Thinking outside of the big box

The Record Exchange's Mike Bunnell


When Michael Bunnell opened up the Record Exchange in 1977, the record industry was very different than it is today. "Vinyl was king," declared Bunnell, "and there was a thriving singles market."

But it wasn't just the formats that were different; it was also the business model for the record industry. "The big record labels were interested in artist development," said Bunnell. "When they signed an artist, they were looking down the road a few albums before they ever expected a return. They were thinking about developing careers." He cites Bruce Springsteen as an example. Springsteen released two albums before the success of Born to Run. Today, he would have been dropped after his first album. "[The record label] would have said, 'Next'," laughed Bunnell. The integrity of yesteryear's record industry was coupled with a diverse population of radio stations and record stores. Radio DJs rocked AOR (album-orientated) playlists and record store shelves were stocked with eclectic selections. Bands like Yes were played side by side with musicians like Elton John.

Since those days, the industry has taken a turn for the worse in a few ways. One, the major labels have consolidated into a handful of mega-corporations interested only in immediate bottom lines. Two, radio DJs have become an endangered species and have been, for the most part, replaced with corporate mouthpieces playing homogenized playlists. And three, independent record stores are often found only in Nick Hornby novels. Bunnell's Record Exchange is one of the few that hasn't gone the way of the eight-track tape.

Bunnell moved to McCall from Sacramento, California, in 1973. "Sacramento was starting to look like LA to me. I was ready to get out of there," Bunnell said. "I figured a radical change would be [living in] a teeny town in the mountains of Idaho." After some time working different restaurant jobs, Bunnell took a job at a logging company. While working one day, Bunnell fell 40 feet, crushing one of his legs. The accident left him immobilized for a few months, but also a little richer. "I was having a hard time making a living doing what I wanted to do," he said. "I decided to take the settlement money from my accident and start a used record store in Boise." Some of his own collection helped make up the modest inventory.

The first store was a hole in the wall on Orchard. After a few months at the strip-mall locale, Bunnell decided to move his store downtown. At the time, it was an even worse location to have a record store. "[Back then] it was a bombed out shell. They were going to put in a regional mall, so they started tearing things down. You could shoot cannonballs down the street. It was grim," Bunnell recalled.

After moving in, Bunnell focused on making the Record Exchange prosperous. While three other independent records stores in the area withered and died, the Record Exchange grew. "We did nine expansions before we took over the building we're in,"said Bunnell. "We never stuck our neck out too far. We had nice organic, conservative growth."

In today's industry, one of the biggest challenges facing record stores is choosing what product to sell. "The margins are slim," said Bunnell. "The product has become something that big box retailers basically give away in order to sell microwave ovens and washing machines. They use it as a loss leader. You have competitors that are selling your product for less than you can get it for. That's a tough business model. [For the big retailers] music has become more of a commodity than an art." Selling records is a tough racket for an independent business.

Further confounding the problem are the allegiances that the big labels and artists are forming with major corporations. For example, Garth Brooks made his catalogue available exclusively at Wal-Mart and Alanis Morissette started selling her disc at Starbucks. In light of this, the Record Exchange has found solace in working with independent labels such as Matador, Barsuk and Sub Pop.

Bunnell's face lit up when he started talking about the indie labels. "[The mystique of music] is not with the major labels anymore," said Bunnell. "The whole spirit of entrepreneurship and passion lies with the independent labels." The Record Exchange and other record stores that are part of Coalition of Independent Music Stores (of which Bunnell helped found) have also begun working directly with artists and managers to sell exclusive releases from artists like Bright Eyes or Death Cab for Cutie. "We say we want an X amount of pieces of their work. Then we pay them for it, and totally bypass the labels."

It's also Bunnell's diversification that has kept the Record Exchange at the forefront. The Edge coffee and gift shop, attached to the Record Exchange and run by Bunnell's wife, Jil Sevy, carries a plethora of pop provisions. "We opened the Edge in 1985. At the time, we were the first espresso parlor in Boise. As the coffee market grew, we started getting into lifestyle. In all this chaos, there is vision," Bunnell said.

Though Bunnell said that the Record Exchange has leveraged its success on its evolution as a pop culture marketplace, the foundation is really his passion for music. His store consistently hosts some great in-store live performances with artists like Ben Harper, The Smashing Pumpkins and, Bunnell's favorite in-store, The Melvins. "They showed up at 9 a.m. on a Sunday with these little amps," he said. "There were only about 20 of us here and [The Melvins] just rocked out. It was amazing."

In addition to hosting amazing live performances, Bunnell maintains an informed and helpful staff. "Our current group of employees is the best we've ever had," stated Bunnell. And unlike the characters in High Fidelity, the Record Exchange staff won't belittle you for asking about a Stevie Wonder song.