Interview: Neil Schield of Origami Vinyl (Which Opens Its Doors Today)
Origami Vinyl opens today in Echo Park
Getting to this day has been a bit of a journey. After college, Schield worked for Sony and Interscope, then started the Origami Music label, which puts artists in the driver's seat allows them to retain all their rights. And today he is adding Origami Vinyl to the mix—an eclectic store stocked full of new vinyl records. The second level of the shop will serve as a space for live music, and Origami will also be a place to buy tickets for Spaceland, the Echoplex and the Echo. LAist sat down with Schield at Masa to discuss his love of vinyl records, the visit Pete Townshend recently paid to the store, and why Echo Park is such a thriving community.
LAist: There seems to be a disparity in how we get our entertainment nowadays. Our TV screens have never been bigger, and yet we're also watching movies and TV shows on tiny iPods. Technology is such that you don't even need physical media to listen to music, and at the same time, more people than ever are turning to vinyl. Why do you think that is?
Neil Schield: I think there are a few reasons for that. The first has to do with sound quality. I think a lot of people are starting to realize that there's a warmth to vinyl that isn't available in digital media. Many people who have grown up with iPods and whatnot are starting to discover vinyl as a cool hobby—it's retro, but it's also interactive. Nowadays, even 18-25 year-olds are starting record clubs. They might listen to their iPod all over the place, but when they come home and have friends over, they'll listen to a record.
The third thing really came to the forefront a few years ago, and independent labels really hit the nail on the head with this one. They knew they wanted to sell physical product because the artwork is so cool and the vinyl sounds better. They asked themselves, "How do we get people to buy the records and pay attention?" They started to package free coupon codes for the MP3s with each record. So for $10 on iTunes you could buy this product, or for $10 at a record store, you could get the vinyl plus the MP3s. It's just this great value-add that has pushed people into thinking, "I'd also like to have the physical piece of this."
The idea for the Origami Music label resulted from a trip to New Zealand. Where were you when the lightning struck with the idea for Origami Vinyl?
It's been a long-time dream that started when I was 17. Then after college, I worked in the digital side of the music business and it seemed that record stores were dead. So it was this nice fantasy, but I didn't think it was ever going to happen.
I've always listened to vinyl records, though, and over the last couple years, it seemed like more and more of my friends had started getting back into it and buying record players. A couple of them even started a record club that I joined. Then five years ago, my parents gave me their vinyl collection.
Do your parents have good taste in music?
They have really great taste; I was even named after Neil Young! So I always listened to records as I was growing up. When I got my parents' 500 records, that more than doubled my own collection. Then last June, my neighbor was having a yard sale and asked me if I wanted to sell anything. At that point I thought, "Gosh, I have a stack of 50 or so records that I don't listen to," so I put them out in two crates. I was out there for three hours and sold 40 records! And even the people who didn't buy any records still looked through the stack. Then it hit me: These are the records I don't want. What would happen if I sold records I do like?
There's this rad 86-year-old man who lives across the street, and he has a commercial residential building he's lived in since the 30s. He's been using this building in front of his house for storage, so one day I jokingly asked him if I could rent it out for a vinyl shop. He laughed and said, "Do kids still want those things?" He said that he wished he could, but that he needed it for storage. That night as I went to sleep, I thought to myself, "Why not do this?"
So I started talking to some friends and said, "This might be a really crazy idea, but what do you guys think about this?" Everyone thought it would be really cool. I had also just been laid off from my job, so I had been going on job interviews and was in this creative mindset.
Soon after that, I ran into my friend Jeff Ellermeyer, who co-owns the Echo with Mitchell Frank. We got to talking and I mentioned that I had this crazy idea about opening a record store and he said, "You're kidding me! You know we bought the building next door to the Echo, right? Come by tomorrow and we'll check it out."
Yeah, at that point, I was thinking, "This is falling into my lap a little too easily!" So sure enough, I met Jeff and Mitchell the next day in the space. Jeff told me that the Echo needed someone to do a box office for pre-sales and such. Plus they wanted something like a record shop nearby to coincide with their events—where they could host artist meet-and-greets and record release parties.
I had no business plan, nothing, but I just thought,"I can do this." I called a bunch of my contacts in the music industry and asked them what they thought. They said, "Do it. We'll support you. We'll sell you records directly."
Was the current economy a worry as you were beginning to set your plans into motion?
As these things fell into place, I looked at the budget and my savings. I had been thinking about buying a house but then thought, "Maybe not in this market." I also thought, "It's probably not a good idea to open a store in this economy either," but I realized that everything was lining up, so it was now or never. And here I am with a record store that's opening on Friday!
I was amazed when I read that 2008 was one of the highest-selling years for vinyl in recent history.
Yeah, last year was actually the highest sales of vinyl records since SoundScan started in 1991!
That's incredible! Now, in recent years, have you seen any major changes in how vinyl records are produced?
The big thing right now is to press records on heavier gram vinyl—like a 180-gram vinyl. It used to be on thinner plastic, such as a 120-gram, and 180 is heavier-weight. It's got a better feel to it, and some might say it sounds better and lasts longer.
What was the first record you ever bought?
Oh man, let's see…it was in the seventh grade, and the first two records I personally bought were Metallica's "...And Justice for All" and Run-DMC's "Raising Hell."
What's your favorite record?
I have a few essential records. Neil Young's "Harvest" is one, and this band Slint's "Spiderland" was an important record for me in the mid-90s, because it introduced me to the independent music scene. Another band from San Diego called Drive Like Jehu was an important band for me as well. At the time they were playing in the early 90s, I was going to super-local underground clubs—such as Koo's Cafe in Santa Ana—so I got really into buying the 7" records from all the bands that came through there.
If you can afford it, I'd recommend getting a new turntable. But if you're strapped for cash and can find a beater that works well, spins well, is balanced right and has a good motor, then go for it.
How much should you spend?
If you want a brand-new, decent turntable, you're looking at a few hundred dollars. We have a couple nice home turntables that we sell in the store. The first is the Music Hall. It's an entry-level audiophile brand, so their whole deal is very simple and clean. There are not a whole lot of components, so it's all about the record. It's kind of like buying a nice guitar with a good body.
We also carry this really nice Vestax turntable. Vestax is known for their DJ stuff, but they've created this really small turntable called the Guber. It has a USB connection that allows you to hook it up to your computer and play your records on it through your sound system, or you can digitize your vinyl collection.
What's the most important thing people should know if they're about to amass a record collection?
I think vinyl becomes an addiction. (laughs) You should probably start with the records you care most about and go from there. Get the essentials. When it comes to taking care of them, just make sure not to handle the grooves with your fingers, because the oil from your fingers will ruin them after a long time.
If you have a dusty house or an environment with animals, you should probably have a cleaner brush. Just make sure that every time you play the record or put it back in the sleeve, you clean it. Other than that, records are solid. Like I said, I have my parents' collection. They didn't necessarily take care of everything, so yeah, there are the occasional pops and hisses and crackles, but that also tells a bit of a story.
I've always liked the gritty industrial revolution look. I started with the question, "What can I do there?" It's so easy to be literal with vinyl and go with a retro design. I wanted to avoid that but also be classy. And I didn't want to look modern, either, where someone would walk in and feel like they're in an Apple store. So I thought, "What's super-easy and super-cheap and also allows me to use a lot of recycled goods?" I really wanted to build the shop without messing up the environment.
Along those lines, I know that you got some of your recycled building materials from the ReUse People. How did you find them?
I found them online after doing a lot of research—trying to find a place where I could get deconstructed materials or stuff that had already been used. They're the ones that seemed the most appropriate. I went out there and not only are they extremely friendly, but the prices are incredibly cheap. I think all the wood that we used in the shop came from there. We spent only $60 on all the sheets of plywood. Maybe for some people it wouldn't work, but for me, I love the look of old wood.
As for some of the other elements in the store, our staircase was donated by my girlfriend's father's architecture company. And the lights were something that really completed everything for me—they're probably my favorite thing.
Is it true you have a vinyl-only sound system and vintage speakers? You'll have to be a DJ while working the cash register!
That's the point. With records, you can't really have a listening station where people can open the records and play them. I'm going to have my whole personal collection here, as well as my co-worker Sean's, so if someone wants to listen to a record, one of us most likely has it in our collection, so we can just pop it on for them and play it.
Photo of the records just as Schield was beginning to stock them. Those crates will be full today!
I love that you're writing blurbs for each and every single record. That's a lot of work!
Tell me about it. I think we've done 150 so far. The store can hold 3,000 records, so it's going to be a work in progress. When we open, we're not going to be there, but hopefully six months in, we'll have them all done.
I think people get kind of intimidated by a record store. A lot of them like music but maybe don't research it—someone just plays them something and they like it. If someone doesn't know about, say, the Pixies, I could see them feeling embarrassed asking a question about a band they feel they should know something about. So these little blurbs will help.
Pete Townshend visits Origami Vinyl
I was actually out of town for a family emergency, so I wasn't here! I was on the road in Colorado while my girlfriend and two of my friends were working in the store. All of a sudden I got this text from my friend Sean and it said, "Pete Townshend was just in the shop looking for you." So I texted back, "Now's not the time to mess with me, but thanks for trying to make me laugh."
Alex, my girlfriend, then called me up and said, "Seriously, Pete Townshend was here. Look on your iPhone and you'll see a picture of him in front of the store." It just lifted my spirits so much. It was amazing.
How does the Origami Music label relate to the store?
(laughs) The reason I laugh is that—at least for the moment—they have nothing to do with each other except that they share the name. Something I hear a lot from people is, "Wait, your label is digital-only but you're running this vinyl store…that just doesn't make sense!" But if you know me, it makes perfect sense, because at home I listen to records, and career-wise I've been very involved with digital music.
The label came about in the sense that I had an opportunity to distribute records at no cost. I wanted to help open the door for my friends and say, "Here's the doorway. The 15 percent I take will cover my mailing costs, but really, this is an opportunity for you to sell your stuff."
I guess the thing the label and the store share is a local vibe. I'm really into supporting local music and local art, so the label's all about local artists and the store is about the community. And eventually the label will press vinyl for each of its releases.
So you'll skip over CDs completely and have digital and vinyl options for your artists?
I think that's the future. I'm seeing a lot of labels these days that, instead of including the MP3 code, will package the CD with the vinyl record, because nobody's buying CDs.
How do you find bands for the label? Do they come to you or do you do a lot of scouting?
I'm not really into the idea of scouting and I'm not super-into the idea of being solicited. It's kind of a word-of-mouth thing—such as a recommendation from one of my friends. I want to work with people I enjoy working with, and the expectations have got to be set. This isn't a label where you're going to get marketed to places and have a publicist.
But then again, your bands have gotten on KCRW, NPR and other outlets.
It's all organic. That's the cool thing about it, and that's a tribute to the bands I work with. They know it's a DIY thing and they're all really motivated. Plus they're really awesome and people should hear them. Hopefully, my label will help catapult them to a deal that exposes them to a national audience.
What led you to choose the name Origami when you began the label?
Back when I worked at Interscope in 2001, my friend Megan Healy and I were wanting to help some bands get a record out and we said, "We should start a record label." At that same time, a friend of mine from Detroit was sending me some great origami she'd made. When Megan and I started talking about a name, I thought of that, so we chose Origami because it rolls off the tongue nicely. We didn't end up signing the bands, but the name stuck with me even after I left Interscope.
So I did the trip to New Zealand and told my friends about the idea. The name had never left me—I'd even been calling myself "OrigamiNeil" online. And at that point, "origami" became an analogy to what I was doing. I had realized that the name implies that you have this blank piece of paper and you can make art out of this very normal, plain thing.
The label's kind of the same deal. Here's this opportunity for a band to distribute their music at a very low cost where they retain everything, but they can either just put the record out and see what happens, or they can start calling people, creating e-mail lists and going on tour. And really, that's musical origami.
Another view of the records just as Schield was beginning to stock the store.
What originally drew you to Echo Park? You've lived here for a number of years, right?
I've been here for eight years. I had lived in San Francisco for a while, then I moved into Hollywood for four months and hated it. Then an old friend invited me and my girlfriend at the time over to their house for dinner. So we just hung out and I loved the neighborhood—it was more like San Francisco and really had more a community vibe.
We later ended up moving into my friend's place, and we loved it, but at the same time it was really rough at first. Within the first six months of living here, we witnessed a drive-by in front of our house. Two years after that, someone got murdered in our front yard.
But there was still a family vibe in spite of that. We lived next to gang members, and they were very nice to us. However, there was still a turf war going on, and that was the history of the last 30 years of this part of town. So while we loved the arts and the culture, we still had to keep an eye out. Over the last three years, however, thanks to the gentrification, the neighborhood has completely turned around.
I also read something online where you were talking about how you're involved with the Echo Park Futbol Club. Are you a big sports guy?
When I was growing up, my family would always go to Dodger games. That was probably my first introduction to Echo Park.
Then in high school, I played soccer and loved it. A number of years ago, my best friend Jeff and I started playing locally and the next thing we knew, we had 25 people coming out every Tuesday night. We got a little bit better and started the Echo Park Futbol Club—so we play and we've also done some volunteer projects for the community. We joined the LA City League in Griffith Park and we've now been playing for three years. We started in the lowest division and sucked. Then the second year we did well, won the division, moved up and went undefeated. We're now in the third-highest division and we're in first place.
In spite of the current economic situation, it seems that Echo Park is flourishing. Why do you think that is?
I think, again, it's community-driven and the places around here aren't expensive. They're not trying to gouge you. If you're going to spend your hard-earned dollars somewhere, it should be in a place where you're surrounded by people you care about and want to support. Everyone has supported me since the day I moved in. It's just that kind of neighborhood.
What do you have planned for your grand opening?
To kick it off, we're going to run a 10 percent off sale to say thank you and welcome. Then we're going to have a couple bands play. Wait. Think. Fast. is going play an acoustic set, as well as Nico Stai and his band. We'll open at noon on Friday, but the main festivities—music and drinks—will kick off around 6 p.m. Everyone's welcome!
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Neil!
All photos by Michele Reverte with the exception of Origami Vinyl's image of Pete Townshend (used with permission).