The Beating Heart of NYC’s Underground - A look at Brooklyn record store halcyon

Words by: Sean-Michael Yoder
Posted: 18/10/11 13:37

The Beating Heart of NYC’s Underground - A look at Brooklyn record store halcyon
One of the things that isn’t discussed much in the digital vs. vinyl debate is the decay of the independent record store as the hub of the scene and New York City has seen its share of great ones: Vinylmania, Dance Tracks, and Sonic Groove. But those days are long gone and the US dance music scene has been in a doldrums ever since, but that issue seems to be on the mend as I. Voice took some time to stop by Brooklyn based institution halcyon and chat with owner/founder Shawn Schwartz about the store and the economics of running a store in the digital age. Schwartz comes across as equal parts salesman, savvy business mogul, visionary, and battled-tested music business survivor that finds great delight 12 years on in running his own store and watching the current renaissance/transformation of the independent record store all over the country.

It was interesting during the interview to see how much of the connection to this common space has been lost in the media shift and I. Voice hopes to put a sharper focus on record store culture around the world by looking at other places like halcyon, that serve as the hub for their particular scene and community.

Give us a brief history of halcyon the shop, halcyonline, and halcyondigi.
Well it all started out innocently enough. I just wanted to chill out and play records with my friends in my Brooklyn apartment. Admittedly, our 12 hour sessions before a crowd of 30 or so, got to be a bit much for the neighbors so in 1999 I opened the original halcyon in a storefront one block from where I live. The idea was to recreate the vibe of my Saturday afternoon record salons and invite the neighbors in for a coffee… all of them. The space had a coffee bar/café that served beer and wine too, rotating art shows adorned the walls and there was a comfy lounge outfitted with eclectic mid-century modern furnishings that were for sale, so the décor constantly changed. Towards the back was the record shop and a little patio. The DJ booth occupied center stage with a sound system that was by all reasonable measures complete overkill, as was the oversized disco ball that presided... We honestly had no idea how people would react, we just opened the doors, turned up the music and let them in to hang out and make the place their own. The rest, as they say, is history. One year later Time Out New York’s annual Clubs edition featured halcyon on the cover, declaring it “The Beating Heart of NYC’s Undergroundhalcyon is about sharing a passion for music and instilling a respect for DJ Culture in a wider community. We’ve gotten into just about every aspect of the scene over the years but those themes have been constants...

Funny... turns out when you take DJs and electronic dance music heads out of the foreboding nightclub and throw them in a day lit space with the general public, they two get on just fine. Straight folk even enjoy reading the Sunday Times to deep house music, which they will gladly purchase too, so long as they aren’t made to feel ashamed for not knowing what it is called. Who knew unless you try, right?

So therein lies the mission; halcyon is about sharing a passion for music and instilling a respect for DJ Culture in a wider community. We’ve gotten into just about every aspect of the scene over the years but those themes have been constants.

In 2004, when the original halcyon succumbed to the socio-economic changes that were sweeping NYC, we opened halcyon the shop, an expanded music retail operation with a gallery and design boutique in Dumbo, Brooklyn’s chic gallery district. In 2008 halcyon became one of the first independent retailers to launch it’s own online download shop with halcyondigi.com, and since we’ve steadily developed halcyonlline.com into an e-commerce and digital publishing platform from which we serve music, information and commentary to what is now the widest audience the brand has ever reached.

Shawn SchwartzTen years is a long time for a record store these days…
True, 10 years (actually 12 now) is a long time for a record store in the digital era, which is pretty telling. After all, many of the shops that originally fueled NYC’s dance music scene had been in operation for 20-30 years, going back to the disco days, and now they have vanished. Manhattan’s heritage shops like Vinylmania, Dance Tracks, and Sonic Groove defined the very idea of a DJ-oriented dance music store. They played a big role in inspiring halcyon, so their eventual demise is no triumph for our shop, as some have suggested; rather, it’s a loss for everyone involved with DJ culture. Any culture relies on strong, dependable institutions, so for me, the closure of the venerable shops, distributors and labels that gave rise to American dance music is an alarming aspect of the digital revolution, and one that doesn’t get much play in the tired vinyl vs. digital debate.

A lot of record stores have come & gone over the past decade, what has been the key to success for halcyon?
There’s a certain degree of dumb luck and a hefty dose of blind determination involved, but if I had to cite one thing it’s simply that halcyon has always put community first. Even in the darkest of days, when no one thought there was any use for a record store anymore, instead of acting like a charity and begging customers to come back and buy vinyl, we focused on finding ways to support the scene and contribute to the development of the culture at every level. In doing so we continually affirmed that the shop is an integral, even indispensible institution worth engaging with.

There seem to be more stores like Amoeba out west as well as Halcyon in the east, who seem to be thriving despite the rumors of the industry's demise. What's the real story, can the independent record store still make it in America?
Yes, I am certain of it. While much has been made of the demise of the independent shop, and for good reason, the story of its renaissance is just now being written. The worst of times are now in the rear view mirror and the road ahead, while full of new challenges, is also full of opportunity. I’m not gonna lie, it’s still an uphill battle, but suffice to say the independent record store is back from the brink of extinction and while it may never freely roam the plains of America in the numbers it once did, at least in the urban areas, there is enough of a renewed interest to support a niche market. Any culture relies on strong, dependable institutions, so for me, the closure of the venerable shops, distributors and labels that gave rise to American dance music is an alarming aspect of the digital revolution, and one that doesn’t get much play in the tired vinyl vs. digital debate...

Biggest selling title at halcyon to date?
Ever?... too many to recall. We’ve sold a lot of records in 12 years! Lately though, happy to say that a new label I co-own called Scissor and Thread has been flying off the shelves. We’ve put out two releases by an unknown artist called black light smoke and he’s outselling every other record in the shop! I am also proud to report that local NYC records, many from close friends we work with directly are continually our biggest sellers. That includes all the deep stuff from Jus Ed, Levon Vincent, Fred P., DJ Qu, DJ Spider, etc. as well as newly minted labels like Ron Ziti’s L.I.E.S. Guys like Lenny Posso of Thema who have been putting out records for a long time over here are now reaching new heights of success too.

Of course Wolf+Lamb and the local disco scene is equally as hot with records from Marcos Cabral and Jacques Renault of Runaway, James Friedman’s Throne of Blood, My Cousin Roy’s Wurst and others topping our charts. Even within the UK Bass department, historically a scene that has snubbed American producers, NY guys like Sepalcure, FaltyDL, Machine Drum and Incyde are making serious noise and moving more units out of halcyon then their far more hyped overseas counterparts. It’s a great time to be representing NYC. Despite stubbornly held perceptions in certain European quarters, the city’s underground is absolutely on fire these days. There’s a ton of young talent here.

Tell us a little about your in-store events, what are some of the biggest events you have had so far?
Convening people for a DJ set in an intimate, alternative environment has always been a central aspect of halcyon’s programming and continuing to provide a first rate experience for the DJ and the audience is perhaps the best example of what I was speaking about above when I said halcyon’s survival has depended on making valuable contributions to the culture.

Absent are all the distractions in the club; an in-store keeps the focus on the performance and the music. Placing the crowd up close and personal, affords everyone, die hard fans and casual observers alike, the opportunity to really experience the magic that happens when a DJ mixes two records together. For the DJs, no matter what level they are at in their careers, playing at halcyon provides some unique opportunities. For the novice, a chance to work out in a less intimidating environment, for the seasoned pro, an opportunity to break from touring routine and perhaps experiment outside the confines of the club with different styles and sounds.

Of course, all of this is made possible by halcyon’s sound system because face it, Louie Vega isn’t coming to play a coffee bar if they have a pair of Gemini turntables hooked up to some powered monitors. That halcyon offers that intimate vibe without asking the DJ to compromise their performance makes it unique and a favorite place for many touring DJs to play when they come through NYC.

In fact, you could say that the model of the original halcyon was basically one ongoing in-store event that lasted five years. We had DJs playing 7 nights a week from 6pm to 2am and all day on the weekends, too. Nowadays, we have events scheduled 1-3 times each week.

At this point it would be easier to list the notable DJs who have not played than to choose highlights, so I’ll pick a few from the very recent past that we’ve been honored to host – Craig Richards, Scuba, DJ Koze, Kyle Hall, Gilles Smith, Rhadoo, Margaret Dygas – the list goes on…

Online visitors can also watch the events in real-time as well, correct?
In 2003 halcyon hooked up with groovetech.com (RIP) to become one of the first places streaming live DJ sets nightly and we’ve been polluting the internet with beats ever since. Currently, halcyon produces three regular events that are formatted like radio shows with hosts, interview segments, etc. - all recorded before a live audience.

We have resident staff DJs who are the on air personalities, and each event has 1-4 featured guest DJs, involving all the top local players and sometimes presenting superstar surprises. The BandwagonTaimur Agha, the shop’s House/Techno buyer, helms “The Bandwagon” on Wednesdays. On Thursdays Liondub, our bass music maven, presents “Bless Up!” and on weekends “Slow Disco Saturdays” is hosted by Bianca Von Baum. For each, halcyon provides a separate audio-only stream via nicecast and a simultaneous video feed and live chat via uStream which is archived at: www.ustream.tv/user/halcyontheshop/videos
After the events we edit the recordings and produce podcasts which are available at: halcyonline.com/category/podcasts
All three of the podcast channels are also syndicated via iTunes

In addition to the live performances, the site has artist features, charts, weekly hot sheets, there's a lot more to running a store these days than just having knowledgeable buyers. It seems like you need to be more of a curator than salesman.
For sure, there has always been a lot more to running a truly great independent record store than salesmanship, only now all of the effort going into curating, like writing record reviews, goes into online publishing instead of onto an index card taped to the record in the shop. Of course, running a website is a lot more work than taping an index card to a record, but then, there’s a lot more reward, as many more people read it.

That said, halcyonline.com is intended to be more than a website mirroring a retail operation online. Of course the shop itself feeds a lot of content into the site – the release lists, charts, the podcasts recorded there, the products we review, etc., but going back to halcyon’s further reaching mission, we also add original editorial, news, events and informed criticism, all written from a uniquely NY and American vantage point that I believe is missing in the underground electronic music media landscape.

halcyon offers that intimate vibe without asking the DJ to compromise their performance makes it unique and a favorite place for many touring DJs to play when they come through NYC. What exciting things can we expect from halcyon in the near future?
With electronic music on the rise in the US once again, we’re moving rather aggressively to rebuild the scene. Things in NYC are cooking and other US cities are coming up fast. LA has a truly forward leaning scene, Miami has developed it’s own solid underground, and promoters in other cities are working hard on building audiences for the touring artists from abroad who now, after years of disregarding the US, are quite keen to play here because Europe is saturated and this is where the growth potential lies.

It’s really a very exciting time in the States, so halcyon, as usual, is getting involved and helping to make it happen wherever we can. We’re strengthening our network across America and around the world, reaching out to labels, promoters, booking agents, festivals, etc. to join the dots and stand up a renewed infrastructure to support the scene. Some of the specific initiatives we are taking include expanding our purchasing sources internationally so that we can better supply the shop and make sure limited release records that otherwise would not enter the US are at least being stocked at one place in North America.

This has really helped us wean US customers off the absurd practice of mail ordering all their records from Europe. Really, there should be no reason a record is pressed in the US, distributed overseas and then purchased by someone over here who must pay to ship it right back – that kind of thing is a function of the deterioration of the US businesses behind the music and it’s a trend we intend to reverse. Moving in the other direction, we are also now providing some limited distribution services for US labels and even some European ones who are having trouble entering the US market. halcyonline.com is constantly developing new functionality, improving design and performance while expanding content. Soon we’ll be opening up event listings for other cities, online ticketing, a blog section, some social networking features and more. There’s really quite a bit going on behind the scenes here and we’re quite excited to roll this stuff out.

Brooklyn record store halcyonLook in to your crystal ball, what is the future of record stores in the US, vintage nostalgia setting or an entirely new entity. What does that entity look like to you?
For sure there will be some shops that get by on selling just used records and they’ll have a more vintage vibe to them, but for shops looking to keep up with the new music out there in any scene (a far more expensive and risky operation), electronic dance music or otherwise, I believe the future lies in building 360 degree brands with diversified revenue streams. Record sales, even as vinyl sales are going up, are simply not enough to pay the bills, and certainly not enough to support all the other activities a shop may get into as it engages with the community, so to succeed and be a vital part of the scene, a shop needs to be more of a resource and service provider, not simply just a retailer.

Tell us about where an out of town visitor can find your shop when visiting New York.
That’s easy… 57 Pearl Street, on the corner of Pearl and Water Streets in Dumbo, Brooklyn. We are right on the corner of what is now a lovely plaza at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge (it used to be parking spaces where people dumped old mattresses, but like I said, socio-economic changes… ) For out of towners, Dumbo is a great place to walk around for an afternoon. The best way to get here is to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, otherwise take the F train to York St or the A/C to High St.

Halcyon Top 10 Selling
Albums/Compilations/CDs All Time

Danger Mouse 'The Grey Album'
'The Rub Presents: It's The Motherfucking Remix'
DJ Spinna & Bobbito 'The Wonder of Stevie (Harmless)
Nas 'Illmatic' (Columbia)
Sandwell District 'Feed Forward' (Sandwell District)
'Body & Soul Vol. 1' (Wave)
'Harry The Bastard Presents Club H Vol. 1' (Statra)
Black Jazz Consortium 'Structure' (Soul People Music)
Arthur Russell 'Calling Out Of Context' (Rough Trade)
DJ Qu 'Gymnastics' (Strength Music)
Halcyon Top 15 Selling
12" All Time

Ame 'Rej EP' (Innervisions)
Moodymann 'Shades of Jae' (KDJ)
Metro Area 'Metro Area 4' (Environ)
Matthew Jonson 'Decompression' (m_nus)
Sunset People 'Mifune' (Get Physical)
Isolée 'Beau Mot Plage' (Classic)
Levon Vincent 'Six Figures' (Novel Sound)
Theo Parrish 'Falling Up' (Third Ear)
Black light smoke 'Lovework / Decisions featuring Suavecito' (Scissor and Thread)
Adultnapper 'Maxwell's Demon' (Ransom Note)
Phonique feat. Die Elfen 'The Red Dress' (Dessous)
Lindstrom 'I Feel Space' (Feedelity)
John Tejada 'Sweat On the Walls' (Poker Flat)
Masters At Work featuring Roy Ayers 'Out Time Is Coming (Jazzanova Remix)' (MAW)
SiSe 'Cuando' (Giant Step Records)
halcyon Online
Web Site Web Site Facebook Twitter YouTube
Address: 57 Pearl St.
DUMBO, Brooklyn | NYC
Phone: 718.260.9299

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