Today’s world is a virtual playground for music lovers. There’s no shortage of avenues to learn about breaking bands, download new songs or unearth a rare track. And there is little to no effort needed to find what you want or stumble upon the unexpected.
In the pre-web era, however, discovering new music was an adventure. A listener had to make a concerted effort to find it and, perhaps most importantly, take a chance.
“Back then, your sources were zines, friends or the record store guys. That’s all you had,” said Will Muir, Guestroom Records manager. “It would be a big deal if some artist you liked got a 100-word blurb in Rolling Stone.”
Independent record stores were crucial for exploring. And one of the most popular such stores in Oklahoma City was Rainbow Records.
Founded in 1975, it began as a small shop next to the Milk Bottle Grocery building on N. Classen Boulevard. Within the year, owner Taylor Truesdell and manager Lavon Pagan had moved Rainbow to its primary location at the northwest corner of N.W. 23rd and Classen.
The store would expand to several locations over the next decade, including shops at 7617 N. May and 2116 S.W. 74th. Employees like Michael Surber, Ross Shoemaker, Larry Hollis and Scott Booker became well-known to Rainbow customers.
“We were a rare and collectible record store,” Pagan said. “You needed to know virtually everything about prerecorded music on vinyl: all the different editions of records; what artists were on which labels; which ones mattered, which ones didn’t; first, second, third pressings ... there was a lot to know.”
The knowledgeable staff and relaxed atmosphere made Rainbow a local standout, Muir said.“Sound Warehouse was like a grocery store: Go down the aisles and get what you want,” he said. “Rainbow was more laid-back: Come in, hang out and maybe flipping through the racks, you’ll find something you didn’t know existed.”
In addition to music, Rainbow sold big, European subway posters and was a ticket outlet for local concerts. Jerry Church, who managed the N. May location in the early ’90s, said the stores were critical for local musicians.
“We always offered our windows and doors for posters and show flyers,” he said. “Our cash register counters were purposely built long and wide so we could feature flyers and show bills.”
Rainbow strove to be indispensable.
“Part of our job was to keep people abreast of what was going on,” Pagan said. “We would be selling them the records, and then the acts would be coming through.”
Some of those acts would stop by Rainbow before their OKC gigs, including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and The White Stripes’ Jack White. Local artists such as Garth Brooks and The Flaming Lips would frequent the place. In fact, Rainbow was where employee Booker got more acquainted with the Lips members and eventually became their longtime manager.
For frequent customers, Rainbow Records made a significant impact; the memories they hold are vivid.
remember buying a New Order Peel session, and I looked at the Love and
Rockets’ “Kundalini Express” 12-inch for at least a month — maybe two
months — and I bought it finally,” Muir said. “I can still feel that
record in my hand. It was silver and had that funky import wrapper, like
crappy, cheap, plastic shrink-wrap that was really loose.”
Pagan left in 1989 to start a record store in Dallas. A year later, Truesdell sold the Rainbow stores to Digital Connection Inc., which immediately sold the southside location. The corporation’s majority owner, Kim Shoemake, emphasized new items and beefing up the store’s stock.
Booker said the remaining two locations each took on a more particular focus largely based on employees’ expertise. The Classen store began emphasizing blues and jazz, while the May shop specialized more in indie rock, classic rock and imports.
“We knew our regulars and what they would like,” Booker said. “There were guys and gals that we would
save records for that they didn’t even know they wanted. We would keep
it under the counter and tell them, ‘You’ve got to get this Fugazi
record or this Feelies record.’”
Sometimes, the staff would discourage customers from buying certain records, according to Church.
“We were friendly, but we could be arrogant and obnoxious, too,” said Church, who became a music columnist for Oklahoma Gazette after his Rainbow run. “We had regulars that we treated like family — in fact, if we wanted to tell them they were buying a shit record, well, we had that relationship with them. It was very much like Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity.”
As a teenager without a driver’s license, T.J. Clark relied on his uncle to drive him from south OKC to the Classen location. He recognized the experience as being different from other record stores.
“Walking into Rainbow was like walking into a culture: the posters on the wall, flyers for local shows, the people that went there,” Clark said. “I knew it had a different vibe.”
In 2010, Clark was featured on National Public Radio’s All Songs Considered, in a segment titled “Tunes That Got You Through Your Teens.” He talked about how discovering and listening to the Lips’ 1992 album, Hit to Death in the Future Head, made him realize it was OK to be different, even in Oklahoma. He encountered and bought the album at Rainbow.
While some will proclaim the rise of the web and, specifically, file-trading sites like Napster as the beginning of the end for record stores — and the record industry as a whole — former Rainbow employees see things slightly differently.
For Booker, the downfall of independent record stores came with the arrival of big-box chains.
“Best Buy underpriced us and had deep catalogs,” he said. “They would have 40 Miles Davis titles, every Led Zeppelin record, every Beatles record, every Eagles album. And they were selling it for our cost or less. They just destroyed mom-and-pop record stores because we could not do that.”
By the mid ’90s, Pagan said, indie stores began feeling that pinch.
“As soon as the record labels got completely in bed with the big-box stores, that was the death knell,” he said. “Then it turned on the record labels because the big boxes suddenly had them in their grasp. Walmart was suddenly in a position to dictate to the labels what they would pay for their product.”
The digital age also co-opted another feature of indie record stores: customer recommendations. Websites such as Amazon began using algorithms to track purchases to suggest to buyers what to get next.
Now, customers didn’t even have to enter a record store to discover new music.
In 2004, Digital Connection Inc. sold Rainbow to Michael Stone, a Norman resident who moved the Classen store to 3709 N. Western, next to Cock O’ the Walk.
That final Rainbow incarnation ended in 2007, during a decade that saw the demise of thousands of such stores nationwide.
But the story of the independent record store isn’t over just yet. While still only accounting for a sliver of total album sales, vinyl purchases surged last year from 2.7 million units to 3.2 million units, an increase of 16 percent.
Music lovers repeatedly correlate their affection for record stores with the tactile experience of holding albums, checking out cover art and poring over liner notes — a ritual that cannot be duplicated by file names in an iTunes window.
“There’s so much music on the Internet that it’s almost overwhelming,” Clark said. “I have a 180-GB iPod. I can play any song at any moment, yet sometimes I don’t know what to listen to.”
Currently, metro indies like Guestroom, Size Records, Charlie’s Jazz-Rhythm & Blues Records and Trolley Stop Record Shop thrive because those who crave these physical and auditory experiences still exist.
For present-day stores like Guestroom, the relaxed atmosphere and musical discovery spirit of Rainbow Records is alive and well.
“We have places to sit and hang out. You have a flyer? Hang it up in the window,” Muir said. “We try to be a part of that music community and encourage the local scene as much as we can.”