scales admits. "It's been a challenging time for music retail over the last few years. Luckily for us, we've always done things other than sell CDs, which is a help, but our bread and butter has been the CD. You can certainly see a small resurgence in vinyl sales, but when you look at the numbers, it's pretty small. Sales may have doubled this year, but vinyl is still a small part of the equation."
Independent local record shops like 52.5, Monster Music & Movies, and Cat's Music regularly field calls, e-mails, and in-store inquires about what's going on around town. Their insight goes deeper than the staffers at the big box retail stores and mall spots.
"Every week, someone comes in and says, 'I've just moved to town — what should I do and what bands should I check out?'" says Scales. "And they're usually most interested in live, original, local music. It feels good to be one of the places where people ask. We may not always have the answers, but we have them at our fingertips. It's more a goodwill thing; we're not making a sale, but we're accomplishing something."
The local shops also transform into live venues on occasion, hosting in-store performances for touring and local bands.
"Shortly after we opened here, we were doing live in-store shows every Friday evening," Scales says. "Some of my favorite shows were by bands who were really playing their first show ever, outside of the practice space. That was really cool. They were excited. Their parents would be here. But we discovered that the weekly model didn't work so well. We'll probably focus more on special events, like Oicho Kabu's recent CD release show.
"We do what we do," he adds. "It isn't rocket science. I love my job though, and I am happy to play a small part in the big picture of Charleston's music scene." —T. Ballard Lesemann