The Ballad of a Rock and Roll Record Store Survivor
Since the very first time he bought a record—“Pushing Too Hard” by The Seeds—Terry Currier has had a thing for rock and roll music. As the owner and operator of Music Millennium, a decades-old record store located on East Burnside Street in Portland, Oregon, he still does to this day. It’s in the way he dresses (black from head to toe), his hair (a mop-top mess of curly ringlets) and the way he talks (he never veers too far away from the subject of music). Digital music has made it tough for record stores, but Currier has found success despite the challenges. This is his ballad…that of a rock and roll record store survivor.
Born outside of Seattle in 1955 Currier made his way to Portland with his family in the early 1970’s, although he nows call Vancouver, Washington his home.
It was here in Oregon that this music-obsessed young lad would go on to become somewhat of a knight-in-somewhat-dingey-armor for the legions of record store devotees in Portland and beyond, although it wasn’t exactly in his plan to become a music store mogul.
“I didn’t grow up listening to recorded music,” said Currier. “I was preparing to go to college on music scholarships.” But at the ripe old age of 16, he bought a motorcycle. “And at 16 and 3/4, due to an accident and winter in the Northwest, I bought a car.”
That car had something in it that completely connected to Currier: a radio.
“It changed my life,” said Currier. “Two months later, I saw Leon Russell & the Shelter people at (Portland’s) Memorial Coliseum.” Two weeks later he applied for a job in a record store (the long defunct) DJ’s Sound City, which was opening in then brand new Jantzen Beach Mall. “I made up for lost time and bought 665 albums over the next year as a senior in high school working 40 hours a week.”
How an Obsession with Vinyl Turned into a Career
His new found obsession with vinyl eventually led Currier to Music Millennium, a legendary, even back then, Portland record store.
“Music Millennium opened on March 15th, 1969 at 3 pm in the afternoon; the Ides of March,” said Currier. The owner at the time was Don MacLeod, who operated the popular shop from 1969 until 1979.
“Those were the heydays of the music industry. If you had a passion for music, you could make a store work,” said Currier.
According to Terry, the store was one of the first stores in the country to seriously bring in imported vinyl to the United States. “The buyers at Music Millennium felt U.S. vinyl was inferior to Europe and Japan,” he said. For many years the store was domestic vinyl on one side, and import on the other, before it was integrated. And it became integrated in other ways too.
“The store was like a cultural community center,” said Currier. “People met their best friends and significant others here. Portland had some amazing record stores at the time…Everybody’s Records, For What It’s Worth, Crystal Ship, Renaissance….some of the best in the country. But Music Millennium was just a bit better. I was a regular there even though I worked at DJ’s….all those imports!”
Currier eventually came to work at Music Millennium in 1984, about the same time the owner was going to file for bankruptcy. “The original owner, MacLeod, did not want to see the store go away so he assumed $500,000 in debts with the leftover inventory and original building. I went to work for Don and helped bring it back from the dead.”
Currier, who bought a stake in the store, and would eventually come to own it, said that up until Napster (the downloading music service) went live, business went up every year.
“I wanted to keep the feel of the early days and give people the best record store possible. In 1989 we put in the stage to celebrate our 20th Anniversary with 20 days of live music.” Music Millennium still does 100 to 150 live performances in store a year.
Those who have played that stage include Mal Waldron, the last pianist for Billie Holiday, Richard Thompson, Weezer, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Crowded House, Joan Jett, Bonnie Raitt, Elliott Smith, Kool & the Gang, The Ohio Players. ‘The list could go on forever,” said Currier about these amazing artists. Many of them have also become his longtime friends.
Today, as owner of the legendary store, he calls himself “the guy at the record store.” Says Currier, “I do the buying, I pick up trash, I work in bookkeeping and promotions. And once in awhile I get to actually talk to customers.”
And music makers too. “ I love to support local musicians but have also been lucky enough to work with Joe Strummer, Keith Emerson, Randy Newman, Soundgarden and others along the way.”
Competing with Digital
So how does he keep his doors open with so much music streaming on the web?
Currier has an analog answer to his digital dilemma. “Vinyl was the the main format in those early days and we are lucky to have vinyl back as a major part of our business today,” said Currier. “CDs sound great but vinyl is the ultimate way to listen to music. We have the strongest youth customer base since digital took them away from shopping for physical music because many have got bitten by the same vinyl bug I did years ago.”
But that bug doesn’t always translate into big business. “You can make a living today owning a record store but it’s not the best investment with one’s money,” said Currier. “In 2000 there were 7,500 record stores in the states. In 2007 there were 1,800. Most of the stores that survived the digital era did it because of the passion for the music but you had to have business sense too, or you most likely went under. Even those with business sense didn’t all make it. Great stores around the country fell during that time. We had 8 or 9 years of losing money and kept trying to figure out how to make it all work to go forward.” He attributes a renewed interest in vinyl into “helping a lot.”
But Currier says there is little in the music world that beats the actual experience of going into a store that actually sells records. He lays it out like this: ‘You walk into a record store with a good inventory and staff, it’s the art of discovery. Seeing some title you have never seen before that perks up your interest…hearing something being played in the store or talking to a good music freak staff person..those can be the best experiences ever. And today with vinyl, you can make sure the vinyl does not have a bent corner on the cover when you inspect it.” And the best part? “The art of discovery! The first year I worked in a record store, I bought half of my collection at other stores. You have no idea what you may find used or new.”
What makes a good record store? “Selection, staff and feel,” said Currier. “I’ve walked into a small store in another part of the world and had the best shopping experience one could ask for, even though the store may just specialize in soul and jazz or just hip-hop and electronica. What is playing on the overhead, who is working at the time and a well-curated inventory will give a music fan a great experience.”
Currier is focused on the local customer stating that online makes up less than one percent of Music Millennium’s business.
Another small part of Music Millennium’s business is cassettes. Yes, cassettes. Or as he says “the other white meat.”
Like pork is to chicken, cassettes are to vinyl, the other analog format.
Cassettes are being made again on some titles and cassette collectors covet finding that used Devo or Beatles cassette. Currier says it’s a minimal business right now and will most likely stay that way, but more and more titles are coming out. He indicates that the new LCD Sound System is on cassette and that you can purchase all the Sub Pop Shins titles on cassette. “There’s even a National Cassette Store Day: October 14th,” said Currier.
The Future of the Music Store Business
And as for the future of the music store business in 2017 and beyond?
“I think record stores have a future but it will still be a struggle,” said Currier who is on a committee called the “Physical Business Action Committee” which he helped formed a year ago. “We are seeing an increasing number of CDs go out of print, especially by the major labels. We are seeing increasing amounts of artists just releasing digitally. There may be a time when we see the industry turn their back on vinyl. We will have to keep fighting the good fight out there to keep the industry interested in physical product so we can take care of our customers.”
As he keeps up the good fight you can likely find Currier near a record player with his coveted collection including one of his most prized possessions, a copy of “Introducing The Beatles” signed in person by Sir Paul McCartney himself.
With such a great memory of recorded history, when asked if he could share what was the first of his own records he sold, Currier said, ‘I’ve kept all my records,” said Currier. “Every single one of them.”