Thursday, December 1, 2011

Selling Records the SLO Way: A Q&A with Mike White of Boo Boo Records

When I was just hitting junior high, I would tag along with my brother over the hill to San Luis Obispo to take a look through the musical selection at Boo Boo’s.  I would thumb though the racks of unfamiliar album titles and artists of all genres, sorting through each section to discover the most worthy candidates to purchase.  These days, the store pretty much looks the same architecturally, but I’ve noticed a gang of ghosts being resurrected in the back room of this mid-sized shop—bins brimming with old and new records.  After facing a dip in the retail sector, experiencing a shift in ownership, and receiving the title as one of the Top 30 record stores in America from Rolling Stone, Boo Boo Records and sole owner Mike White is truly setting the tone for what it means to be a successful local business and record store in an ever-expanding digital society these days.

When did Boo Boo Records first open?


And when did you get involved?

I came up here to go to Cal Poly in 1974, which happened to have been around the same time the record store opened in December of ’74.  I was up here in September to go to school, and I became a customer there for four years.  They went from having a little spot down by the train station, to Downtown.

I didn’t even know there was an original location before.

Do you know where Pete’s Southside CafĂ©, or where Lou’s is right now?  Basically over by the train station, but one street down.  They were there for four years, decided they needed a bigger place, and they came Downtown in 1978.  That’s when I started working for them.  I worked as a clerk and I was going to school.  They never had a manager—just owners and employees—so  I assumed that role after I graduated, and then became an owner in ’85.  I slowly worked my way to being by myself.

You became sole owner recently?

More than a year ago—June 1st of 2010.  There were two of us for the last three or four years.  One of the original owners still comes in twice a week and works on the vinyl as a paid consultant.

While we’re on the topic of vinyl, what are your current thoughts on the subject?

It’s enjoying a tremendous renaissance.  Each year has been better than the one before.  Five or six years back, record companies had finally come to their senses, and they started producing vinyl concurrently with new releases on CD.  I think it’s great.  The hard-core collectors never really went away.  They were always searching for their vinyl.  But it has brought in a younger crowd of high school and college age kids who are discovering their parent’s record collection and are digging how it’s such a cool thing.  It’s neat because it provides a frame of reference and a perspective for kids that age to understand where it originated.  To have lost that would have been tragic.  To have it come back now is glorious.

Digital has its place, but analog is also something that can’t be replaced.

And even if you’re not into the sound difference…like my kids, they can kind of get how a DVD or a CD works, but if you drop a needle onto a record and it starts making music, that’s like a magic trick.

Playing a record is a little like magic.

It’s amazing.  So, whatever level they are digging it on, it’s great.

Don’t you think the aesthetic of the art that comes along with the vinyl packaging is interesting too?

Yeah, and it was all shrunk down and now it’s back to its original form.  There’s also some smart marketing going on where they are actually including the CD for free, or they put a digital download in there.  They are really embracing the whole spectrum.

It seems like more bands are pressing vinyl themselves.  Do you get albums from touring bands as they come through town?

We get a lot coming in and buying vinyl.  A lot that come through are already getting distributed, and they like to see it come through the channels of the distribution.  But a few bring their own stuff in for sure, especially local guys.
How is the San Luis Obispo music scene?  And do you have the Indie stuff occurring like in Orange County?

It’s pretty vibrant.  Some Roots, and Americana.  There’s several of those bands, one of them being Still Time.  There’s a ton of that stuff going on.

Do you get a lot of performers because of Cal Poly?

Yeah, the college has an influence.  A lot of local kids stay put too just playing their music.  Matter of fact, I just hired a kid a few months ago.  He’s in a band, and that’s what he wants to do.  He doesn’t care about making a ton of money, he just wants to make enough to get by, and have the classic bohemian lifestyle.  Every once in awhile one of them will punch through.

Like PK.  It’s great to see them succeeding and touring a bit.

You ever heard of M. Ward?

Oh yeah.

He used to work here.

I remember buying Transfiguration of Vincent O’Brien and one of the clerks told me M. Ward used to work at Boo Boo’s.

I hired Matt.  He worked here about a year and a half while he was going to school.  He was in this really cool band called Rodriguez.  The lead singer was a guy from Little Wing, Kyle Field, and Mike Funk was drumming, and M. Ward was playing guitar.

Were any of them born locally?

I think they were all transplants, but they were a local band in the sense that they were all living here at the time, but none of them had actually grown up here.

That’s what it’s all about.  The bands that really are successful move around and meet people.

And now he’s gotten so big.  He’s doing that thing with Zooey Deschanel.
What about working with the local venues?

We work with Downtown Brew, which has reverted back to SLO Brew.  That’s where most of the shows are held.  We sell a bunch of tickets.

You work directly with them then?

Absolutely.  We do all their ticket sales.

No Ticketmaster or Live Nation?

No, thank goodness.  We sell the Mid-State Fair tickets as well.  We’re one of about 30 outlets that does that.

The Mid-State Fair definitely gets a substantial about of successful musicians to play.

They have got a big budget.  They are real Country-heavy usually, but they generally have something for everybody.

It seems music has been shifting towards a more Folk and Americana style.

More Roots.

San Luis Obispo seems to be all about roots.  What are you excited about looking into 2012?

We’re excited about staying in business.  That’s what we’re excited about.  A lot of record stores have not faired so well.

What makes you guys different?

We’ve been here for 37 years, for one thing.  I think we have a lot of cache with the locals.  We do a lot of donating, so there has always been this handshake with the community.  It’s crucial.  But we’ve always provided a deep catalog.  It’s about having a good selection at a fair price, with good service.  If you keep those three things together, customers will be loyal to you.  What we’ve done lately, as the CD sales have shrunk, we offer more of a mixed product out on the floor.

I noticed more books, more apparel…

We’ve always kind of had a little bit of, but we’ve really gone after that and it’s paid off.  Plus more band-related paraphernalia, like guitar-shaped spatulas.  People love that stuff.  If it allows us to keep doing what we love to do—sell music—so I’m all for it.

Anything else you’re excited for?

Main thing I’m excited for is owning Boo Boo’s by myself now.  Consolidating ownership has allowed us to be more fiscally healthy, because we’re not splitting the pie.

A group of investors probably helped keep the shop open in tough times.

When there were partners, we all had our separate areas of expertise.  So we would bounce stuff off of each other.  Ultimately the decision was made though.  I’ve got great employees, and when all is said and done, that’s what it comes down to.  If you have shitty employees, then people will feel that.  If they are treated badly, then that also shines through.  So it’s important to take care of them.

So true.  In my youth, I always felt this was the place to go to find those hidden gems.  I wouldn’t walk through and necessarily hear pop music.

Pop has its place.  We cater to everybody.  We don’t want to be playing real obscure indie stuff all day either.  But you’re right.  You get a little flavor each time you come in, and we try to mix it up as much as we can.  We’re hanging in there.  We also have an online presence on, so we have an internet-wing of the business.  They’re usually working in the backroom here.

Online is definitely a good way to go as well.

You’re selling to the world, not just to the people who walk in your door.  Having the internet has been good and bad, but if you choose not to embrace it, then you’re just going to get left behind.  It’s an amazing thing.

Someone in Russia could purchase an album from you?

Oh yeah, we sell stuff in Japan, France—it’s fun to watch the orders come in.  They’re from all over.
I heard a few months back you were listed in the Top 30 Record Stores according to Rolling Stone?

Isn’t that amazing?  We’ve definitely seen a rise in business.  It was kind of a perfect storm because—are you familiar with Record Store Day?


Record Store Day was a Saturday, and on Friday, the local camera crew from KSBY came in and says, ‘Hey, you’ve been selected.’  I knew we had gotten a phone call from Rolling Stone in regards to being considered.  So on Friday I’m doing this piece with KSBY for the 6pm and 11pm news, and in it I was telling them about coming out to Record Store Day.  I got so many people coming into the store the next day that were aware of the Rolling Stone thing.  The day was a success, and we had thousands throughout the day.  It was phenomenal.  But to have that notoriety was huge.  Little towns kind of fly under the radar when it comes to national stuff.  Apparently a Cal Poly graduate was on the board and mentioned us.  She got the word in for us.

You never know when a good word from a customer just might help out.

That was great.  You can’t buy that kind of advertising.

Well it always felt like this place had personality.

As far as having an intimate feel, and 37 years of funk—we’re proud of it.  Glad we’re still doing it.

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