By Chris Chafin
The other day, I found myself flipping through records in massive clothing chain Urban Outfitters. I know. I had certain expectations about what I'd find: Bob Marley, Dr. Dre, maybe some new dance records like Niki & The Dove, and not much else. Basically, the vinyl equivalent of a sidewalk dorm room poster sale.
Instead, I kept finding more and more crates full of more and more records. And pretty decent ones! And not super expensive (generally between $10 and $20). Still, I thought, I probably shouldn't buy a record at Urban Outfitters. Right?
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that I couldn't really articulate why I felt like I shouldn't shop there. They're putting small record stores out of business? Their CEO is evil? Somehow nothing in my size ever makes it to the deep sale rack? Something. I honestly didn't know.
In recent years, Urban has gone big in music sales, becoming one of the nation's largest retailers of vinyl records (they were already probably the nation's largest backless tankini and Charlie Brown Christmas Tree retailer). Is this something we should be worried about? Is Urban Outfitters devaluing musical culture, or doing the important work of actually putting music in front of people who are in a mood to spend money?
One person who's a big fan of music shopping at Urban Outfitters is Jason Jordan. Today, he's at a company called SynchTank, after many years in major label A&R. But back in 1992, he was putting himself through college with a bunch of jobs, including one as a security guard at Urban Outfitters' flagship Philadelphia store.
"Part of working in a store is that you hear the same songs over and over," he says. "It becomes the fabric of the retail buying experience." In 1992, that music was Lenny Kravitz's Are You Gonna Go My Way. "It was on constantly. To this day, I know that album backwards and forwards." Eventually, he couldn't stand to hear it one more time.
"It was 20 years ago, so I don't remember all the details," he says, "but I remember talking to [Urban Outfitters CEO] Dick Hayne, and saying, look, there's an opportunity here to really get into the culture business." Part of that was choosing the music they played in their store more carefully. Instead of being fired, he was given a job in the advertising department and put in charge of coordinating all the music for their thirty-six stores. He's proud of what he helped start.
This approval isn't universal. It's true that the store has developed something of an icky reputation as they've expanded over the past decade, whether it be for incorporating Native American patterns into their panties, planning to open up a bar in a store in Williamsburg, or just straight stealing designs. To many people, the store represents the commodification of culture, the watering down of things that are supposed to be independent and somehow, in some way, anti-establishment. Like rap in a McDonald's commercial, or Iggy Pop in that car ad.
It's also true that their CEO Richard Hayne (the same one who listened to Jason Jordan back in 1993) made news last year when it was revealed that he's still donating thousands of dollars to proto-human Rick Santorum, who doesn't believe in evolution, a woman's right to choose, global warming, or giving poor people anything but a sack to die in. Of course, Hayne is hardly the only CEO of a company with left-leaning clientele who supports right-wing causes. Whole Foods' CEO John Mackey famously came out against the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Silk Soy Milk and Horizon Organic brands are both owned by Dean Foods, a big right-wing player. Their CEO, Gregg L. Engles, is a frequent and long-time supporter of Republican candidates including (again) Rick Santorum and Orrin Hatch. Their political action committee also supports right wing rage machine Michelle Bachmann.
Still, can an industry struggling as existentially as music afford to turn up their nose at a major national retailer who wants to sell their merchandise? The answer is a very simple no. Urban Outfitters, people argue, is just like any other store.
"An artist always gets the biggest cut if you buy it from their merch table, and the label gets the biggest cut if you buy it from their website," says Richard Laing, Director of Sales for Sub Pop Records. "If you want to support them, you should always buy directly from them."
Once you're buying from a retailer, however, the cuts going to label and artist are about the same, no matter where you as the consumer do the actual buying. Laing says they're happy to do business with Urban, and that the company has helped Sub Pop do all sorts of promotions, from web features to an Instagram contest where users submitted pictures of Sub Pop-themed temporary tattoos.
"We're excited to work with people who speak with young people and let them know what we're up to," Laing says.
Jason Taylor, Sales and Marketing Director for Redeye Distribution, a company that sells records from labels to retailers, roughly back up this line of thought. "They're totally legit partners," he told me. "They're great! Just like any other record store." Both Taylor and Laing say the cut they get per record sold at Urban compared to other retailers is not unusual. So at least Urban doesn't use their muscle to take a bigger slice of the pie, as it were.
But maybe they shouldn't be eating pie at all?
Another argument not to buy records at Urban Outfitters (or any chain store) goes like this: small, independent record stores are rapidly disappearing, and the money you spend on music should go to them. Even in Manhattan, Sub Pop's Laing points out, "aside from Other Music, Generation, and a few smaller stores, there's not many places to buy new vinyl." In the other markets that support Urban Outfitters--Alabama, Indiana, Utah, and more--record stores might not exist at all. As it is, Urban Outfitters is one of the country's major buyers of vinyl records--Taylor says they're one of Redeye's top ten clients--so the work they're doing to support artists and labels likely offsets any harm they're doing to small record stores.
"The fact iis that record retail is dead," says Jordan. Apart from a few places like Ameoba or Other Music, big record stores don't exist in 2013. Urban Outfitters didn't make that happen. But it can be part of the solution, at least for a little while. So please, for the love of God, go buy a record there. If you don't, they might stop carrying them. And then where the hell would we be?
Urban Outfitters did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.