Boise's 'Record Exchange' Still Alive at 35

Apr 22, 2012

In the old days, when music fans wanted to buy an album, they’d simply visit their local record store.  But digital downloads have changed that.  As people have traded in their CDs for MP3s, record stores all over the country have closed.   That hasn’t been the case in Boise.  And on Saturday, music lovers turned out at The Record Exchange as it celebrated an annual national event known as Record Store Day.  For those fans, it was a chance to support a business many say they couldn’t imagine Boise not having. 

It’s 8:30 on Saturday morning in downtown Boise.  Dozens of men and women wait in a line inside The Record Exchange. They’re packed in between cases of DVDs and books, and will soon head out into the store’s racks and racks of CDs and records in search special music being released to coincide with Record Store Day. 

Eighteen-year-old Joe Greenlee is one of the shoppers.  He came with his mom, who also bought music.  Most of the people here are older, but Greenlee says it’s also a great place for young people.

“A lot of my friends are just all really into music,” Greenlee says. “And if you’re gonna come somewhere, just come where there’s a good selection of music and a really chill environment, that if you just wanna come in and get a couple CDs and hang out, it’s perfect for that.”

People like Greenlee who want to buy music in a store are lucky that such a place still exists.  According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 52-percent of U.S. record companies’ revenues last year came from digital sources.  That number is expected to grow.  Despite the trend, owner Michael Bunnell is optimistic.

“The physical goods business is still alive,” Bunnell says.  “And if you’re smart and you’re a decent businessman, you can still make a good go of selling physical and music products, new and used.”

Bunnell says he’s had to adapt his business to keep the doors open.  Marketing has gotten better, for instance.  When the small coffee shop in the corner of his store lost business to other downtown outlets, Bunnell and his wife, Jill, decided to shrink that space, and started selling more T-shirts and novelty items.

Michael Deeds covers Boise music for The Idaho Statesman.  He considers The Record Exchange irreplaceable, and therefore the most important player on the Boise music scene.

“It’s not the kind of thing that somebody would come in and go ‘I can still do that even though they went of business’,” he says.  “Because you couldn’t.  And so it’s really good for the scene that they’re healthy and that they’ve found a way to stay around because it would leave a big, big hole.”

Phil Gallo agrees.  He writes for Billboard magazine and is also the author of a book on record stores.  He says for a city like Boise to have a strong music scene, it has to have an outlet like The Record Exchange that gets behind local acts.

“Where am I gonna hang my flyer?  Who’s gonna know about my band?  Because, yeah, you can go to the guitar shop and hang it up, but you know what, those are other musicians.  They’re looking for a gig.  When you go to a record store, that’s where you see fans.  And that’s where you see people who want to engage in discussing music, and being turned on to new music, who want to know about what show to go to.”

Record Store Day ended in Boise on Saturday night with a live performance by Curtis Stigers.  The Boise native says he first discovered The Record Exchange a few years after it opened when he was in high school.  Stigers still shops at the store.  He’s proud of the fact it’s still around. 

“I tell people about The Record Exchange when I go to England and play, when I go to Germany, when I go to France,” he says.  “There aren’t many record stores left in this world, yet here there’s one right at the corner of 11th and Idaho.”

Owner Michael Bunnell says it’ll be an ongoing battle to keep the doors open as more and more people buy music online. But Bunnell says it’s a battle worth fighting. 

“This may sound arrogant, but I can’t imagine this town without this store,” Bunnell says.  “It adds a lot of unique, not only products, but exposure to a really important art form that you just won’t get if you don’t have an independent music store.”

Bunnell says The Record Exchange suffered through its hardest times about three years ago when the recession compounded problems caused by the move to digital. But lately, sales have stabilized.   And that bodes well for the futures of Boise artists and music fans.   


Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio