The recorded music boom was a strange period in the history of art. For a moment, before the quick-flowing river of the internet brought infinite playlists to our doorsteps, there were these fetish-objects imbued with great power, sleeved in gorgeous design, that contained the emotional and visionary testaments of our finest creatives. We could take them home with us, we could contemplate their packaging meditatively, and we could lay on the floor of our rooms and get lost in their sounds.
Normally I’m suspicious of this kind of nostalgia, but I’d been tasked with understanding why Amoeba Music has existed, and continues to exist, in this age of digital downloads. I felt the best way to understand was to ask, so my wonderful editor set up an appointment for me at their Hollywood location to talk to Marc Weinstein—one of the people who started it all, one of the original founders of Amoeba.
Every time I visit, I’m struck by the fact that this place is unique. There used to be plenty of record stores of this size, like Virgin or Tower, but none of them had this character, this sense that you’re surrounded by a bunch of friends who just want to listen to your favorite bands with you. The sun streams through the windows over the vast racks and posters, great tracks play in the background, and people move up and down the rows like grazing animals. You can spend hours here, just because of how it feels.
On the other hand, there are myriad independent record shops that have this welcoming atmosphere, but none of them are even remotely this huge.
“We felt when we opened Amoeba that people were not having an opportunity to get their hands on everything that was out there,” Marc told me. “Find out about it, learn about it, see it. All the stores were either really small, or the big chain stores were really generic and their inventory was based on what sells. People have a choice between this corporate model of here’s our selection and a little used store, which really was fun. But we tried to bridge the gap—take the big box store and merge it with the little used store with the independent vibe.”
This kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it mentality dominated all the conversations I had that day at the store. Amoeba Music, it became clear to me, isn’t just a successful vehicle for selling records. It had been born out of an idea, and it’s still fueled by that idea: a vision of a sort of music fan’s paradise.
“Keep stocked as deep as we can and in as many genres. That’s a big one,” Kara Lane says with a laugh, when I ask what they do to make the place special. Kara handles Amoeba’s in-store appearances, promotions, and other logistical nightmares, and she’s been with them for over 20 years. She left advertising because she wanted to do something that meant more. She loved music, and she wanted to help spread it.
“I’m not a musician myself, but I’ve just always been around it, surrounded by artists and musicians. So being able to facilitate, or be like, ‘I’m into that,’ or ‘That intrigues me. What can we do that’s creative around it?’ The non-artist creativity part, I guess.” I assure her that what she does is an art. What would Amoeba be without their events and live shows?
Well beyond their ability to stock great titles, that space for creativity and that sense of community are the things holding Amoeba together and keeping it relevant. It’s the ingredient none of those chain record stores, or most stores of any kind, have. There’s an aura around the place, and you feel it when you walk in: This is where my people congregate. I belong here. Misfit kids from all over the world, from customers to artists to employees, have been sucked into Amoeba, beckoned home by that feeling.
Marc knows exactly what I’m talking about. “Totally. People feel so at home on both sides of the counter. Everyone that works here is almost too loyal, because it’s such an environment where they can be who they want to be, and there aren’t too many places where you can go work and be who you are.”
The staff members I speak to echo this sentiment. Everyone in the store seems to be enjoying themselves, relaxing, and talking about music. The tense, big-brother-is-watching atmosphere that exists in so many retail outlets is totally absent—I feel like I’ve walked in on a group of friends who want to help me find cool records.
According to Tony Bevilacqua, who played guitar for bands like The Distillers along with his Amoeba gig (most people who work here are music veterans and musicians), the “friends” atmosphere is quite literal: “I got in through a friend here, so I remember doing kind of a quick interview, but it wasn’t a quiz, like, ‘Name the Led Zeppelin records in order,’ or something,” he jokes.
“Where else can you go to see the cultural and critical mass of LA?”
There’s no reliance, in this community, on traditional job applications or bureaucracy. It’s all trust and love. Tony says it’s the same at work as it is in music. “Anything for all the band stuff I’ve done, it’s all happened by running into someone at a bar or at a party and someone’s like, ‘Oh, we need someone to play on tour. Can you come do it?’ It’s never through what they teach you in school where you have to apply to places and have a resume. It’s been running into someone at a bar,” he says.
“That, I think, is part of why the staff is so stable, even though they don’t get paid great,” Marc says. “It’s retail. No one’s making any money around here. But everyone loves the culture and the place. Where else can you go to see the cultural and critical mass of LA? Just the utter diversity of it is so well-expressed in this place.”
At core, Marc is not a businessman. He doesn’t come off like one, either—he’s exactly who you’d want the founder of Amoeba to be. He’s got long, curly hair, and a beard, and a cowboy button-up, and he talks about opening the world’s greatest record store like you or I might talk about a house party we threw or a band we formed in high school. “I started it all, but it has such a life of its own. I don’t take responsibility for a lot of what goes on here these days,” says Marc.
“Almost 30 years ago, my partner Dave [Prinz] and I sort of conjured it up in a car with a joint and a yellow pad. Sort of like, ‘Okay, if we do this... and we need this much money to get started…’ kind of thing. It was always about trying to do it right, and do the community thing. And I was always way into used records, and I’m kind of an artist. My degree is in painting and fine art, so to me it’s like an art project. To my partner, Dave, it’s like a business school project.”
You can spend hours here, just because of how it feels.
That combination worked, and the phenomenon snowballed. Amoeba is an amalgamated product of the sensibility of its founders, as well as that inescapable force that guides all new ventures: timing. Marc’s crate-digging geekery motivated him to understand how record stores were run, how purchasing worked, and how to flip those purchases to taste for a city full of hungry music fans at the perfect moment—at a time when records were devalued and their market underestimated. Deep personal passions that might’ve made him, in another set of circumstances, just another John Cusack from High Fidelity, set him and Amoeba up for massive success.
“Almost 30 years ago, my partner Dave and I sort of conjured [the idea for Amoeba] up in a car with a joint and a yellow pad.” -Marc Weinstein
Marc cut his teeth at Rasputin Records, a 1971 Berkeley mainstay. “When I moved to California from Buffalo in 1980, I got a job the first day I got to Berkeley in Rasputin’s. I did displays, and I learned how to buy used records there—which was a joy, and something I’m especially good at. I’ve always loved ephemera. I have like 20,000 postcards; I used to collect antique postcards and some magazines and stuff.”
“But I love ephemera by nature, and an LP seemed like the ultimate, because it’s not just paper goods—it’s such a product of an era,” Marc says. “It’s a moment in time, and it’s also the culmination of such great amount of effort [from the artist]. Like a book. Just so much work goes into it, and crafting it, and it’s a real piece of art. And then it’s kind of for everyone, it’s kind of cheap. And most people saw them as throwaways; in 1980, I mean, there was literally nobody buying or selling used records at all… and so we were doing it on a scale at Rasputin’s that was inspiring to me.”
Marc wasn’t kidding about the scale. He spent an entire year traveling from city to city on the East Coast—Hartford, Syracuse, other small-to-mid-sized towns—buying about 30,000 LPs total and shipping them all out to California. They were dirt-cheap, as he says, because nobody knew records were worth a dime. CDs had just hit the market, and everyone assumed vinyl was on the way out.
With a connoisseur’s experience mass-buying and managing a diverse, appealing inventory, he was ready to join forces with his friend and future partner Dave Prinz—who had just sold a chain of seventeen video stores, in 1988—to dream up Amoeba.
Again, the timing struck me. Marc’s partner had sold those video stores at the exact moment he needed to: right before the market was dominated by franchises like Blockbuster, and then burned out completely in the wake of the digital revolution.
This is a hard lesson for people starting businesses in the 21st century: it’s not enough to look around and make decisions based on what’s popular now. Often, those product and media cycles started underground, way before you ever heard of them, and you’re seeing the tail end. Participating in your community, exploiting your weird interests, and following your heart are often much better methods if you want to create the future.
But bucking trends takes courage. It’s not guaranteed to work. So I was curious about the moment Marc jumped head-first into Amoeba. Sure, he was passionate, but again, he could’ve just collected records, could’ve continued making himself valuable at Rasputin or countless other places. What finally pushed him to take the risk of starting his own business?
“The most obvious factor, I would say more than anything—and I’ve thought about this—my dad passed away last year, but I’ve been thinking about him a lot. And I really do think one of my motivations was to prove to my parents I could make a living working at a record store. It was like ‘now or never.’ At a certain point, I felt like I really had to branch out and do that.”
Participating in your community, exploiting your weird interests, and following your heart are often much better methods if you want to create the future.
I was somewhat shaken by Marc’s admission about his parents. I want to believe that I’ve shed my childish desire to please my family, and that if I have some massive success, it will be in some kind of vacuum, entirely on my own terms. But his inner narrative about his folks’ opinion was precisely the thing that pushed him over the edge. Maybe youthful rebellion is a more important force in our world than I thought.
“Really the crux event that I harken back to was the guy who owned Streetlight Records, which had five stores in the Bay Area. He basically didn’t ever have to work—he had a house in Big Sur. He used to invite me down to Big Sur to talk about the store, about what’s going on, and we would sit there and sort of eat pistachios and flip the shells off the cliff that went down to the ocean at his beautiful house in Big Sur. And on my way back from my last big hangout with this guy, Bob, I basically was in the car and I just decided, ‘That’s it, I gotta fucking do this. Because there’s no way I’m going to keep making this guy rich and not do it myself. I’m the one with the expertise, not him.’ You know?”
I did know. Most of us have felt this way at more than one job. But expertise is one thing, and a fully functioning business is another. The Big Idea had to be fleshed out.
“Dave used to come back from Hawaii with this incredible Hawaiian pot, and I just loved it—he loved it. Sitting in the car, having a joint, talking about starting a store—that was the first six months. Then the nitty-gritty, going to his place, getting down to figuring out all the numbers, starting to talk about an identity and a name and all of that stuff… one thing led to another and we started looking at spaces.
There were like, eight record stores at the time we opened Amoeba, right in that area by the university. And a lot of people, when we opened, were like, ‘Why do we need another record store?’ [We responded] ‘You’ll find out because we’re doing something different.”
At this point, I felt like I understood the nuts-and-bolts factors that led to Amoeba’s success, but we hadn’t spent any time discussing the force at the center of it all—the music itself.
Music still matters to people. This is clear from streaming numbers, and from the proliferation of festivals. It’s clear from the way people engage with Amoeba, too. But it still seems strange when looked at from a distance. We humans love to pour these organized, carefully modulated sounds into our ears. We love to exchange feelings and cultural information this way; we love to hear the stories other humans are telling in tones and rhythms and screams. Just writing or talking isn’t enough. We want sound and energy.
Underneath all the business considerations, this is clearly the fuel on which Amoeba runs. Marc wanted to turn his love of records into a thriving business. But why do we love records in the first place?
“Yeah, I’ve never been about the money. I’ve always been about spreading the gospel of music and what it can mean for humanity. It’s sort of this art and language that humans are capable of creating that goes above and beyond most things we recognize in this world. It’s sort of a conduit to another side of reality that most people barely skim while they’re on this planet. But there’s so much more to it, and I just love the spiritual connection people have with their artists and their music. To me, it goes less noticed, certainly, than it should in our society,” says Marc.
“Being from the generation I’m from, I think I grew up in a time when the pop music that everybody knows today as kind of classic rock—from Zeppelin to Black Sabbath to Coltrane and Miles and all of that stuff from the ‘60s. It’s my church music. It’s my generation’s church music. I never went to church, you know? And now I can go see a great cover band doing Zeppelin and just have the time of my life seeing anyone play that shit. And so it goes deeper than I can even begin to describe for me personally. And that’s what motivates me, just my own feelings about it.”
“I’ve never been about the money. I’ve always been about spreading the gospel of music and what it can mean for humanity.” -Marc Weinstein
I knew exactly what he was talking about. I was raised Evangelical Christian, and even after breaking away from the church, the ecstatic, body-elevating feeling I got from dancing and singing in worship stayed with me. My world was turned inside-out when, as a teenager, I experienced that same feeling at a humble Tool concert in Bakersfield, California. That feeling doesn’t just belong to the church, I told him. It belongs to everyone.
“Absolutely,” Marc agrees. “That collective consciousness thing is so huge. That’s what it is all about to me, the collective consciousness of a show, there’s just nothing like it. I was in that perfect time—I went to see Pink Floyd do Dark Side of the Moon, and I was doing acid, and everybody in the place was doing acid. It was like 18,000 people, tripping and listening to Pink Floyd. I think back and it gives me chills, and it’s just incredible to think about where I got to be.”
“I think I was just at the perfect point in time where my whole generation was so inspired by music. My record store—every neighborhood had a record store and the guy always had all the new stuff. It was easy to figure out what you wanted, because there were only so many bands in each genre, and you sort of would see a new release, and you’d check,” remembers Marc. “Now there’s too many genres, too many things, and sure, it’s still great. But it’s just so much more splintered and all over the map. For people that dig in deep into a certain subgenre or whatever—it’s a different kind of thing. In those days, you had to really search it out.”
Marc had a point. I had always been an optimist about digital media. It had changed my life—given me a window into the world that inspired my own art, music, and writing. Our entire generation owes a massive debt to the internet for our cultural education, our inspiration. The amount of access we have is incredible.
Yet there’s no denying that the experience of streaming music online is different. When we’re on our devices, we have access to addictive social feeds and pressing work email accounts. Listening to music is generally secondary—an activity we do while we also do other things. I can’t remember the last time I just sat down and listened to an entire album.
Records, by contrast, are decoupled from the internet. Listening to a record is a specific and ritualistic act, one that invites you do be carried away from your online concerns into a world of pure and focused expression.
Marc agrees. “It’s kind of the ultimate meditation, besides making our own art, I guess. But it’s sort of right up there with it. You can really experience something so well-crafted and conceived and fully-realized. It’s really an inspiring thing for anyone who’s kind of already [into that] by nature or whatever. That’s your own private space. [There is] another thing people love about vinyl: it’s guaranteed that no one knows you’re listening to it. Any other format, someone’s keeping track, pretty much.”
I hadn’t thought about this distinction. Well beyond wanting a solitary listening experience, vinyl, especially used vinyl, disconnects media giants from knowing what we’re listening to. We’re so used to having all our preferences fed into an algorithm and then fed back to us; we almost never listen to music in a way that isn’t catered to our tastes. We discover things through online friend networks and YouTube and Spotify suggestions.
But when we go out in the world and interact with a physical marketplace, we have only our instincts, our eyes, and our ears. Amoeba provides another paradigm for discovery, one that allows unpredictability to leak into our musical universe. A kind of magic can happen.
“I love watching people shopping in the store. Watching a young 15-year-old boy go to The Doors section, hold this record up, and look at Jim Morrison. Just like, ‘Wow, this is the actual Doors record that someone had at the time.’ That ephemeral nature—that’s what I go back to every time. It’s like a point in time when this is what was happening. And that, to me, is the most fascinating aspect of music and records in general. How they mark cultural evolution… In the old days, you just go in, and have your own experience. It’s a treasure hunt. You find what you want, you walk out with a few things, you go home. It’s all about doing something for yourself and nobody’s paying attention. It’s just you and your own trip.”
— TeamKanyeDaily (@TeamKanyeDaily) May 25, 2018
Amoeba holds that personal trip sacred. But in the modern age of music fandom, for an epicenter like Amoeba Music, clearing that sacred space takes a certain amount of work. As the store has evolved and the market has changed, Amoeba’s had growing pains.
Kara’s been with Amoeba since 1999 and has a few stories. “It was before my industry time, but Depeche Mode had an in-store, and fans literally rioted, thousands of fans couldn’t get in, they broke windows. Labels in some ways want that because that means it’s all over the news. So I do have to walk that line with record labels where I’m like, ‘I get that you want to blow it out, but... you’re a guest in our home,” she laughs.
“I think the biggest change happened, being in the LA market, is that we’ve had to be a little less of a casual drop-in-and-play record store gig. Partly because of the size of this store, and the awesomeness of some of the names that have wanted to do things here. We’ve had to become more controlled, and keep it positive, both for the fans and for the store. [For example], I was a little worried because we had never required a purchase to come to an in-store. It was more like, ‘For the signing, yes; if you want to meet them you have to buy it.’ And then, I forget the first one, maybe the Deftones. But it was one that we knew was going to be a complete door-closer; shut us down for a couple hours. It’s a pretty big impact. So it was like, ‘Let’s try it.’ We did a Live at Amoeba poster; the label made it, Fillmore-style. So the fans got the new album, a poster, and a free show.
“With the Deftones, fans were stoked. I think in my heart, I felt guilty requiring a purchase for what had always been this free-live-show grooviness. And yet it worked out so well.”
It’s like the Beatles at Shea Stadium: at some point, the size of your fan base becomes a strain on the surrounding infrastructure. In this case, Amoeba has to walk the careful tightrope of offering an intimate, personal experience to their community while hosting store appearances and shows for the biggest names in music. Once again, they’re in the strange position of being bigger than an independent record store ever should have been.
While Amoeba is serving their massive community, they also have to deal with massive rent—their building on Sunset in Hollywood costs them $180,000 a month (and you thought your rent was bad). They’re currently looking for a new location.
In this way, Amoeba Music Hollywood is a proving-ground for the limits of profit-driven economics. There’s no way to argue the space they create isn’t valuable—clearly it is valued, by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of fans who pack the place. But is that kind of value preserved by our evolving digital economy?
This is the kind of question our culture now faces with all digitally vaporized marketplaces, even versus companies like Uber and Amazon. We’ve gotten very good at optimizing for the most convenient transactions, the highest profit-margins, and the lowest friction in supply chain. We do this with algorithms that predict our behavior and digital products that disintermediate and deliver convenience. But as with clickbait, “highest efficiency in capturing consumers” does not automatically translate into “a world filled with the goods, services, and experiences we actually want.” Some kinds of value slip through the cracks.
Marc is well aware that betting on the record-store-model is a risk. “Our lease is up next year, and just trying to find a space that... I mean, there are a few spaces we’re looking at that are similar. They’re about three fourths as big as this store, and they’re near here, and they could definitely work. But it’s still unbelievably pricey here. Starting a new store in this day and age, signing a new 10-year lease to sell records on that kind of scale, it certainly gives us some pause. Because things have gradually gone south. Not too bad for us, so far, but we just hope people—I mean, record stores are a great boutique business for decades to come. Whether or not we can do it on this scale for decades is another story.”
If Amoeba Music is to survive, it may be a question of placing a dollar value on what Amoeba really is—a community of people focused on a musical experience, and not just a way to conduct transactions and sell media. We know the value of experiences—we’ll pay for vacations and selfie museums—but paying into a community we all intend to share is shaky territory for a financially shell-shocked generation. Do we realize how much these kinds of communities pay us back?
We know the value of experiences… do we realize how much these kinds of communities pay us back?
Marc Weinstein seems to genuinely care for Amoeba’s future, but he also doesn’t seem unduly anxious or perturbed. He’s starting a cannabis business in connection with Amoeba, which makes so much sense that I started laughing when he told me. He has a clear bead on what makes the community he’s created so valuable. He may be looking at new business strategies and new vectors for fan experience, but he’s not about to start selling rack space or putting up garish promotional video screens any time soon.
In fact, Marc often sounds thrilled that the idea he helped dream up over a joint and a pad of paper got this far in the first place. In that way, he sounds like many of his favorite musicians in interviews: he just wants to keep the magic going as long as he can.
“I draw a lot of parallels between the artistic process and my relationship to Amoeba. To me, it has always represented a kind of art project, and for me, it was social,” recalls Marc. “I hired eight of my best friends, and then I hired eight more—and then more of their friends came. People from around the country were like, ‘Wow, that sounds great. I’m coming.’ It just became this incredible mass of people who really cared about music, and who are geeks—it takes such geekdom to really be good at it.”
“When I was in college, I always wanted to start an art colony, where everybody could come and have a studio. And everyone would pool their records, and have a big record room, and make art. It never happened, and the few times I actually tried were impossible, because people had all these different ideas and egos and la-di-da. But with the coherence of a record store... I wasn’t thinking about it that way at all, but I look back and I realize my desire to start an art colony was realized in this. So I guess I don’t have to feel so bad that I never did it.”
No, Marc. I think you can feel pretty good.
The Hundreds X Amoeba Records drops this Thursday.