Red Eye record store. Photo: Google.

Sydney’s best-kept secret is made of wax

Located just off Sydney’s busiest road there is a business that’s located underground. Its dungeon like features makes it easy to miss among the brightly lit and well-advertised coffee shops and designer stores of the Queen Victoria Building. As the intersection that connects George Street and Park Street fills up with people as fast and as disorganised as a freshly shaken hive of bees, it would be forgivable if you didn’t notice what some consider a treasure chest of valuable items that are on sale just a few metres away from this pedestrian chaos. Thousands upon thousands of commuters, business people, baristas, waiters, tourists and countless others walk past this mysterious establishment but only a few will trickle off from the crowd and venture down the stairs on this weekday afternoon. What waits below is something only certain people crave. In 2015 it’s actually difficult to find somebody who would say they still spend time at a place like this. Some people young enough would honestly say they’ve never even step foot into a business like this.

Though Red Eye Records does come off as being a secretive organisation this enigma is only based on appearances and not on the nature of the business. The record shop is situated in an assuming location with somewhat unassuming customers. As the shop is literally located underground and is independently owned and run its name carries weight in Sydney. The shop has been open since 1981, which makes it one of the city’s longest lasting and largest standalone record shops. It has also seen several of its other locations closed down but has maintained its location here on York Street.

Once you step away from the peak hour rush of stampeding pedestrians you begin your decent into a new world that is quiet (depending on which music they’re playing) and welcoming. The shop’s location may be a metaphor that nods towards the customers that frequent here. The people who shop here have a now niche interest in actually paying for the music they listen to. This applies to pretty much all independent record shops that are still operating in Sydney and probably the world. The dungeon feel of the shop leaves as you get to the bottom of the staircase. The shop is a large, carpeted area with rows and rows of CDs and vinyl. The people browsing are usually alone, quietly reading the backs of CD cases and vinyl sleeves with a look on their face as if they were reading the most engrossing book in a library. Before you set foot onto the carpet you are greeted by a cardboard cutout of Uma Thurman in her outfit from her role in Kill Bill. Along with her samurai sword she’s holding a sign that kindly asks you to leave your bag at the counter. You are no longer in the normal realm of Sydney life. You are now entering a new land and you need to follow the rules. Think of it as the opposite to Fight Club; you are allowed to talk about this society. Matter of fact it’s one of the first rules, apart from the one Uma stated upon entry. “Don’t go to JB Hi-Fi or Sanity” you might hear one vinyl head say, “There’s no soul there.”

Records at Red Eye. Photo: Curtis Mayfield.

There’s no polarising debate on whether or not the internet has changed and even created difficulties with how businesses are run in 2015. Newspapers are becoming less popular compared to their online counterparts. Travel agents are getting pushed out of the picture with people booking their own flights online and music is literally being stolen one mp3 download at a time. But as compact discs continue their steady decline in popularity and sales, vinyl has been fluctuating. The music medium has managed to land on steady ground (for now) with a spike in sales occurring in the last few years. In 2014 it was recorded by Nielsen Soundscan that 9.2 million vinyl records were sold, which is an amazing 52 percent increase compared to 2013’s already steady numbers of 6.1 million vinyl sales. Numbers like these point out that the trend of buying music in the form of vinyl, like our parents or grandparents used to, still has some life.

Large franchises like JB Hi-Fi and online sellers such as iTunes are considered the fast food of the music retailer. Independent record shops subscribe to a different function and have a welcoming and wholesome vibe that brings in the traditionalists. “Vinyl is not about consumerism. The internet is for consumption, real world shops are for the experience,” Stephan Gyory, co-owner of Record Store on Crown Street says via email. “Shops have to lift their game and not be assholes.”

This retro trend of listening to music on wax is nothing new. Each year it’s reported that CDs are being ignored while vinyl is purchased in droves by older heads and young hipster who act like older heads. The movement of heading back towards physical copies of a musician’s work and away from iTunes stores or illegal torrenting sites could be attributed to one or more of the following. 1) By paying money for this item people are supporting the artist. 2) Customers are now participating in a retro and “cool” novelty. 3) The sound quality that magically appears from this massive disc of wax is much better than an MP3 file or CD.

But who is still coughing up hard earned cash to buy something you can get online for free? The answer could be people that pledge to the third point on the list mentioned earlier. “The trend has always been towards the better sounding versions of albums either on LP or CD,” says Kieran Stafford who’s the owner of Birdland Records. “Mastering is really important for a lot of our customers. It’s not how cheap an item is but how good it sounds.” Manager of Red Eye Records, Matt Huddy, suggests a similar theory through an email conversation. “I think too you have more of a relationship with an album when listening to it as a vinyl LP, the fact that you have to get up half way through the album to turn it over makes you more aware of what you’re listening to. When you’re using an iPod or streaming I find you’re less in touch with what you’re playing and it can become background noise.”

Records at Red Eye. Photo: Curtis Mayfield.

Owner of Repressed Records in Newtown, Chris Sammut, equates the rise of music streaming and downloading as the death of what purchasing and listening to music used to be. “I think streaming has taken away that personal interaction with music. It’s supposed to be a fun, engaging process. It’s about sharing with people, building relationships and having things in common.”

A slightly different scene is set when coming back to Red Eye Records on a Saturday compared to the weekday rush. The dungeon steps are still there, the guy wearing the band t-shirt is still behind the counter and of course Uma is quick to remind customers of where they should leave their bags. The differences are seen in the amount of people wandering around the shop and the dramatic age drop of these customers. The older, more refined music lovers are still trying to dig out that rare pressing of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album but a louder and more energetic small group of male teenagers are awing over these oversized discs of wax. As one educates his friend on who made the record he’s holding and why it’s so important to him another is fretting over which record to buy. “I could get this N.W.A. album but I really don’t know much about Billy Joel, maybe I could should check him.” And almost to prove my own personal point the other adolescent unknowingly proves it by saying, “I think my dad’s talked about him.”

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