Welcome to our new blog series focusing on extraordinary audio visual experiences in the wider Portland community. We begin our series with an interview featuring Terry Currier, owner of Music Millennium and co-founder of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores. In this first installment of a three-part series, we’ll discuss the history of Music Millennium and the recent renewed interest in vinyl records.
Caitlin Lilly: For the inaugural entry in our new blog series, we wanted to explore your perspective on what makes an extraordinary audio experience.
Terry Currier: An extraordinary audio experience really starts with great music. I started my record store career in the early 70s. Vinyl was the main format at that time, and vinyl is still going to give somebody the best listening experience of any format. The unique thing about vinyl is that people interact with it. They’ve got a twelve by twelve album cover with wonderful art. A lot of people gravitated towards many of the records that they purchased over the years by seeing a great album cover on a wall and picking it up and taking a look and sometimes taking a chance based on the visual content.
People will take vinyl home – and they usually listen to it in front of their stereo – and they’re very careful to take the record out and put it on the turntable. They’re having an interaction with the record. You have to pick up the needle. You have to flip the album over or put another record on. When CDs came about, you could put like 75 minutes of music on them. I think the average attention span of a music listener is a lot shorter than that. CDs don’t allow the same level of focus.
More than any other musical format, I think people treat vinyl like art. If you want vinyl to sound good for a long period of time, you need to take care of it. With CDs and cassettes, they were in a smaller plastic and didn’t have as warm a presentation as vinyl, so I don’t think people really treated them in the same fashion.
In most cases, when an artist makes an album, there’s a lot of thought going into creating an experience for their fans. That’s something that happens more so on vinyl than it does in any other format. Some artists make concept albums, and to take any one of those songs out of order would change the meaning. Albums are kind of put together like books – you need to experience the chapters in the proper order to the full experience. That’s what you do with a vinyl album.
CL: So there’s a loss of story or tactile experience as music becomes more digitized and more consumable in smaller pieces?
TC: Yeah, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with listening to individual songs. If you look at the [modern] history of music, a lot of people got into music via radio. In recent years it’s happened through streaming and sharing music digitally. Hearing a song by an artist, especially by an artist you’re hearing for the first time, may be the gateway to going out and experiencing full albums by that artist too.
CL: There’s a lot of discovery that happens now, especially when you’re listening on a streaming platform and you like a particular artist, you’ll get the list of similar artists. Sometimes you click through and go “oh I really like this person now too,” or “this isn’t really for me but I can see where they drew that conclusion within their algorithm.”
TC: Well, people have very busy schedules. There’s not as much time to focus on music. Streaming services do give recommendations for other artists, and when people are so busy, that can come in handy. But the best way to find out about other music is to actually get into a record store and talk to the people who work there. They are very music-centric people and they can really hone in on other things that you might want to listen to.
CL: I really think that the resurgence of vinyl is such an interesting phenomenon. Can you talk a little more about that?
TC: Well the resurgence in vinyl has bound generations together. I’ve never seen anything happen like this in my entire life. It didn’t happen like this before. All of a sudden the youth population started getting into vinyl and, you know, dad or mom had a stereo a record collection in the basement, or both, or they were over at their grandparents’ house and here were all these records. Now we see parents and their kids, we see grandparents and their grandkids come into the store shopping together and actually buying a lot of the same artists together. You know, a lot of the real music junkies from the 60s and 70s that still buy music today, they’re not just buying old artists they’re buying new artists too.
I run into this when I interview people for jobs. We get a lot of 20 to 25-year-olds who come into the store looking to get a job here, and one of the questions I ask them is “who are your top five favorite artists and why?” I hear a lot of these people wax poetically about their favorite artists and all of them are from the 60s or 70s. You’re talking artists who are 40 or 50 years old. Now, in 1972 when I really started buying records, there weren’t many people of my generation buying records from the 20s and 30s. That music was old. They weren’t even buying records from the 40s and 50s, unless it got into the rock and roll era like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. Artists like that.
Today, you know, you have 15-year-old kids coming in and buying Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, or Led Zeppelin IV, or the Grateful Dead Workingman’s Dead. These classic records from the past are speaking to a lot of this youth generation. Most kids tend to focus on one genre or maybe a couple of genres. With vinyl, I see these kids come into the store and they may buy some new things from a new artist that they like, but they’re going into the budget bins looking at different things and they’re buying records that are three or four dollars. They’re taking chances on other genres of music.
CL: It’s also interesting that with every iteration of the form factor, you lose certain artists and certain albums because they go out of print. So, you get vinyl that didn’t make it to CD, that didn’t make it to cassette tape, that didn’t make it to digital. All these out-of-print albums and rare imports from other countries that people just hang on to because you can’t get them any other way. So that’s another really interesting reason to keep coming back to the record store. You might find treasure.
TC: Oh definitely. Especially in this city. You know, when Music Millennium started in 1969, the original owner went to Europe to buy vinyl. Then he set up accounts with various distributors over there and he brought in all these import records into the store. He divided the store in half, domestic on one side, imports on the other side. In the process, he also discovered there was all this other music happening internationally that wasn’t here, and he started importing things into the country. By 1977 he had the largest import mail order business in the United States. Music Millennium had so many cool and interesting pieces of music, and people were buying all that stuff, which means that a lot of people also resold that stuff. When you’re looking for used records in this city, there’s still a lot of that imported product around. Portland is a very fortunate place to be a record buyer, especially for used records.
CL: That’s a really interesting tidbit of information. Portland is such a music-heavy city. It’s such an incubator for new bands and interesting projects.
TC: Portland has more record stores than other city in the United States. It’s an interesting thing to see. A city like New York has very few record stores. One of the reasons is that the rents are so high that record stores can’t really survive. But, Portland has always had a great selection of record stores. I see it mirroring the beer culture that happened in this town. Music Millennium was really the first underground record store that happened in Portland. Then it got a great clientele and some people from that clientele decided to start their own record stores. By the mid-70s, there were so many great record stores in Portland it was unbelievable. If you were a vinyl buyer you went to a lot of them because you never knew what you were going to find from store to store. That culture is still here today.
CL: People spending their weekends digging for treasure.
TC: Oh yeah. I mean there’s a lot of people who take a Saturday to hit all the good record stores, and they’re just looking for treasures. The selection can change dramatically from week to week. You never know what you’ll find.
*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity