Step into the headquarters of Needle Vinilos, an unassuming two-story building tucked on a corner in the tree-lined Providencia neighborhood, and you’ll find a space more akin to a artist’s loft than a record store. Downstairs is a lounge mainly used for hi-fi audio demos and in-house performances and upstairs, a storage space and office for administration of Needle’s two storefronts in the center of town. “We modeled it off of stores like Turntablelab in New York,” says Needle’s owner and founder, Francisco Martínez, in reference to the audio store and record shop in NYC’s East Village.
Like in many cities around the world, the popularity of vinyl records has grown in Santiago for the last several years. Shops like Needle, Sonar, Disquería Funtracks, are are a select few of the numerous vinyl dealers around the city. However, this surge in popularity does come with a price, or at least a price tag. New vinyl records in Chile can cost up to double as much as they do in the United States, due in combination to heavy import taxes and steep shipping costs.
Vicente Larrea, a Chilean graphic designer who worked on some of the nation’s most iconic album art in the 1960s and 1970s, says that music during that period was “completely within reach of everybody,” and calls today’s prices “incomparably exaggerated.”
Larrea began working in what was somewhat of a golden era for Chilean vinyl, the spirit of which is captured in a recently published book, Vinilo Chileno: 363 Caratulas. The book features 363 pages of cover art from a time when many of the active national labels, including DICAP, Peña de Los Parra, and Alerce were outlets for political protest music. These labels’ work was heavily censored, and their operations were often forcibly closed by the dictatorial regime beginning in 1973. In some cases, the masters of these labels’ catalogs were destroyed. While larger corporate labels like EMI Odeon and RCA Victor continued releasing albums throughout the 80s, the nation’s vinyl production tapered off, and most of these albums could only be recovered from private collections.
Until recently, the closest and only vinyl plant in South America was Polysom in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Now, the new Vinyl Brazil in São Paulo and Laser Disc in Buenos Aires, Argentina, both of which opened this year, are projected to more than quadruple the vinyl output of Latin America. Needle’s Francisco Martínez hopes to take advantage of this forthcoming production cycle by starting an independent label and small-scale distribution company on the heels of the company’s growth.
Currently, “the labels do all the work,” says Martinez, “because we have no presses, we have no distros (distributors), and the bands almost always pay to have their records pressed. It’s not the same chain that happens in other countries: band to label to distro to customer.” The benefits of new continental production options would be numerous: faster production times, cheaper manufacturing and shipping costs, and decreased sale prices for consumers.
Chile, and Latin America as a while, has a unique advantage in revitalizing its vinyl culture now that the global swell has equalized. Music lovers in Santiago are steady buyers of physical records, easily seen during the monthly Ferias de Vinilo at Centro Gabriel Mistral, which brings in 30 independent vinyl sellers and nearly 15,000 records for sale. Increased availability and affordability of vinyl could help to reinvigorate an independent music culture through a format formerly reserved for discerning collectors and—dare we say—hipsters itching for an alternative grab.
A vinyl growth in Chile would be more natural than contrived, since much of the infrastructure is already in place. Record shops, labels, and artists already have strong bonds that reinforce a small but tightly-knit independent music community. Collaborative events including in-store performances and release parties are a weekly norm in Santiago’s music community, and record stores’ longevity point to a sustained relationship between listeners and tastemakers.
Regarding the success of his own store, which has been active since 2009, Martínez says, “Our stores push hard to create a content and audience, rather than selling records as a simple transaction. In a lot of record stores, you can’t talk to people. When you enter a record store, and the people who tend to you have listened to and studied a lot of music, that’s culture too.”