Backside Records in Burbank is still a record store, but just barely. You definitely wouldn't know it walking in — as rows of urban streetwear now torch your senses with a kaleidoscope of gaudy colors.
"Sale margins on vinyl are not the same as apparel," says the store's apparel buyer and partner, Eric Flores, who saw Backside almost go under back in 2009, when physical music sales couldn't pay the rent near Burbank's Media Center (the city's uncool version of Melrose). "Apparel seemed like the natural transition for us."
The evolution of Backside Records from local record store to Melrose-style boutique began in the mid-2000s, when most of America began downloading MP3s instead of buying CDs and vinyl. DJs began spinning with a mouse on Serato, and suddenly, Backside lost their most loyal consumer: the hip-hop DJ.
Unlike Atomic Records, which is located in the more artsy part of Burbank on West Magnolia Boulevard (closer to North Hollywood), Backside has always relied on local DJs and kids from Burbank High to pay the rent. Atomic is still a record store, probably the best in the greater L.A. region, while Backside seems to be moving beyond physical music sales into the more robust apparel market.
And who can blame them? Backside suffers from having a large retail space on North San Fernando Boulevard, in a neighborhood that attracts teenagers looking for the latest threads. Today, brands like Odd Future, Supremacy, Obey, and Radyo have replaced the CDs and old school hip-hop singles that once made Backside the spot for aspiring DJs.
To Backside's credit, they've survived by retooling for Burbank's teenage consumer. They stayed open for business while Penny Lane, Wherehouse Music and Sam Goody all turned into beauty salons and jewelry stores. The roof even caved in on the nearby Virgin Megastore, literally, when a night of heavy rain in 2005 brought the ceiling down during a slow afternoon. Nobody was injured because nobody was shopping.
As someone who spent most of his childhood hanging out in Burbank, I don't blame Backside for changing their business model. Instead, I blame Burbank itself. I blame the DJs and kids from Burbank High that gave up on the place.
"Around 2009, things got really bad," Flores told me. "As Serato came out, the singles we used to carry went out the window."
He has a point, but what he won't say is the stinging truth: Burbank breeds a soulless culture of consumerism that would never allow a Backside Records to flourish like Origami in Echo Park, or Vacation Vinyl in Silver Lake.
Unlike gentrified communities like Echo Park and Silver Lake, Burbank has long been an upper-middle-class suburb that serves as home to the Los Angeles Republican Party. The idea of a "local business" in Burbank is Porto's, which feeds the film and animation studios that still own the town. The city's version of a "residency" is a weekly '80s cover band at the Burbank Bar and Grill. This is, after all, the city that turned Tim Burton into a depressed weirdo.
Backside Records, which at one time was the city's hip-hop clubhouse, where former clerk George "Jojo" Baghdasarian (now a manager) would chew the fat with kids on the genius of a Ras Kass verse, is now turning into Active. This was the spot where the Wu-Tang collective would hold in-stores. Tha Dogg Pound and Tha Alkaholiks played shows at Backside Records; WC infamously stole someone's purse following a signing; and, according to Flores, it's where locals like Linkin Park and System of a Down got their start.
Why am I so hard on Burbank? Because while almost every other record store in L.A. is thriving as result of a resurgence in vinyl sales, Backside Records is regressing into an encapsulation of Burbank's empty-headed youth culture. Sure, Backside still sells a few new records — they even a host a weekly Soul Assassins hip-hop radio show, which draws artists like Def Jam's freshest star, Logic, into the store. But the records take a backseat to faux-leather ball caps and bling.
"We want to maintain our musical roots," says Flores. "We don't want to become like Zumiez in the mall."
If you come to Backside often enough, you might eventually run into the likes of Xzibit, Schoolboy Q and DJ Muggs. The Soul Assassins radio show gives the shop a 106 & Park vibe, and while that's appealing on some level, it's mostly designed to attract teenagers to buy apparel, not music.
To be fair, Burbank can't take all of the blame. Backside's Echo Park offshoot closed in 2011, less than year after opening, so maybe the whole idea of an old school hip-hop record store is passé.
But even with the neighboring Urban Outfitters drawing more kids to Backside to buy vinyl, there's no sign of change. They now have a second floor dedicated to selling sneakers, while the basement (where DJs used to spin) is now storage.
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"We're content in the balance that we have," say Flores, who should be credited for helping keep Backside in business in a place like Burbank, which desperately needs some entrepreneurial hipsters, like, now.