Talking with Uptown Records

Uptown Records is a new vinyl store located in Shanghai.

Several weeks ago I tagged along with Alpine Decline on their trip down to Shanghai, where they would be playing a show at Uptown Records – a new vinyl store that I’d been hearing about for months. What I found was not only a lovingly laid-out store with a good selection of used records, but an active community working to connect music, art, fashion and of course vinyl. I sat down with the owner Sacco to discuss the space, future projects and what it’s like peddling trash from Japan.

Vinyl is still pretty rare in China, how did you decide to start a vinyl record store?

Coming from San Francisco I was pretty active in a number of things, mainly Pirate Radio and when I left to move here in 2008 I was also doing a magazine. After two years of being in China I just wasn’t doing anything at all and then I came across an article my friend Abe Deyo wrote on a wholesale market here in Shanghai that has vinyl mainly imported from Japan. I eventually got around to going and from that I saw potential. The store was just basically a warehouse space and the records were not organized by genre; they were all in cardboard boxes so it wasn’t really a friendly format for people to go look for music. I saw a need for a place with a more organized selection of music. There is a guy here that had a CD store in YuYinTang and he also had a store in a practice space, 093, which was also just his Taobao selection but I knew that there was kind of a hole in the market.

The market that you went to contained secondhand and discarded vinyl—records that ended up there after being thrown away by other countries and selected from a warehouse in south China where it either gets melted down or resold. Can you tell us a bit about how and why that happens?

Yeah, I’m not really sure to be honest with you how they get exported. I know they get imported into China as rubbish. I know for a fact they are sent here to be recycled. As far as how they are given to China… well it’s mainly from Japan and Japan has about four major retailers. They go through and reduce their stock, and whether they’re giving it to China as rubbish, or selling it as some sort of material cost, or paying to have it removed, I have no idea—but I know for a fact it comes through a port near Guangzhou, and there is also a port near Shantou, and it gets sent straight to recycling factories. Most of it actually doesn’t get recycled; most of it gets sold to a few whole-sellers in China.

That secondhand vinyl makes up a good portion of what you have in your store here. I know you have some crazy stories about finding the warehouse and your subsequent trips down to Guangzhou to pick out vinyl. Can you tell us what it was like?

Yeah, after my friend Abe showed me the store here, I asked him if he could help me find the location of where it comes in through Guangzhou. So we worked out a deal where I think I paid for his hotel and some of his travel expenses and we spent a week just going through all the small markets, secondhand markets and CD / DVD stores down there. We must have went through at least thirty stores throughout the town and the surrounding area. Basically every store was the same—they would have a mixture of CDs and DVDs and a lot of stores would have a small vinyl selection which was just a couple boxes sitting on the bottom shelf . So we would ask the store, “Can you get more of these?” and usually they would say, “Well it will take a week or so.” Finally there was one tiny store in a mall near the main university that just had one wall of CDs and a couple record boxes. We asked the lady there, “Can you get more?” and she said, “Well I have some in the basement of the mall.” So Abe and I went to the basement of the mall and she had about 3,000 or so records down there, mostly 70s and 80s rock, and also classical and jazz. I probably bought about 200 or so records off her. Then I told her that if she could take me to the place that they come from I would give her however much money she asked for. So the next morning Abe and I got up early and we took a long trip, maybe about two hours outside of Guangzhou into the countryside. Out there it is pretty much all recycling factories and fish farms and various types of industrial areas. That was one of the main three warehouses that the vinyl gets shipped to initially. So that’s how I found it.

I guess what you found was kind of like a goldmine or a trash heap depending on how you look at it. When you go down there, you spend a good amount of time just sorting through records…

I spent the better part of a year or so going down there to buy records, and most of my store here in Shanghai is the best of the rubbish. Some good stuff does get through and you can find it but mostly it’s a lot of Paula Abdul and Bobby Brown and early 90’s hip-hop and R&B, as well as electronic records—stuff that just doesn’t have a market value anymore in Japan. I don’t know why Paula Abdul doesn’t have a market value anymore in Japan [laughs]. I would say out of every 10,000 records I go through, I buy maybe two or three hundred, so it takes a lot of just getting up in the morning and spending eight or so hours a day in the warehouse going through records. They are usually mixed with various formats, so I try to be as on top of my game as possible for electronic, hip-hop, rock. You have to be quick about it because you don’t have time to listen to every record or look it up. Sometimes you take some gambles and sometimes you get lucky and find stuff you know is good.

Then you bring them up to your record store which is in an old bomb shelter in Shanghai. This space is pretty big, and I know you were originally thinking of doing a bar among other things but had some problems with the building and the exits.

My Chinese partner and I had the idea to start this record store, something which has never really been done before in Shanghai. Since it’s a venture that has no standard and we have no idea if it can even be profitable, I knew that maybe the only way to make it feasible and to actually pay rent and pay for the utilities would be if we combined it with a bar format. My Chinese partner owns a bar in the neighborhood and we decided to convert a basement in an apartment building so that we could get a bigger area and have more room for the record store and also a bar area and a small room for live performances. We spent six months converting the basement, putting the floor in, putting in the wiring and the sound system. We built two bars in it and then the neighbors said, that’s enough you can’t have a bar here. They just blocked us from having a private entrance. We share an entrance that has to be used for the bike storage, and they close the bike storage around 11 p.m.

The past two days you’ve had in-store shows—Friday with Alpine Decline, Torturing Nurse and Stalin Gardens; yesterday with Rainbow Danger Club…

Yeah, that’s right.

You’ve got a pretty good set-up and had decent turnouts, but I know you still have some problems with sound complaints. Do you have any future plans for shows or activities in this space?

Like you said, this is the first weekend that we did shows. We have been open for about six months and have been letting the neighbors get used to us. We’ve had some bands practice here and a couple small events but nothing with substantial numbers. The weekend, I think, went pretty well. We got a good number of people in and had maybe one complaint by neighbors, but they didn’t call the police. So the plan is to go ahead, just on the weekends, and do small shows, But also since we have so much space, this Saturday we have a combined fashion-art-music event where we have a photo show and about 20 independent local designers bringing in their stuff to sell. We will also have two bands playing—one is called Next Year’s Love, which is a local Shanghai band, and there is supposed to be a Guangzhou band called Your Boyfriend Sucks, but one of their members got sick. It’s our goal to do more things related to music and art in the future.

I saw you already have good synergy going with some local creative businesses. You have some Idle Beats [a silkscreening design company] stuff up there and then Sophia’s store [a clothing store].

Yeah, so far in our big dungeon basement one corner is kind of a display space for a local design company that does all hand-screened printed posters. They draw the posters themselves and do all the screen exposures, and do limited numbers of runs. In another corner of the basement, there is a small vintage shop which is run by super Sophia, who is the booker from Yuyintang. We might also put in a secondhand bookstore or some sort of comic book store, but I’m not sure if that’s gonna fly. As far as other events that we have planned, every year on the third Saturday of April is International Record Store Day and so on April 21st we have an all-day event where there are bands playing and we have invited about thirteen independent Chinese record labels to come down and set up a table, sell some of their music and give out information about the label. Hopefully, since this is the first time it’s being celebrated on mainland China, that it’ll give some encouragement out there for people to start believing in record stores.

That’s really cool and there is a lot of cooperation that that I haven’t seen happen in China before. I know that before coming to China you were involved with a zine and pirate radio station in San Francisco. I’m curious about the community that you were involved in there and how that compares or differs from stuff happening in China now.

With the pirate radio in San Francisco we had around twenty different regular shows with people from all different musical backgrounds, from electronic to hip-hop to rock. They all came together with the pirate radio and were able to play benefit shows and create more of a community instead just separate scenes, which is the type of thing I would like to see here. I also think the record store has the potential to do something similar since we sell different genres of records and we’re obviously not looking for much of a profit—it’s not a profitable business. So with that model we would like to show people that even though you like drum and bass or if you like house music or if you like punk rock or if you like indie rock or if you like metal or whatever, that these small scenes in China have a lot of similarities and most of these people doing either small record labels or independent bands could benefit from sharing their knowledge and resources with the scenes.

Visit Uptown’s website for more information and upcoming events.