Store Owner interview with Naomi Diamond of Mod Lang
Mod Lang is one of the few stores to make the links on Silber’s start up page. So you know that means they love us & we love them. This is actually the first phone interview I’ve done in quite a while as I’ve been getting really lazy about transcribing, but it is much nicer to feel like there is another human somewhere in this world of robots.
Store Name: Mod Lang Records
QRD – Why did you start your store?
Naomi – Because I was buying too many records. So I ended up buying records to sell as well & it seemed to work out.
QRD – Are you still running Mod Lang as a label as well?
Naomi – Yeah. We don’t put out many things, just about one a year & mostly just friends of ours.
QRD – When did you start the label?
Naomi – Probably 1993 or something like that.
QRD – How does your store particularly appeal to your city?
Naomi – I’m not sure. We moved to El Cerrito about two years ago. We used to be in downtown Berkley.
QRD – That’s a difference.
Naomi – It’s a pretty major difference. The local people really seem to like it here. There’re a couple of new record stores in the area. So there’s a bit of a music scene that’s starting to happen where we are & that’s pretty good. So we seem to be in the middle of a lot of music minded people. We’re right next door to a giant violin store, which is kind of nice. A lot of the people in El Cerrito for whatever reasons don’t want to go to Berkley. It’s too scary to park; they don’t want to drive on Telegraph; whatever the deal is. So I have a lot of locals who come in & either buy what I have or do a lot of special orders. & because we’ve been around for so long & we’ve always done mail-order, most of my business is through mail-order & email & not reliant on local at all; they don’t care where I’ve moved to.
QRD – What’s a mistake you’ve made with your store that you’d warn others against?
Naomi – I’m sure there are millions of mistakes I’ve made running the store. I can think of anything off hand….
QRD – What do you think indie record labels could do to best help both themselves & indie stores?
Naomi – I think the indies & the majors both probably need to rely less on box store sales & go back to trying to sell things through record stores. Because as the majors are finally figuring out, they’re not making any money selling things in box stores.
QRD – I’m not sure if it’s still true, but last September Wal-Mart announced they were going to pull CDs from their stores because they weren’t worth the shelf space.
Naomi – I know, it’s so great, they had 30% of the market on actual physical retail stock. & the Warner Brothers profit for the whole last year was two-million dollars worldwide or something crazy like that including the giant settlement from Napster. So that kinda scares them into thinking they have to do some vinyl or start doing sales through record stores. But it’s a bit of too-little-too-late as so many stores have gone bust in the meantime. For independent labels, I’m sure if you’re told somebody’s going to buy x-thousand number of pieces & all you have to do is co-op on some advertising, it’d be pretty hard to say no. I am pretty happy with vinyl sales coming out with the free download coupons, because a lot of people want that option. It would be nice if knowing things were going to box stores anyway, the incentive to go to real record stores was higher. The exclusive disc or the poster or whatever, that stuff should all go to record stores.
QRD – Yeah, versus in reality it goes the other way. I think the White Stripes had a bonus track if you bought the disc at Target.
Naomi – Yeah. & then people do dumb things like you’ve got the Rolling Stones doing a disc exclusively available at Best Buy or Circuit City. I kind feel like the box stores get enough of a deal without having to get the exclusive stuff as well. I feel like that stuff should go to record retailers; but then again I am a record retailer, so I would think that.
QRD – How was the representation of indie storeowners & customers in the movie High Fidelity accurate & inaccurate to your experience?
Naomi – Record storeowners are not that way at all. We are so typecast. I am super super friendly. I would never break a record in front of a person.
QRD – It’s funny, because that’s why I think so many record stores are closing. Because they aren’t doing their jobs & they are that guy.
Naomi – I don’t know, I suppose there are bitter guys out there; but most of the record retailers that I meet that are serious record dealers, they really love the music & love the stock. Somebody was telling me about trying to buy some vinyl that was an exclusive at Best Buy & they found it in the computer system, but couldn’t find it anywhere on the floor. When they finally found it on the floor it was underneath a bunch of box sets, but they hadn’t processed it yet & so they weren’t allowed to sell it. Even then they had no idea what it was. It wasn’t listed as vinyl in their system; it was listed as a twelve-inch box. You don’t run into that problem at a real record store. Usually someone can tell you all about what you need to know. I know there are some stores that are indier-than-thou & those give us a bad rep.
QRD – I have no problem with those stores shutting down. I shouldn’t feel like a jerk because my sister asked me to buy a Toto record for her for her birthday.
Naomi – No & I’d be really happy to special order that Toto record for you along with your Supertramp & Journey records. I collect Hanoi Rocks, so I cannot talk.
QRD – What type of research do you do to decide what to put on the shelves?
Naomi – I have to read a lot of magazines. I read the UK mags: NME, Q, Mojo, & Uncut. I get all the offer sheets from all the one stops & the labels themselves. I tend not to read to many US music mags, as they’re a little too much hype for me. I also tend not to read too much online, as it’s too hard to tell the difference between hype & the real thing.
QRD – Is it ever difficult to find the right distributors to get something you want to stock?
Naomi – No, I’ve gotten pretty good about doing that kind of stuff. The only thing that is kind of difficult strangely enough is a lot of heavy metal things. They’ll have European distribution & claim to have a US label, but it’s almost impossible to order form a US distro. So I feel kind of bad about that, because people ask me to get black metal & heavy metal & it takes months to get it because the channels just aren’t that easy.
QRD – What do you wish labels or bands or distributors did more of to work with you?
Naomi – Exactly that, “do more to work with me.”
QRD – What do you think is your store’s all time best seller?
Naomi – Probably the first Radiohead album, but I’m not positive.
QRD – What do you think most leads to a particular record being a good seller in your store?
Naomi – A lot of different things. Back in the day it used to be word of mouth. But as you probably know campuses & colleges & everybody is kind of wired in to these networks. That’s one of the reasons we left Berkley. All of the UC campus is on one network, so if one person buys the CD it goes into the public library. You only need to sell one CD to the entire campus. Whereas before you would sell one & their friends would need it & buy one too. So it’s kind of hard. The number of people who actually want to listen to a record on a stereo, it has gone up in the last couple of years, but for the ten years before that it had gone down extremely. So packaging helps, word of mouth helps, playing it in the store helps, many things.
QRD – How does one get an independent release into your store such that it’s recommended to the clientele instead of just sitting on the shelf?
Naomi – Generally speaking I already know what I like before it gets to my shelves, but I do get surprised sometimes. Like I said, indie record stores do get a bad rap. I do recommend stuff & I do play stuff in the store. So if people can afford store copies or play copies, I do have listening stations in the store where people can listen to anything that’s open.
QRD – How do you feel about so many stores closing & how does it affect you if at all?
Naomi – Other people’s closures hasn’t affected me. I feel bad about it, because some of those people their life’s thing was owning or working in a record store & their love of music. So it is really bad if you can’t do something that you enjoy doing.
QRD – What type of competition do you get from the big box stores (Wal-Mart, Best Buy, etc.) & is it difficult to compete price-wise - i.e., do you find that potential customers will shop at the chain because they can afford to charge less for the same discs or do they support you if the disc is a dollar higher in price?
Naomi – The price issue is really bad because they are often selling things below my costs, which is theoretically illegal in California & yet they do it all the time. I think they some weird thing where they claim the $20,000 that’s getting contributed towards the weekly circulars reduces the prices of the goods. So if I’m paying $10.99 for something that’s supposed to be on the rack for $13.99 & the box store is selling it for $7.99, even though they’re only going to have two copies in the store the first week at that price; it just means the perception of the value of a CD has gone down so much. Also because of the cost of tracks online for a buck, everybody feels like a CD should be ten bucks. So to have something come out on a major label with a list price of $17.99 & I can price it at $15.98, but everyone feels that’s $6 too much. That’s not good.
QRD – With portable MP3 players and iTunes, is the concept of the album (in any form) dying?
Naomi – No, I think it’s actually coming back. Because people are enjoying having vinyl again & having packaging & things to look at & having it more as an artifact. I feel bad that there is a whole generation of people who have grown up listening to things on their computers & think that’s what music sounds like. MP3s only give you 11% of the sound quality that’s on a CD. So I feel bad that people have grown up not understanding what room ambience is or the sound of varying types of silence is or things that were important on a vinyl or CD release. So there is all of that. But this is all something that happened with the walkman, when people decided music was something to listen to secondarily while commuting or exercising or something else rather than jus sit down to listen to & enjoy. So many people feel about music the way I feel about television, it’s just something that’s on. It’s just a different world for those people. But for people that are actually into music, I think they have gotten a lot more into music lately. There’s been an upswing the last couple of years.
QRD – How has the downloading scene impacted your sales - do you find that people buy less CDs now because they can download them for less or do you or do you think illegal downloads are more of a culprit?
Naomi – They’re making a big fuss about the downloading thing, but I find that most of the young kids don’t even bother to download. They listen on their friends’ MySpace pages or the bands’ MySpace pages & they don’t even feel like they need to own the download. They don’t even bother to buy the dollar track. They’ll get the free track on their phone. I don’t think it makes enough difference that they feel a need to own the track anymore. If you’re just going to listen to it on your computer anyway, there are so many ways to find the track that I don’t think they even bother.
QRD – Record & CD buyers tend to be of a certain age (21-34), as the upcoming people who will be of that age group are mostly download-buyers, would you like stores to eventually have “iPod filling stations” hooked up to an indie network that stores can be part of?
Naomi – First I disagree with you about the age of record buyers. I have a lot of record buyers over 30 buying records from their favorite bands from the 60s & 70s. I do have college & high school age people who are buying stuff. So the cross-section of people who are actually buying stuff seems to e a much larger age group.
QRD – Do you think it’s always been that way?
Naomi – Since I’ve had the store. 18-24 was the big group in the 60s & 70s & as these people grew older they continued to buy music. Rolling Stones fans just got ten years older, but they’re still buying music. Some of them have faltered off. I know as people get older they buy fewer & fewer releases. But as far as who actually goes to a record store & buys records, I think we still have a core of people that are over 30, over 40, over 50 even; but obviously the numbers are dwindling a little bit. The thing with listening to stuff on iPods & growing up listening to stuff on iPods is I don’t think music is a primary entertainment source for them. I think for the most part they are more into their Gameboy or whatever. The idea that someone would get a rock star game about being in a band rather than actually joining a real band, that’s just really funny tonight. But there are people who grow up with almost their entire life being kind of second hand. Not just for music, but for other things as well. I see people being interviewed on the news about events that happened right in front of them. People see people get shot or in car accidents or their next door to a fire & people just don’t seem connected to the actual event. They seem to view many things second hand. Their enjoyment of music is a little of that way too. It’s a disconnect with the younger generation that they have about many things. So I’m not sure that it’s a music related problem.
QRD – With the increase in digital downloads, low prices in mega-chains, & so many online specialty stores; what is the job of the local indie shop now compared to in the 1990s?
Naomi – There’s more collector stuff out there, but turning people on to new music is still good. It is a little hard to convince somebody that a CD should be worth $17.98 or even $15.98 when the download version is ten bucks. For whatever reason the majors haven’t bothered to mention that an MP3 is only 11% of what you get on a CD, they make out that it’s CD quality because it is digital. So on the one hand they’re saying it’s amazing & it’s digital & you should pay $1 for it; on the other hand they’re saying you should pay twice as much for it on a CD, but not that you’re getting ten times as much information.
QRD – I don’t know if you saw that iTunes finally this year started to put some of their songs at a decent quality.
Naomi – Yeah, if you grew up listening to music on a real stereo it sounds bad.
QRD – But of you’re listening to a CD on laptop speakers it probably sounds just as bad.
Naomi – Plus if you grew up listening to music in that way, then the concept of what it should sound like hasn’t entered your realm at all. It’s like if you grew up watching all of your movies on those tiny screens on airplanes & you never went to a movie theater. If the only time you saw movies was on the tiny screens with the ear buds & then someone said, “Let’s go to the movies,” & you said, “Why the hell would I pay $20 to go to the movies?” but you went anyway; it would blow your mind how good a movie is. I feel like that’s what record stores need to do with real records as well.
QRD – What are the biggest misconceptions people have of record stores in general & yours in particular?
Naomi – Not mine in particular, but in general that we’re crotchety people because of movies like you mentioned. & that we’re expensive. Sadly that’s because you see all the ads in the weekly circulars & you think that CDs are worth $10 & you walk into a record store & the best we can do is $13.98 & it seems expensive & people don’t understand I’m only making $2.
QRD – What is the most frustrating &/or frequent question you get from customers?
Naomi – I don’t really have anything other than, “Why is this so expensive?”
QRD – How do you decide who to hire as an employee & when you need one?
Naomi – We’ve had many employees in the past & just downsized a lot. I make them take a music quiz. I make them take a general music quiz starting with: Name two members of the Beatles & two members of the Rolling Stones. Then going through: Name a record on Sub Pop. I get a lot of people that say they would love to work in a record store & just sit around listening to records all day long. & I’m like, “Okay, but what do you know about Nick Drake?” Because I really want my customers to be able to ask people questions. That’s one of the things that we’ve cultivated most in our store, people should always ask questions & ask what something sounds like & if I have bio information I give that to them & if I have an open copy I play it for them. We’re pretty hands on.
QRD – That’s exactly why stores are closing. They’re not doing that. They should give me recommendations based on what I bought. Instead I get a total & a dirty look for making them work.
Naomi – Uh-huh. Independent bookstores are going through the same thing. Black Oak Books in Berkley the owner or one of the main guys made a statement along the lines of, “I’m tired of people coming in the store & browsing the books, figuring out what they want, & then going home & ordering it on Amazon.” You know, you pay rent to have a nice store, you pay electricity to have a nice store, you have a staff that is knowledgeable, you do a lot to have the right stock & have it in a way that people can find what they want. Then to have people decide they’re going to go online to save $2….
QRD – A big part of that is that I’m kind of into the local thing. That if I buy something on Amazon my wealth is exported to Seattle. But buying locally it gets passed on & stays in my community.
Naomi – There’s that & also in terms of the record store, book store, & many other things; what you are paying for aside from being able to look at the actual item is the knowledge & information & everything else. If you’re just taking people’s knowledge for free & doing the purchase part somewhere else, that’s kind of crap. Which is why so many jobs do get exported to someone who doesn’t know what the hell is going on.
QRD – In defense of Amazon, they do actually do that recommends thing.
Naomi – Yeah. Sometimes they make sense & sometimes they don’t. People connect things differently. Just because you like Portishead doesn’t mean you like everything from that area or that you automatically like Massive Attack. Because those online systems don’t have a conversation with you, they just know what you’ve looked at. They don’t know that what you like about Portishead is the drum sound & they should tell you to buy the Robert Plant record because it’s the same dude.
QRD – If you weren’t in the music business, what would you do?
Naomi – Something else in the arts, but I don’t know what it would be. This is what I like to do.
QRD – How did your schooling & previous work experience prepare (or not prepare) you for your store?
Naomi – It did not prepare me for owning a store. I have a degree in art from UC Berkley. I started selling records when I was still at school to subsidize my own record buying. I had a partner for a while that was in England & I would send him stuff that would sell in England & he would send me English stuff that would sell in America. It was all just stuff you learn as you go along.
QRD – Have you ever refused to sell something purely because you disliked the music, even if it was popular and would sell?
Naomi – I haven’t refused to sell anything because I disliked the music, but I have refused to sell something because I dislike the politics or message involved. Like back in the day we refused to sell stuff that was white supremacist, still don’t obviously. & I feel that way about some hip-hop titles.
QRD – What is your personal “holy grail”? (i.e. the one rarity you’ve been looking for forever.)
Naomi – For my personal collection there are so many things that I’m missing. There’s a Finnish Hanoi Rocks thing from before they were called Hanoi Rocks that I’m missing one seven inch for. There’s a Fracois Hardy EP where he sings in English, but I’m missing the French version though I have the English & German versions. I’m missing a lot of things.
QRD – What makes you feel like you had a good day at the store?
Naomi – Aside from actually selling stuff, it’s always good if you turn somebody on to something they enjoy. If somebody comes back & tells you they really like what you recommended last time & they need new recommendations this time, that’s always good.
QRD – Anything else?
Naomi – You’ve asked a lot about what indies should do, but not what majors should do & they need to do what the indies do except more so. Because they tend to waste a lot of money on signing a million bands, but only developing a handful. They’ll be pushing an item for months & months before a release date & at the release date it’s dead in the water to them. They won’t give me a promo, they have nothing to say about it, they’ve already decided it’s a failure by the time it comes out & they spent a lot of money on development. I kind feel they should be more streamlined in their approach. Even if it meant signing less bands, they could take better care of the bands. People used to have bands & develop three or four album careers for them. Now so many bands get signed & are dead before their first record comes out. I feel really bad about that. I know that the major labels are losing money. I know people who are signed to majors & they say, “Wow, the label’s really taking care of us. The radio promotions person in this town took us & all our friends out to dinner.” & I say “You know that’s your radio promotions budget, you paid for the dinner.” “No, no, the radio promotions person took us.” “No, you had a radio promotions budget & instead of them promoting your CD to radio, they took you out to dinner.” They have budgets like this & some of it is funny money because it never gets recouped or whatever; but if they have the wherewithal to set up a budget structure to do these things, it seems like what they should be doing to make money is promote sales & it seems kind of obvious that that is what needs to happen.
Official Website - www.modlang.com