Ian Fraser Interview
by Matthew J (@IamJamesMatthew)
There is no denying it; the retail music business has been in a serious decline. Big retail chains such as SAM THE RECORD MAN and CD Plus have been closing up shops cross-country and in similar fashion; many independently-owned record stores are closing their doors, as well. What is causing all this? The popular business notion is that downloadable music -by way of the internet- has taken money from the stores leaving them with no choice but to close their doors. In other words, we cannot compete with the internet so let’s just quit without putting up a fight.
Enter Ian Fraser, the owner and operator of OBSOLETE RECORDS, who rather than following the so-called “popular notion” is going against the grain and providing his loyal and still growing customer base with the hard-to-find; sought-after physical records which the other stores aren’t carrying.
I sat down with Ian to talk about the current retail business, downloading music vs. owning physical recordings debate, his personal playlist, and more. Hard work is not a new concept and although he is not a fan of Curtis Jackson’s music, Ian does embody the hustler’s ambition: be your own boss, provide people with great music, and get paid while doing it.
We’ll start this off by having you introduce yourself to everybody reading this. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your story?
I’m Ian Fraser, the owner of Obsolete Records. We are located at 2454 Agricola Street in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. I’m born and raised in Halifax and I love this city and that it embodies; including its many flaws.
How did you get your start in the music retail business?
I loved a lot of different music at an early age, my parents encouraged this love of music by purchasing cassettes that I wanted for various birthdays and Christmas’s my Dad bought me “The Real Thing” by Faith No More and “Appetite For Destruction” by Guns N Roses when I was nine; my Mom bought me Onyx’s “Bacdafucup” and N.W.A.’s “Niggaz4life” when I was 14 I got my first job at a record store when I was 19 and have worked at two other stores before deciding to open my own.
So at nine years of age, you got Guns N Roses album and then at 14 you got NWA? Did your parents actually listen to any of that with you? Did they care about the lyrics?
For the rock music, my Dad would sit down with me and listen to Guns N Roses and Nirvana together, but for the hip hop stuff, it was all me. They were like, “No, we don’t really care. You are smart enough to make your own decisions. It’s just bad words”. My parents were pretty progressive when it came to stuff like that.
Wow! I would say your parents were very progressive because I can’t think of too many parents who were that open to the music from our generation.
I remember when I was in my first or second year working in an used-record store and this lady came in with a couple CDs that were popular at that point (Eminem and Kid Rock current). We were going to buy them because they were popular at the time and I do not know why but she let me know that she took these from her son’s collection because they had PARENTAL ADVISORY tags and he was not allowed to have them. So I asked her, “Does he that you are bringing these in?”
She said, “No.”
And so I told her that I was not going to buy them because she stole from her son. She should have talked to him, about the music, rather than taking the albums because he is going to resent her for life.
Plus she’s getting the coin from the sale which she would probably keep [laughs].
Yeah, it –music- is all just words and parents should teach their children and allow them to form their own opinions.
Earlier you just mentioned working at a few record stores before finally starting your own. I want to know what motivated the opening of Obsolete Records and how were you able to make the transition from being an employee to now becoming the owner/operator of your own store?
On my tenth year working at CD Plus, the powers that be decided that the whole corporation wasn’t doing well enough to keep the doors open. Our store was still profitable but that weighed against the rest of the stores not doing well and it was not a battle we won. During the last couple of months closing up the old store I was plotting and scheming to open my own. I had made a lot of contacts over the last ten years and switching all the distributors over to dealing directly with me was a snap. I brought a lot of loyal customers with me as well, apparently (some) people trust my taste and judgment in music (god knows why).
[Note from Matthew: People trust you because you don't push Big Sean's music on them]
I can remember a time, not too long ago, when going to the record store and tracking down new music was a big deal- a ritual for most people. Now, in the age of downloadable music, the act of buying music has seemingly lost its mystique. Since you are both a music lover and owner of a record store owner I want to hear your perspective concerning the topic of ‘downloading mp3s vs. buying the physical album’. How important is the physical “hunt” for music versus downloading digital content? For you, what does it mean to hunt for an actual physical album?
People still love “the hunt”; they still love making a pilgrimage to a record store to find something rare or exciting. It’s just a lot less people do it now. Collectors will always be collectors, and just because they can download something doesn’t mean they also don’t want to own a physical copy of that something. I used to love “the hunt”, and I’ve spent an insane amount of time hunting down rare records for my collection but I am too concerned with my own store doing well so I’ve had to put my own collection on hold.
Continuing with the ‘downloadable album versus the physical album’ conversation; what are your feelings on this whole situation? Is the physical album still relevant today? Does one form of recorded technology mean more than the other?
As a collector, I need something physical. I like the idea of people and groups releasing their own music online because they just want listeners to have it. That’s the main reason I respect Odd Future so much, they just wanted to make music for themselves, and if people liked it cool, if not, no big deal. Having said all that, if they made physical copies of any/all of their albums, I would buy every one of them.
I’ll end the digital vs. physical music set of questions with this: As far as the music industry is concerned, technology has played a double-edged sword. On one hand, the internet has helped many independent artists get noticed and eventually sign to big labels. Then on the other hand, many big record label executives feel the internet (via Napster and torrent sites, for example) has crippled their business. Ironically enough, these executives now use online tools to scout new artists.
So how do you perceive the internet and its relationship to the music business? Has it done more harm than good? Are the labels out of touch?
The internet has made it so easy (maybe too easy?) to find out about new music, and that’s great … but there was something so exciting about lucking out and finding out about a band on your own. Maybe they were on a compilation you bought from a label you loved, or you were a member of a mailing list or singles club and got exposed to something because you had to buy something you wanted and it came with something you had never heard of before. Maybe your favourite artist recommended something that they have been listening to. With everything available with the click of a mouse it just takes some of the fun out of it. Music should be available to everyone, but it takes some of the excitement out of it. I think major labels are hurt by downloading, I think indie labels thrive off downloading. Big bands don’t need their exposure to come from people hearing their albums for free online; small bands can sell themselves and get known this way. Big labels are scrambling to figure out how to capitalize off free music on the internet, either by trying to shut it all down or by offering up ridiculous contracts to people who have already done their own marketing work (i.e. A$AP Rocky getting $3 million because he proved he already has a huge online following). It’s really like the Wild West out there.
Speaking of indie artists, for a second, you were part of an indie-band named, “Bloodsport” who had a successful run a few years back – you even posted videos on internet. You even released an EP but not much music has come out since. What’s the latest news on the band? What are the chances of you all releasing any new music?
Bloodsport is on an indefinite hiatus. We released one 7? a couple of years back and tour a bit in around Atlantic Canada but not much has come since, we all have full-time jobs that keep us away from making music. It was fun but it was just that, fun. Maybe one of these days there will be a reunion, but I kind of doubt it.
It’s obvious that you’re an avid consumer of music and I imagine your business puts you in a position where you have to stay up on the latest records. Earlier you mentioned people having trust in your taste of music and the selections you bring into the shop. Who are some of the artists/bands you currently listen to?
The main things I am currently ruining for myself are (in no particular order):
Odd Future (the odd future tape v2)
Let’s get back to the business side again. On behalf of people reading this post and potential customers outside of Nova Scotia; do you ship music across Canada and overseas? If so, how can people contact you?
I do ship anywhere and everywhere. People can contact me via:
With the closing of Sam the Record Man, Music World, and CD Plus stores in Halifax, there has been a small number of independent shops springing up in the city, filling the vacuum left by the previous big chains. Every shop has its own niche to separate it from the others, so apart from being more relevant, selection-wise, what differentiates Obsolete Records from the other shops?
I differentiate [Obsolete Records] from other shops by the way in which I place more of a focus on indie rock, hip-hop and electronic music. I focus more on obscurities from the last three decades than obscurities from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I’m walking a different route.
What’s the long term plan? Do you have any specific goals you want to accomplish with Obsolete Records in the next 3-5 years?
No goals per se, but I just want to be able to keep the doors open. The immediate goal is to order new stock and pay my rent – that will keep me happy. Making my debts disappear will be my long term goal, but for now I am just having fun doing what I love.
We’re now at the end of the interview and before we go I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with me this interview — much appreciated. Last question: Do you have any acknowledgments/shout outs??
Laura Roberts (Ian’s fiancée), for been there since the start the start and supporting me. I want to give the city of Halifax a shout out for supporting me and my business. I want to give Megan Cowie a shout-out for coming out to take these pictures and listen to our conversation today (laughing). I want to thank you [Matthew] for doing this interview. I look forward to seeing this online – I had fun.
Photography by Megan Cowie