Seattle's Sonic Boom Records: Indie, But Not For Indie's Sake

Sonic Boom Records

B. As In Bieber. Filed Next To Belle and Sebastian: Sonic Boom's store in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. courtesy of Sonic Boom Records hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of Sonic Boom Records

Two weeks ago, Sonic Boom Records in Seattle celebrated its 13th birthday. Though it may just be a teenager, the store's decade-plus has overlapped with what's arguably the most difficult period in the history of attempting to get people to pay for recorded music.

Sonic Boom has had its ups and downs (once comprised of three branches, the franchise dropped to two in 2008, and one location was unfortunately shuttered for two months in the middle of last year's Christmas season), but despite challenges, owner Jason Hughes says the store is surviving. It's doing better than that, by some accounts. Sonic Boom offers all of its full-time employees health insurance and a 401k. Rolling Stone recently named it one of the 25 best record stores in the U.S.A., and over the past decade it's become an essential piece of the Seattle music puzzle.

Seattle's alt-weekly The Stranger once described Sonic Boom as "an archetypal indie-rock shop" and since this week's a big one for indie albums — new albums by Sufjan Stevens, Antony and the Johnsons and Belle and Sebastian topline the store's list of new releases — I called Hughes to see how the store got to where it is today and how it defines "indie."

Can you describe the average Sonic Boom customer?
Each store is different, but I'd say our demographic is generally aged between 20 and 40 and they're probably 60 percent male.

What was your best seller last week?
Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest. It was the top seller in both of the last two weeks.

Can you tell us how many copies sold?
I don't like giving numbers, but I can tell you that the first week it was out, the vinyl outsold CDs. It's in its third week now. CDs beat vinyl last week.

We've spoken with some stores who say they have trouble keeping vinyl in stock after the first week. Have you had that problem?
The limited factor of vinyl creates this … almost panic. It's cool, but it's one-way. [Distributors don't allow LPs to be returned if the stock doesn't sell.] There's only one distributor that takes vinyl back. Used vinyl is where you can really make money. The retail margin for new CDs and new LPs is so small. The margin for used vinyl is great. It's a real retail markup.

What are the things that influence which new releases you decide to stock in the store?
You have to look at where people are getting info. [Local radio station] KEXP, Pitchfork, the big blogs like My Old Kentucky Blog, and NPR. You see spikes. If you see something get added to KEXP, where the week before you sold one copy, the next week you might sell 10.

Would you call yourself an indie-focused store? What's the balance of indie to other genres that you carry?
That's hard to say. Is Built To Spill indie? It's on Warner. Indie labels probably make up something like 30 to 40 percent of our stock. But again, what's an indie? ADA [Alternative Distribution Alliance] has all these indie labels, and they're [owned by] WEA [Warner Bros., Elektra and Atlantic Records]. Matador, Merge. As far as boutique indie labels like Darla, we try to carry what we can.

Has the idea of what qualifies as indie changed since the store opened?
Yes and no. It's just a matter of growth. The bands grow, the labels grow. We don't define it by genre, just by what's going to sell. There used to be a store in Tacoma called Nothing Major that only carried records on indie labels. Once their bread and butter got popular and made it onto major labels, they couldn't carry them any more. It was just unsustainable. Think about Modest Mouse.

We don't discriminate against any genre. We have Britney Spears in the store. We have Justin Beiber. We don't bring in a 30 count box [of CDs by those artists], but I don't want to turn anyone away. I'm not going to judge whether Justin Bieber is great or not, I'm just going to judge based on whether anyone wants to buy his record. From the very first day we opened, our biggest thing was: no music snobbery. If someone wants to come in and buy something, we don't ever want them to feel uncomfortable.

Was that philosophy influenced by your experience going into record stores when you were younger?
A little bit. I grew up in San Diego and there were some record stores where you'd get sneers. In San Francisco, I remember going into Rasputin and buying records for my cousin in Australia — things like Joe Jackson that they didn't think were cool. ... And I'd bring my Joe Jackson and Nirvana CDs to the front counter and get a funny look. One of the things that the big box stores don't have is customer service: the ability to go in and ask questions and get an honest answer.

How much do you depend on the community for determining what you sell? If you weren't in Seattle, how would the balance of indie vs. mainstream shift?
A huge amount. The music community in Seattle influences what we sell greatly. Actually, if we weren't in Seattle I don't know if we'd still be around. The one thing that Seattle has that many other cities lack is the music infrastructure. Radio stations like KEXP that play music, clubs, and healthy array of bands that are playing in those clubs regularly. There are four major record stores that are still in this city. I don't know of another city where that's the case, except maybe San Francisco. You look at L.A., the music capitol of the country, and Amoeba has dominated that market.

What kind of a role do you want to play for your customers in the shifting musical landscape? Are you a curator? A lifeline?
It's so hard to be a curator unless you have the size and resources for it … I think of Amoeba as a curator. ... There's a lot of catalog we can't carry because of space and money issues. I think of us more as a delivery filter, where we look at the 5,000 new releases every week and bring in what we feel is the most appropriate mix for our customer. If you come in and look at our new release wall, it's the cream of the crop. We just help them make a decision. I think of every blog and radio station and store as a filter that siphons off what they want from this huge river of music.

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