As Told To Brian Ossip, DC Music Live
Neal Becton has been listening to and collecting vinyl records throughout his entire life. So after working for years at The Washington Post, he decided that he needed to make good on a childhood dream of owning his own store, which he eventually did, opening Som Records, located at 1843 14th St. NW. While he’s had success and been in operation since 2005, it hasn’t always been easy. Especially in a day and age when people tend to find their music online, either through iTunes or illegal downloads, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep people interested in the small, independent record store. Neal spoke to DC Music Live about the struggles, and joys, of owning his own store.
It’s kind of crazy that we’ve been here for so long. I worked for the Washington Post for 10 years on the National Desk, the Foreign Desk, and in L.A. for a year, too. But I quit in 2003 and opened up Crooked Beat Records with Bill Daly, in Adams Morgan. I did that for about a year and a half and then struck out on my own here at Som.
I’ve been collecting records since 1978, always had lots of records, and I always kind of jokingly said, “You know, one day I’m going to open a record shop!” And then I just built up to it. I finally decided, “OK, I want to run a store.” I never even worked at a record store until I owned one, so it was pretty scary to step out like that.
I left a big organization with benefits and all of those comfortable things to where I had to get a loan and was opening up my own business. I was doing retail where
one week is great and you think, “This is easy!” And then the next week you’re like, “What am I doing?” So it’s very different.
Vinyl has declined a bit over the years, but I think it’s also having a resurgence in the last few years. A lot of kids are discovering vinyl, either through their friends, or getting a record player from their parents, or just wanting to find out about vinyl and build a record collection.
Bands are helping vinyl to become popular again, too. They sell deluxe or special album packages, and it gets the younger kids that maybe never got into vinyl or didn’t even know about vinyl to start getting in to it. And then there’s always a guy that has still collected over the years and just never given it up.
Record stores aren’t what they used to be, where everybody had to go to one to get their music, so it’s a real niche market. Everyone wants to get their music now through iTunes, or by stealing it from other websites. So people have to want to come here.
But people definitely feel a sense of loyalty here. This is their store, their community store, and they seem to like that. Sure, they could always buy something online or go to a Best Buy or Walmart, but I think people like the idea of having a cool local store that is theirs that they can come to. And also it’s a great way, I think, to get in touch with other local musicians or other local music lovers. You can’t really get that at a Best Buy or on a website. D.C. is good about that. People in D.C. tend to support things they like.
But, mostly, you’ve just got to stock your store well and get the word out that you’ve got good records. We market and promote, we sponsor events. There are some theaters on this block and I’ll buy an ad in their programs. Facebook and Twitter, our website, promoting at shows. Different things like that. And I’m always trying to think of new ways to get the word out, too.
My store’s location can’t hurt, either. A lot of people have found my store waiting in line to get in to a show at the Black Cat, which is just down the street. They look through the window and are like, “Oh I didn’t know there was a record store there.” And then they come back next week and buy records. And I know all the guys at the Black Cat, so they send bands down here, too.
And overall, business has been good. We’ve been here seven years, which means it’s still working. It’s small business retail, so there are ups and downs. You get slow weeks in the middle of July where you’re like, “Oh my god, what am I doing?” Weeks where nobody walks in the door until like four in the afternoon. And then other days where you’re slammed and it’s crazy.
It’s not easy, that’s for sure, but I wouldn’t change it. I love having my own store. And music is what I enjoy doing and talking about, and I’d rather be doing this than anything else.