Cutting In: A Houston Record Store Makes History
Photo by Craig Brown
In the past 20 years, there hasn’t been a business model change much more than that of the local record store. In an attempt to steer from sounding old, I’ll just say that there were at least 30 local record stores when I graduated high school, and about half that a decade ago. One could argue against it, but the idea of another record store in Houston today seems like adding to an already crowded marketplace. If you were to open a record store, you’d need something that set you apart from the herd. Enter Heights Vinyl. For a record store who expected light sales on headphones and turntables, it’s become much more than that-almost more than the music itself.
The idea that you would need a different business model isn’t a new thought. Businesses, especially successful ones; have always attempted to set themselves apart from what others in their market are doing. For a record store, that means something away from the usual fare or reissued vinyls alongside compact discs and an outdated pricing model. I can assure you that the record stores that were smug and arrogant to me when I was seventeen that stuck around Houston, are pretty annoyingly helpful to me today. But, aside from most of these shops’ newfound kindness, not much has changed. Most are still cagey towards local bands, most have the same outdated pricing model, and most are still filled with smug and arrogant employees, who have to be nice to you to get a paycheck. That being said, this is not a slam piece, as I can also give you twenty reasons why you should go to every record shop in Houston; for each has their own set of strengths as well. But since the invention of iTunes, for those of us who buy our music, you need to stand apart in a very big way.
“I figured we’d sell a couple turntables a year, on a good year when we started,” admits Heights Vinyl’s owner Craig Brown. “I never in my wildest dreams, thought we’d have numbers like this,” he says. The “numbers” he’s talking about, are rather impressive. You see, Heights Vinyl sells vintage audio equipment, as well as used and some new vinyl; alongside local albums in all formats. In fact, by Brown’s estimation from looking at the numbers from all over the US, Heights Vinyl is now the number one vintage audio sales and repair shop in the United States. This has been figured from varying places, most notably service request orders (S.R.O.) figures, totaling seven-hundred-sixty-six repairs in the past two years to date. That alone, would be pretty cool if you didn’t consider the amount of gear they’ve sold to date as well. They’ve sold over 250 turntables, almost 200 receivers, 300 plus speakers, and countless parts, needles, and styluses. They’ve also sold numerous reel to reel machines, tape decks and done calibrations for needles and styluses. In other words, thanks to Heights Vinyl, Houston is now home to the number one vintage audio sales and repair shop in the United States. That’s a pretty good way to set yourself apart from everyone else in the market.
According to Brown, this only occurred for a handful of reasons. “I think it’s our attitude, our ability to fix so many things, and our employees. I don’t think most of this would have happened without great employees.”
However, Brown is underselling this a bit, as he has two other entities of Heights Vinyl. A record label, called GR8 Heights Records has recently emerged. The first release was the soulful and funky dance sounds of Houston’s Electric Attitude, “Skintight and Solid Gold.” Brown admits, that a record label was the second part of his three tier plan for Heights Vinyl. “Well, I always had a three part plan for the store. First off, to be successful in selling records at a fair price alongside audio gear and repairing gear. Then, to have the chance to press albums by local acts we like in cool limited runs with great artwork. Those were the first two, and so far so good.”
The ambition behind the third step to his plan was something that would be difficult for almost anyone in any facet of the music business today. “It was definitely a baby step process of research and educating myself about all of the working pieces,” admits Brown. This venture, the third part of the plan, was to record and cut records in house for in store appearances. According to Brown, “I think Third Man is the only place doing it, at least in the US. The problem comes from the fact that none of the cutting lathes were made past the ‘70s and ‘80s. I’ve had parts and pieces to them, as well as actual lathes; but none that would do what I wanted.” What he wanted was the “holy grail” of cutting lathes, in the D to D machine. D to D stands for direct to disc, in this case, the disc is vinyl. “Back in the old days, you would cut a lacquer off of the analog tape recording, and that would be your master. This would allow us to not only cut a lacquer, but to also manufacture ultra limited recordings of in store appearances, right there in our shop. The vinyls from the ‘60s and ‘70s sound better for two reasons. One, they used a better quality of vinyl, and two, they used a higher quality lacquer. Our goal, is to create such a lacquer for better overall sound,” explains Brown. The end result, a 1948 cutting lathe that Brown acquired from a sound engineer in California has been brought in. The same type model that the late folk music historian Alan Lomax used to cut lacquers from his recordings; it’s an extremely rare machine to find in working order.
On Record Store Day, Heights Vinyl will make history again, becoming the only place in Texas; and the second in the US where a band can record and cut a record. “We are going to have the room mic’d for sound, and I have an engineer who will work the sound for the recording. From there, we’ll record to analog tape and cut a lacquer or two. Soon to follow will be rare pressings of the in store performances of each of the bands who play. It’s seriously a dream come true, and it brings my vision for the store full circle,” exclaims Brown. The reason for the rare amount of pressings is time. The lathe cuts at the speed of the content, meaning that 30 minutes of music, will take 30 minutes to cut each record. If you multiply that by 20, you’re looking at a lot of time to be watching records get cut. Record store day is Saturday, April 19th this year. Aside from the super-rare reissue albums and one-off releases, you should make it over to Heights Vinyl to be a part of Houston history. Go for something like the new Sunny Day Real Estate song release, or the rare David Bowie seven inch, or at least to see a record store pave the way through an already crowded marketplace.