Internet didn’t kill the record-store clerk

Dal Basi

Photo By Larry Dalton

Dal Basi lives, eats, breathes and probably craps music, so it’s fitting that he’s the primary music buyer for R5 Records. He has quietly built up R5’s selection to impressive levels, including a well-rounded vinyl LP collection, all the while educating himself on everything from classical to Brazilian. I visited him in the back of the store recently, and he simultaneously fielded calls, met with a distributor and declaimed on things as varied as screamo and Air Supply.

What’s your job title?

Music buyer inventory manager.

How did you end up in this job?

I used to work at Tower corporate offices as a music buyer. So [owner] Russ [Solomon] knew me, and when he started this store, he asked me if I wanted to help him out, and I said yeah.

Have you always had jobs involving music?

When I was going to college, I got a job at the Tower Records in Stockton in ‘86-'87, and then I just worked with Tower for a long time. And then in ‘98, I went to work with [now defunct local music distributor] Valley Music, and I worked there for four or five years, and then I went back to Tower after Valley went away.

Did you have to learn on the job and was it what you expected?

To be a buyer you have to be a little bit nerdy. You have to look to the challenge—can I sell this? Is this something we need? Is this something people want? I’ve always approached it this way. I carry the music I like and I champion that, too, but I also try to make the mix in the store the most interesting, the biggest cross section I can. I try to bring in the cool catalog stuff as well as the mainstream stuff that people will want.

Do you have to buy types of music that you’re not into?

Yeah. When I first started working in a record store, I liked punk rock, hardcore, hard rock. That was the music that first got me into buying records. Over the years I’ve learned to really like world music, reggae, experimental, lots of jazz.

When you like music the way I do, there’s a linear learning path. You go from liking this hard, abrasive, really rebellious music, and then you start finding all this other stuff that is just as exciting—from power pop, psychedelic stuff, it leads you into world stuff, folk stuff. There are some genres that I have never grown to love, like Hawaiian music—that doesn’t do a lot for me. Or modern country. Mainstream ‘70s rock, a lot of it’s too pedestrian. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time in my life when I appreciate something like Air Supply.

As people grow up, you go from buying death-metal records to buying a Nick Drake record. That’s probably the most important part about this job. You have the community interaction, where you get to make people happy.

Is Sac a music town?

Yes. Sac has always been lucky that there was a store like Tower early on—a store that carried almost anything. Back then you were even luckier, because between the different Towers, they all had different stuff. Between [radio stations] KDVS, KZAP and then the touring bands that came because of Club Minimal, it seems to have a rich music history and it’s really open to music. I’m always surprised by what we sell.

What’s the future of the music industry?

CDs made music so disposable. You don’t get attached to them like you do a record. For the first time you can skip to the songs you like with no effort. You can download the songs you like to your computer. You don’t have to invest any time into listening to music. It’s turned almost all music into Muzak, and for a store, the hard thing is how do you keep a really knowledgeable staff? How do you keep prices low when people can go on the Internet and everything is at their fingertips?

But LP sales are up, right?

LP sales are definitely rising. The pressings are better. The labels put more time and effort into that. But what also goes with that is the prices are going up, too. From a fan’s standpoint, I wish they’d put more into the LPs, more 7 inches you get from buying the LP. Little things—posters, maybe the downloads—should be something different.

What music does your son listen to?

(Grimaces.) Hip-hop—Kanye West, Soulja Boy, Young Jeezy, Akon. But he surprises me. He likes Charles Mingus. He likes Dave Brubeck. He likes Gorillaz. He likes the Beatles. He likes Count Basie. When I try to force things on him, that’s when it backfires.