Written by Jay Sanders | Photos by Anthony Harden
In the dozen years since opening West Asheville music store Harvest Records, Mark Capon and Matt Schnable have thrived as retailers while perfecting a balancing act between art and commerce.
“You are passing the “check headlights” sign as you exit a tunnel on the Blue Ridge Parkway, or perhaps you are pushing your grocery cart through the produce aisle at the local Ingles, when it happens: A song comes on the radio, from your iPhone, or through the store’s speakers, and you are transported to another place and time. Maybe it’s a memory from your childhood. It’s possible it could be unpleasant, or maybe it was your first dance at your wedding; but whatever the recollection, it was triggered by the sounds. Music is fundamental to the psychology of experience.
Harvest Records, and its owners, Matt Schnable and Mark Capon, has been selling the soundtrack to people’s lives in Asheville, North Carolina, since 2004. The two young men have survived and thrived by following their instincts, and by forging a path on their own terms. Harvest Records opened its doors the same year that the Pandora streaming service went online, and only one year after Apple debuted iTunes. Matt and Mark starting selling music at a time when most traditional record stores were shuttering and industry analysts were predicting the demise of record sales. Yet they continue to defy those analysts’ expectations.
Over the course of its twelve years, Harvest has become a cornerstone of the Western North Carolina music community. In addition to running the store, Matt and Mark have operated a small independent record label, Harvest Recordings, promoted shows at local venues such as the Grey Eagle, and even celebrated their 10th anniversary with a three-day, multi-venue music festival, Transfigurations II, featuring 25 bands. These days find the pair busy starting a new merchandise fulfillment company, and Matt manages Asheville-based folk and indie rock artist Angel Olsen, whose new record My Woman was released in September to huge critical acclaim.
For The Love of Music
The two future business partners met at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the early 2000s. Mark’s first memory of Matt is prank-calling other dormitories. “I remember thinking he was the funniest person I had ever known,” says Mark. “He still is, man. He’s mellowed out in a lot of ways, and we’re older now so we don’t treat life like as much of joke as we did at nineteen, but when he turns it on, Matt is still the funniest person I know.” The two became much closer when they both started volunteering at the college radio station, WXJM. “We booked, promoted, and produced two years of the annual music festival presented by WXJM called MACROCK [The Mid-Atlantic College Radio Festival], and I think that’s when Matt and I began to really understand each other, both personally and professionally.”
Around the same time, Matt and Mark began booking and promoting shows in Northern Virginia. In a 2014 interview with eclectic audio blog Aquarium Drunkard, Matt said, “We booked a lot of emo and hardcore because that was really big at the time and really big in Virginia, specifically, but we also booked a Songs:Ohia show [as well as] Fugazi, Rainer Maria, Mountain Goats, Of Montreal, and a lot of stuff like that. That’s when Matt and I really got a vibe of how we could work with each other and how we were on a very similar wavelength in terms of priorities. There was sort of an unspoken understanding of each other that’s necessary at that level.”
Towards the end of their tenure at James Madison, Matt and Mark began to discuss the idea of opening a record store. They had a short list of potential locations including Athens, Georgia, and Austin, Texas. The pair visited Asheville in the spring of 2004, and while touring the city they spotted the West Asheville retail space on Haywood Road where Harvest Records currently resides. They would sign the lease the next day. Recalls Mark, “We were driving down the Haywood strip and saw a ‘For Rent’ sign on this place and were kind of like, ‘Let’s do it.’
“We had a bit of our own money to invest, but the bulk of what we spent when opening was from a loan secured from a local bank. It was in 2004, pre-crash, so it seemed a bit easier for a bank to loan money to some chump twenty-something guys wanting to open a record store during the supposed decline of the record business.”
Reflecting on those early days, he adds, “The lease started mid-May. We moved in and the space had a one-bedroom apartment upstairs. We watched movies and ate spaghetti and played tennis and spent every goddamn second together. Which is a bit absurd. But that’s what that first summer was like. We were just working on the shop and hanging out, because we were our only friends—we didn’t really know anyone else here. So we worked all summer and opened on August 14, 2004.”
Matt picks up the story: “I don’t think we necessarily thought this at the time, but looking back, it’s really nice that it’s such a strong strip of businesses, but also so residential. There’s so many people that live walking distance to Haywood Road. It’s helped us cultivate a nice mix, of lots of local customers and neighborhood customers with obviously some tourists that come over this way.”
A Period of Transition
Harvest Records opened at a time of significant transition in the Asheville music scene, and the community at large, when 2004 was witness to the closing of Almost Blue, a large and very popular record store owned by Susan and Brian Haynes, located at the corner of Patton and Coxe downtown where the Thirsty Monk now resides. That same year Vincent’s Ear—the legendary dive bar where national bands like the White Stripes and Cat Power played before they made it big—was pushed out of its Lexington Avenue location. West Asheville had yet to become the socioeconomic hot spot that it is today.
Matt and Mark had little to no previous experience running a business, a fact that they now cite without apology. “Essentially, we both loved music, and at most shared an interest in how various aspects of the music industry worked,” says Matt. “But no real experience beyond that. We just threw ourselves into it blindly.”
Working as a close partnership, they shared all of the business responsibilities, but from the beginning also recognized the importance of focusing on their individual strengths. “I didn’t mind handling the financial side of things, and ordering new product from lots of varying distributors,” said Mark. “On the flip side, Matt has always been our used vinyl guru, buying and pricing from the beginning days, and also is naturally more inclined to help with tech stuff, or building racks and such. So there were always easily defined roles like that. But there’s also about one million things that either of us can do at any point. I’ve always felt like we had a nice balance. And on top of that, personally, I’ve always wondered how someone could open a retail business without a partner—it seems crazy to me! This place would have gone under long ago if either one of us wasn’t fully 100% responsible and involved.”
From the beginning, Matt and Mark set out to make an enjoyable, unpretentious shopping experience for their customers. According to Matt, “We just wanted to be a place where people felt comfortable. [Shoppers] didn’t necessarily feel like they had to buy a bunch of records for us to pay attention to them—people can come and hang.” As part of this philosophy, touring artists would often stop by Harvest Records for an informal in-store performance. “Having ‘in-stores’ helps bring people together in a great way,” he continues. “No one who shows up is upset that [a band] is there. And it’s free. Just come and chill, and enjoy the music with us.” Over the years, these shows have become the stuff of legend, yielding performances so memorable that people still talk about them. “There are so many highlights, but having Thurston Moore [from Sonic Youth] perform here was a rather great experience. And the first time Akron/Family played Asheville was in the shop, and it was a legendary performance. And we’ve had some of our heroes just come here to shop, too, which has been amazing—Brian Eno, Will Oldham, Bob Pollard [Guided by Voices], Ian Mackaye [Fugazi]. It’s just been crazy.” (It’s worth noting, too, that a number of Harvest’s outside bookings have also become much-talked-about events, notably early ‘70s cult hero Sixto Rodriguez’s 2009 comeback show in Asheville. Matt notes that it’s a point of pride for them when someone remembers, “Oh yeah, Harvest, those guys brought Rodriguez to the Grey Eagle.”)
“We just wanted to be a place where people felt comfortable. [Shoppers] didn’t necessarily feel like they had to buy a bunch of records for us to pay attention to them—people can come and hang.”
In February 2011, the store’s next door neighbor, Custom: Hers and Home Boutique, closed. Harvest quickly assumed the lease for the adjacent space, knocked out part of the wall between the two, and essentially doubled their available square footage for retail. “We kinda had to act because we were maxing out our space,” says Mark. “It felt like we were opening again. We had to do some build outs and then conceptualize what we wanted it to look like, but it has been absolutely the right decision.”
Harvest’s reputation as a destination record store has grown over the years. Explains Mark, “You know, we talk about Asheville and tourism a lot, about tourism being a driving force of the city and the good and bad that goes along with that. I feel like at this point in time we have really strong local support, but then also we have connections and repeat customers from out of town, tourist customers. Over the years, we’ve gotten to know a more heady clientele of people that come to Asheville a few times a year, and when they’re here they come to Harvest because they’re treated well and we have a good selection. It’s kinda been a nice balance of the tourism of this town with our neighborhood.”
The Rise and Fall of the Recording Industry
Let’s backtrack a bit. In 1877, the phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison, changed the world. Sound waves recorded on a thin sheet of tinfoil wrapped around a grooved metal cylinder would spark a cultural revolution that continues to reverberate to the present day. In a personal account of his invention, Edison said, “I was never so taken aback in my life. Everybody was astonished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.”
The following year, cornetist Jules Levy made “Yankee Doodle” the first musical recording. In the 1890s, the Columbia Graphophone Company was sending nickel jukeboxes to fairgrounds all over the country. The Victor Talking Machine Company introduced the “Victrola” in 1906 to replace the cumbersome cylinders, and the era of recorded music came of age. The Victrola was designed to fit within the home, and quickly became the best-selling record player of its time. During World War II, the fragile nature of the original recordings made on shellac were not able to withstand the rigors of war or the insatiable desires of soldiers for the sounds and rhythms of home. RCA Victor began shipping the first “V-Discs,” which replaced shellac with polyvinyl chloride, known as “PVC” or “vinyl,” which survives to this day as the record industry’s material of choice for analog disc recordings.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the introduction of cassette tapes. Smaller, more portable, and with a longer recording length, analog tape quickly began to pose a market challenge to vinyl sales. By the time digital media hit store shelves in the form of the compact disc in the 1980s, many in the industry predicted the death of vinyl as a medium. This forecast seemed to be confirmed in the 1990s when music went online with MP3s, file sharing, and, later, the music streaming services that are so ubiquitous nowadays.
Of the top ten best-selling records of all time, eight were sold in the ‘70s and ‘80s, often viewed as the golden age of the music industry. Michael Jackson took the crown in 1982 with the release of Thriller, a title that has reportedly sold over 110 million copies worldwide.
In slightly over a century, music as a commodity was born, matured, and became a daily part of people’s lives, but starting in the early 2000s, things began to slip. Music consumption essentially became a battle between illegal downloading from file-sharing websites like Napster, and the emergence of new industry-sanctioned distribution methods such as Apple’s iTunes. Online streaming services (Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, etc.) soon followed.
Between 2000 and 2007, physical record sales dropped over 32% worldwide. The entire record industry shrank more than at any other time in history, leading to massive layoffs and artist-roster cuts at major labels. In the United States, approximately 2,680 record stores closed between 2005 and early 2009.
Deeply alarmed by their sector’s decline, in 2007, a group of independent record store owners, inspired by the comic book industry’s success with Free Comic Book Day in driving new business to stores, created Record Store Day, an annual event held every spring. Record Store Day sees the release of limited-edition vinyl records—yes, the audio format that first cassettes, then CDs, and finally digital files all conspired to kill off—typically available for purchase only on that one day. The first event took place on April 19, 2008, to celebrate the unique culture surrounding the nearly 1,400 stores in the United States and the special role they play in their communities, and most industry observers now credit Record Store Day as not only jump-starting a latterday vinyl revival but also helping all those stores to remain in business. (For its part, Harvest was there from the beginning, and the event has since become, according to Matt, “a behemoth—a wild beast. Ultimately it has brought more attention to smaller record stores and the resurgence of vinyl in general, which we are greatly appreciative of.” He adds, however, that as Record Store Day has grown, with literally hundreds of titles now offered each year, its appeal has gradually become diluted: “I believe it is starting to level out, [so] the future of Record Store Day will be interesting to watch.”)
Connecting With the Art
In 2016, a younger generation has discovered the vinyl record album as a way to connect with music on a more visceral level. It is a conscious decision to play to a record: One chooses to pull a sleeve off the shelf, remove the disc, and place it on a turntable. That moment when the needle slides into the groove and the warm clicks and pops emanate from the stereo speakers is unlike any experience possible with a digital media player. Mark notes, “There’s a generation of kids that grew up without any real connection to physical music, so then all of a sudden it’s like an instinctual thing: ‘I want to experience this more than on a laptop. I want to look at the pictures.’ You’re not just skipping around or whatever. The actual act of flipping the record and going to side two because you liked side one—you are immediately connecting. This is human nature; we want to connect with art and experience art in as close of a way as we can.”
It’s also hard to ignore the beauty of the physical cover art associated with the 12” x 12” cardboard sleeve that houses the vinyl disc. At its peak, the designs on a record were not unlike the variety of designs in a wine store; each spoke to the flavor and texture of the music contained within. It is not unusual to be drawn to the visuals as much as the sounds. Digital media, for all of its convenience, simply cannot replicate the beauty and pleasure of a well-designed and informative album cover.
With all this in mind, it’s important to note that being a small, independent retailer has allowed Harvest the agility to pivot and adapt to changing sales trends, and, most crucially, to connect with the needs—and desires—of the store’s clientele. “We’re constantly tweaking rack space and floor space—vinyl is slowly encroaching more and more into the CD side (of the store) because it represents more of our business, and because they’re (physically) bigger,” says Matt.
“We had vinyl, new and used, in here from day one,” continues Mark. “Before, it was a smaller percentage of our sales, obviously, than it is now. At the time, many of the labels had never stopped pressing vinyl. So companies like Merge Records, Sub Pop, and Matador always had vinyl and it was always cheap, so really, the wave hitting was more like major labels and other labels that were catching up. I don’t necessarily know if we anticipated (the upsurge in vinyl sales), but we were right there when it was happening, and you could feel it happening, so we responded quickly. Naturally, we just got more and more vinyl.”
“We can quickly adapt to anything,” adds Matt. “We can cut buying down on a dime, and that’s our luxury as a small business. We can increase the buying of used product, or decrease. Everything can be so adaptable so quickly. As long as our heads are down and we’re getting it done here, then we don’t need to worry about larger trends. It will seep in.”
In many ways, the record market represents a self-contained microeconomy. Records still exist from all points in the history of the recording industry and are bought and sold on a daily basis. The recent trends may have caused a significant increase in the demand curve, but price fluctuations remain tied to the perception of value by the consumer. This is especially true in the used arena, where the trend has slowly made its way into the consciousness of an older generation that is beginning to realize that the aging stack of records up in the attic may actually contain titles that are incredibly valuable.
“We’ve never really spent much time focusing on how other places might be taking business away from us. We want to be motivated to create the best environment for the customers that do walk into our shop and do buy from us. We want them to keep coming back.”
“We have good flow: Used records come in, we price them every day, and we get fresh stuff out,” says Matt. “Our regulars know they need to check back in case they miss something. So the flow of customers coming in is dependent on that flow of used records going out. I want to put stuff out every single day. The serious heads are ravenous. There’s no end to buying records. It’s like there’s some money tree, and they just grab from it, run down, and get what they need.
“For the most part, all of our used vinyl is sourced from people bringing it by the shop. Being in business this long has helped us gain a reputation as fair buyers of used product, and we get customers bringing in things to trade every single day. The largest collection we ever purchased was around 30,000 LPs, and we had them shipped on a tractor trailer from Georgia. Crazy!”
While Matt notes that prices on used records are tied to consumer demand, the same is not true for new releases where the prices are often controlled by the record label. “When we opened, the [independent label releases] were all priced at 10 bucks or 12 bucks, you know—cheap. When the major labels started catching on to the trend and started reissuing a bunch of stuff, that’s when prices started to go up. All of a sudden your norm was like $18 – $20, maybe even as high as $30 [per record] for new vinyl. Just completely ridiculous. It frustrates the customers. You can’t charge $40 or $50 for a double LP. You are alienating your fans, and you’re alienating record stores. We may bring in one copy, and that’s all. An artist puts a record out at a normal price, we might get a dozen, so price limits the numbers.
“Customers aren’t idiots. The backlash is going to be an interesting thing to watch. Some customers can grab the CD for $10 – $12, and you’re trying to get $30 – $40 out of them for the record? Some people are just not going to buy a record they like because it’s too expensive, and I don’t blame them. We have a minimal, blanket markup that we do on every record, that’s how we price new stuff. We’re not trying to gouge anyone; that’s just what we do on every record. I hate writing the high price tags on things, but it is what it is.”
Inflated prices for new vinyl could certainly have a negative ripple effect on consumer behavior and ultimately undo the sales gains of recent years. The used vinyl market, at least, doesn’t appear to be in any danger. As Matt observes, “We’ve been selling records from day one; there have [always] been record collectors, and those record collectors are not going away. They’ll be waves and trends of demographics, but generally, records aren’t going away.”
Matt Schnable and Mark Capon have built a thriving, steadily growing business in a market sector that, by all accounts and statistics, is volatile and in serious trouble. Traditional record sales are constantly under assault from modern streaming services, online retailers, digital downloads, and even the record industry itself. “Obviously we are competing with streaming, in a way,” says Mark. “That’s an endless debate that we won’t even bother tackling. And there’s Amazon and other online retailers, and local shops, but we don’t really view any of this as competition. We’ve never really spent much time focusing on how other places might be taking business away from us—that’s not really what we want to have motivating us. We want to be motivated to create the best environment for the customers that do walk into our shop and do buy from us. We want them to keep coming back. We want it to be fresh and different every time they walk through the door. So if anything, our only real competition is our own laziness. The minute we start getting lazy, that’s the minute that the store suffers, and the customer doesn’t have as good an experience as they should. That’s what we’re trying to fight.”
Pausing to let that sink in for a moment, he adds, “We’ve had plenty of ups and downs, and the truth is, neither of us are probably going to ever get rich from the record store—that’s not why we got into it. But we’ve somehow managed to figure it out through all sorts of changes.”
When announcing their Transfigurations II ten-year celebration in 2014, Mark and Matt issued a press release that not only reflected their shared history, it also outlined their idealism as entrepreneurs operating within a space that’s a constant balancing act between art and commerce. That statement is worth repeating here:
“In all honesty, if we look back on our earliest hopes, dreams, and visions of what Harvest Records could become, it would mirror what actually ended up happening. Since our college days together, the idea was consistent: Open a record shop, yes, of course… but don’t let it stop there. Create a space dedicated to the discovery of music, the exchange of ideas, a place for broader discussions about community. Book shows for artists that normally wouldn’t come to town; host art on our walls from local artists who haven’t shown much before; start a record label and release recordings of sounds that may have not otherwise been produced physically. And it all happened.”
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