The rebirth of interest in LPs—vinyl records— has brought many newbies to the field, often with a rather iffy survival rate. Paul Epstein and wife Jill are no latecomers, having run Twist and Shout records for almost 30 years. The two were both English teachers when they stumbled upon the tax auction of a record store in 1988; they bought the assets and started out with a 2,000 square foot store.
A strong survivor in 2016, Twist and Shout is now 11,000 square feet of retail space housing over 200,000 records and 100,000 CDs, along with tons of books, DVDs, memorabilia and toys. They’re located next to another survivor, the 45-year-old Tattered Cover bookstore on Denver’s funky Colfax Avenue, and in terms of size, Twist and Shout is now among the top 3% of independent record stores in the US.
I’d previously dropped a little money at Twist and Shout, and so I was happy to speak with Paul Epstein on August 31st and discover where my money had gone. Paul is very plain-spoken when it comes to the music biz, so be prepared. Our conversation was just that, not a stiff interview— so expect it to stop and start and jump around a bit, like real conversations do. C= Copper, P= Paul Epstein. —Ed.
C: You’re in an interesting position in that you’re in a field that on one level is kind of resurgent, but at the same time it seems like there’re record stores going out of business everywhere.
P: We are truly one of the last.
C: —So what’s the deal?
P: What’s the deal with records going away, or with us succeeding?
C: Clearly we’ve got this vinyl resurgence going on for the last couple years…
P:…It’s more than a couple years, we’re a decade into it now.
C: Right. Are the guys going out of business just johnny-come-latelys? That doesn’t seem to be the case to me.
P: I think it’s the model that’s broken—the model of buying new product and reselling it, that being the primary source of your income. If you don’t have the “other things”–and for us the other things are used, a steady stream of used, and the boutique items that we sell which are the toys, the shirts—if it wasn’t for those things, we’d be in the same trouble. It’s what killed Tower, it’s what killed Virgin,it’s what killed all of them. The basic model of buying and selling new product with that markup that they allow is unsustainable. I recognized this probably within the first decade of my career and made sure that a very healthy percentage of what we do is used [records] because that’s where the money is. That’s where the business is, and that’s why we’re still here,to be honest.—and selection. We have a large selection.
C: There are parallels to bookstores, of course…
C: …in that bookstores have had their margins pretty much destroyed by Amazon and the ones that survive have better service, they’re NOT going to have a bigger selection, they’re just going to have a bigger selection you can LOOK at…
P: Correct. My mantra early on was “service, selection, and ambience”, and those are the three things we’ve worked on. That model, though, is the killer. There was a documentary recently on Tower…but it reminded me so clearly… A lot of people got all dewy about it, but I was like, “this is nauseating!”
This reminds me so much of why this industry went wrong. The idea that you are going to be able to—that a percentage of your income should come from soaking the industry for ill-gotten promotional [fees]…
P: Yep, it was essentially payola. It was like, “how much money will you give me if I let you put something up in this window?” Okay, fine, but when your entire model becomes that, to the exclusion of actually selling music? That’s a big problem….
Early on we got on direct with the labels, but I immediately recognized—I kept a very healthy skepticism about being too close to the labels and letting them get a foothold in my store and doing what they said, and it has served me well.
C: I’m sure it has. I think any area where there’s an intersection of art and commerce is problematic…
P: Then ART better FUCKING WIN! [laughs] Art had better win, or you’ve got no reason to be in business.
C: You started out as a teacher, did you not?
P: Correct. My wife and I were both teachers.
C: –And you just happened to see this place that was being foreclosed-upon?
P: Yep. I was a part-owner of another record store in Boulder before that, called Trade-a-Tape, but I got out of that and was teaching full-time, as was my wife. We were walking around one night in the Washington Park area [of Denver] and I said, “oh, gee, if I was ever going to have another record store,it would be like this one we’re coming up to.”
We get up there, and there’s a sign in the window: SEIZED: Tax Auction…[scheduled] on our first day of spring break! Serendipity, right? [laughs]
C: More than a coincidence.
P: One would think it was in the stars, and that’s how it happened. I was dissatisfied as a teacher, I wanted to get back into music, she wanted me to get back into music, so she was supportive. Other than that–it was the stars aligned—REALLY aligned—and made it happen for me.
C: And this was—
P: 1988.And the store we walked up to was Underground Records which, when I moved to Denver from New York in 1968, within a week, was the first store I discovered and shopped at. I had history with that store…and it was a great store for 20 years. It went really down, but in the early days it was a great store.
C: When you owe the Feds a boatload of money, it tends to discourage one…
P: He had an empire, that guy—he had a couple record stores in other cities, he owned a restaurant, and it all went straight up his nose.
C: That happened a lot in the audio business, as well….there’s that whole art and commerce intersecting thing. Somehow there generally seems to be blow at the intersection. [laughs]
P: [laughs] There does, there does.
C: What do you see happening now—you’ve got the vinyl revival of the last decade. Just to upset [vinyl proponent] Michael Fremer, I say, “you know it’s just a fad, it’s gonna go away”.
P: Well, everything’s going away. It’s not just a fad, clearly. It’s over a decade old—fads don’t last that long. I would be a fool to make predictions; it’s gone so much longer [than I expected]. I did think it was a fad; it still has elements of being a fad. However, it has crossed over to multiple generations, it’s not just kids. It’s Wall Street, it’s advertisers. You cannot turn on the TV now without seeing a turntable, on some commercial for eczema or something that has nothing to do with a turntable, but they will pan to a turntable, and it’s like, “get back into life!” Where did THAT come from? [laughs]
…Rather than talk about where it’s going, let me tell you why: because an entire generation and a half of people lived with digital and woke up and said, “I have nothing.” Culture depends on artifacts, and they had nothing.
They had nothing to show, they had a little silver box about that big [holds fingers close together] that goes in their sock drawer, and that’s one step from not even HAVING the fucker. So—I think we’re not yet in a society where nobody owns anything, but I do think it’s heading that way. And if you look at the trend in Denver of housing, it tells you we’re heading that way: all those crappy little apartments with no room, nobody wanting to own stuff, it’s going that way.
When I went to the first BMG [Bertelsmann Music Group, onetime partner with Sony Music] meeting where the President of BMG Pete Jones held up a flash stick—this was in ’89 or something—and said, “this is the future of music”….and we were all “Huh? What?”, this was long before Amazon, Apple, any of that shit…
P: Any of it. This was before Napster…anyway, my blood went cold. I said, “this is for real, this is gonna happen.” But I also said, “this isn’t a light switch.” You want to talk about a large boat to turn— culture in American society is not gonna turn overnight.
How long is this gonna last? There are people who are waaaay into typewriters, into old cars, and keep embracing them and slow-cooking… in the 20th and 21st centuries, things are gonna recycle a bit before they go pfffft. We’re not there yet.
Clearly, I’m not the guy to predict the future, I am so in the past.
C: You look pretty ’68 to me. [laughs]
P: I’m very grateful for the second life we’re gotten, ’cause it did look like it was truly going away and we capitalized big-time on this revitalization of vinyl. I did not hesitate for ONE SECOND, we were already on it, at the tip of the spear on it, and I just said, “all RIGHT, great, let’s DO this. If this is the way we’re gonna go out, this is the way we’re gonna go out, that’s the way I started”—and then it just blossomed into something so much bigger.
C: My understanding is that right now there’s more [record-] stamping capacity in the US than there has been in 30 years.
P: Yeah, and they’re constantly bringing new stampers online, it’s a THING. They’re trying to find all of ’em and open new ones and build new ones….at the same time, the state of the industry, the labels themselves, has never been worse. It’s never been in more dire straits financially. It’s an interesting confluence of events.
C: What I’ve seen in my lifetime—I’m 60— is that bands used to tour in support of their records, and these days, that’s completely turned on its head.
P: When we were growing up, the pathway was so clear—to stardom, to musical fame— to becoming an author or a journalist, anything to do with the media, the pathway was really clear. Not only is it not clear now, there IS no path. You dive into some whirlpool of bits and bytes and hope that a stream of revenue presents itself to you, if you’re an artist coming up now.
The average guy who doesn’t get paid well in concert—that doesn’t happen until later in the career—how the hell are they gonna make money? How do these people remain artists and make money without even the ability to sell singles or anything like that? ‘Cause streaming pays nothing. And downloading pays slightly more than nothing. Zero times one, which is, I think…still zero?!?
C: It’s always kind of morbidly amusing to me that guys talk about getting their checks from Spotify—and it’s always a physical check—you have to wonder, in an office it generally costs $30 to $50 to cut a check, and you’re sending out checks that are for 6 cents?
P: Spotify is not about paying the artists, that is for sure. I don’t know how I feel about her music, exactly, but Taylor Swift, you have to hand it to her. That woman has balls. She stood up to them, and Adele, too. I’m really proud of them both for standing up to Spotify and saying, “this is not a model that we can get with.” That was the right thing to do.
C: There’s been some backlash overall to Tidal from their parade of artistes…
P: Tidal has made almost no impact, it seems to me….I willfully checked out of that world. I don’t give a fuck about the digital world, I make zero of my money…various people said to me that I need to get involved in downloads, I need to get involved in streaming—no. No, I don’t. And I’m not going to make my living that way, and I never have, and I never will. And I’m not going to make my living that way, and I never have, and I never will. I don’t care. I hope Tidal goes down the toilet like the big turd it is. I don’t care.
C: Tell me how you REALLY feel! [laughs]
P: They’re not paying artists for their work. Here’s how I really feel…Steve Jobs oversaw the greatest swap in history: convenience for aesthetic meaning. A horrible thing to do to culture, and I’ll never forgive him for it, and I don’t want any part of this.
To me, it’s about a stereo, real speakers, a physical format which is either a CD or a record, and that’s what it’s about for me. It’s cultural transmission in a way I understand, holding something, sharing it with others, pondering it, looking at it. That’s what it’s about to me. I know I’m a dinosaur, but it’s worked for me here—I’ve been able to perpetuate that culture in my little corner of the universe, here at Twist and Shout. We believe in physical stuff and give the raspberry to the digital world, and you can like it or not. I don’t care.
C: For whatever it’s worth, there are some markets where physical media, primarily CDs, still dominate…
C: …Japan and Germany in particular…
P: And Japan’s at the leading edge of technology, it’s wild. Obviously they know something.
C: —Or it could just be a cultural norm that they’re used to.
P: But it was a cultural norm everywhere. It’s changed; why did it not change there?
C: ….It’s a worthwhile question.
P: They are known to be enlightened people. [laughs]
C: [laughs] On the whole, yeah—but there was that whole World War II thing…
P: [laughs]…but they have been known to be philosophically and artistically enlightened people.
C: I understand that…one of the things that dominates discussions in the audio world —other than who went broke this week— is how do get newbies into it? The perception is that guys your age, my age, we’re dying off, are we bringing in new folks to buy stereo equipment, to buy records? Clearly, the records seem to be driving things …
P: The thing that made me most disillusioned at first…and still gives me great pause…is the whole Crosley phenomenon. I stood up in front of a whole coalition of independent record store owners a number of years ago and said, “we need to NOT be doing this. We need to not be a part of this. Don’t be selling these in your stores.Don’t do this, this is bad for us, ultimately. every single person who buys a Crosley is going to get out of this hobby. So…don’t do this.”
I think it impacted a few people, but that part of it is very concerning to me. That’s when you get into the question of “is this a fad?”—when you see people buy a $40 record and put it on a Crosley and pretend like they’re getting some superior experience….no, you’re not. You’re getting a vastly inferior experience.
C: The irony is that the market for used turntables has gone up dramatically, and there are of course halfway-decent low-priced tables like the U-turn….
P: Let’s go back to another part of our conversation: there is a generational shift happening, and people don’t have the space. I built my life around a book collection, a stereo, a record collection, a comic book collection, a chef’s kitchen…I built my life to accommodate these things. These were things of value in the ’50’s and ’60’s. They’re not, anymore. In cultural terms, it’s shifting, pretty big time. In that shift there’s still an appreciation of parts of it, but part of that shift is a dumbing-down of the hardware side of it…which is disillusioning, and I’m sure it’s hair-raising to you guys.
C: There are a lot of people who believe that the headphone phenomenon is going to transition into folks getting back into big-boy stereos. I’m not sure that’s the case, because [headphones] are an isolating experience, at least to me.
P: It is isolating. But the whole shift back to physical media is a good sign, and here’s another good sign, that you may take some hope from. Amazon’ stated goal in the beginning was to end physical retail. The end-game with Amazon seems to be to start opening stores. Think about that for a moment….
C: It’s clear they know more about profits with an “f” than prophets with a “ph”….wow, there’s a book title there.
P: Good one–you should save that, copyright, patent pending….[laughs]
C: Gizmodo, a few years ago…had me writing about high-end audio. The interesting thing to me was…the 600-some comments were nearly all hostile, nearly all said that anyone who spends more than $300 on sound equipment is insane, it all sounds the same…
P: …No, it doesn’t!
C: …I know. But I think the reason that a younger generation might think that is that they’ve grown up with MP3 and earbuds…
P: …and it all sounds horrible. It all sounds horrible. So yes, they do think that. To them, the peak experience of audio is being at a movie. That’s the highest it ever gets for them, being in a movie theater…
C: Ironically, back in the ’30’s and ’40’s, that peak experience may well have been a movie, with the Western Electric, RCA and Altec sound systems….
P: …But now it’s horrendous and loud and just like radio, it’s mixed wrong, and just like concerts, it’s all mixed wrong and all mono, and it’s horrifying. You go to a concert expecting better sound, and it’s like, “Aaaagh! This is TERRIBLE!”
C: I guess I’m turning into an old fart, but it’s very hard for me to go to concerts these days…
P: My line over the last two years in that I’m getting ready to retire from live music. Things keep drawing me, like I’ll go see Dylan at Red Rocks, but it’s so disillusioning. I’m doing it more to be in the room with Dylan, now, it has nothing to do with any kind of quality experience. I’m going to be in a room with other like-minded people of my generation, trying to feel what I used to feel…but it has very little to do with the musical sound quality experience.
C: I think that’s another reason why independent artists have revived the idea of house concerts…
P: House concerts, playing acoustic, playing small venues, that’s a big deal, and that’s a GREAT trend. It’s not just kids and it’s not just old farts who are buying records. Another big segment of our audience is…every single day at “Band O’Clock”, which is about 2:30, they all come in. Whoever’s playing at the Ogden, Bluebird, Fillmore, Pepsi [local concert venues]—they all come in. They want to see their records, they want to see their friends’ records, take a picture of it…they are still into the physical. In the early days of this, I was furious that none of these assholes…none of the HUGE major stars at the time said, “hey, kids–don’t download, buy a record, it’s much better. If ANY of those guys had said it—the only one who did was Lars Ulrich [of Metallica], and he got crucified for it—if ANY of these guys had had the balls to say it… but none of them were willing to put their career on the line and say. “this music sucks, buy a record”…
C: I thought it was amusing that Pearl Jam bothered to sue Ticketmaster [about high processing fees] and now the last time I went to buy tickets, I was dissuaded not by just the cost of the ticket, but by the fact that there was a $16 processing fee per ticket on tickets that I print myself….
P: Well, it’s pretty hard to beat The Man. No matter who you are. [laughs]
C: Now you really sound ’68! [laughs]
P: Yep. Pretty hard to beat the man. But within the walls of my universe, we’re pretty Man-free around here. So I feel like we’ve held onto the artistic goal that the music is important, that the format you listen to is important, and the stereo you listen to it on is important. It’s all important, it’s not just trivial. This is art. This is culture, and we do believe in it. That’s why we’re still here.
C: I think that as we become more and more detached from physical objects and we move into smaller and smaller places simply because we can’t afford anything else, the physical becomes more important, items become little touchstones, or icons…
P: Right. It may be all we have, a few little things in the future that we can hold on to and point to as what we once were, what a great society we once were.
C: Do you see any overwhelming or major cultural trends coming out of the vinyl revival, other than just the vinyl revival?
P: At first it seemed like they were just taking the digital file as it existed, that they made the CD out of, and slapping it on to a piece of wax. I think they’re slowly starting to break out the white lab coats and start to take this like a science again, start to paying some attention to things. One can’t help but think about it with the death of Rudy Van Gelder, that this is both an art and a science, making records, and there is some attention being paid.
Certainly, [these days] the sound of CDs and surround CDs and Blu-Rays—the sound is astoundingly good. After years of ripping people off, CDs are fairly priced and they actually contain some great sound, on some of them. Records are starting to be pressed and recorded correctly, in some cases, again. Some audiophile ones rival anything I’ve heard from the ’50’s—my standards are gonna be an original mono Blue Note on my VPI through my Everest speakers—it’s gonna be a profound experience, that’s my standard—and so there are some things that are impressing me, coming out now.