Austin Record Convention Returns May 17-19
Southwest of Austin, en route to Dripping Springs, there’s a nondescript office and garage that record buyers and sellers pilgrimage to in the never-ending hunt for some of the most coveted of rare records. The office-garage, filed with records, not cars, is ground zero headquarters of the Austin Record Convention, where father and son team Doug (pictured center) and Nathan Hanners (pictured right), along with longtime family friend Russell “Gus” Ochoa (pictured left), buy, sell, and organize vinyl records and memorabilia…then they buy, sell, organize again, and rinse and repeat, year 'round. Even when the Austin Record Convention is months away, regular customers from around the USA, as well as some international customers, make the trip to visit Doug Hanners, some selling entire collections, and others searching for their own vinyl version of the Holy Grail.
The TMO recently made the trip to discuss Doug Hanners’ passion-turned-career, producing the Austin Record Convention. Beginning in 1980, now approaching its 40th year in business, Doug Hanners’ labor of love has grown to be the largest record convention in the Americas, and the second largest record convention in the world.
TMO: What was the impetus for starting the Austin Record Convention?
Doug Hanners: "There had been one show in Houston, but...they tried to do it too big...and I said to myself, Austin would be a good place to do a record convention, so we decided to do it. Ed Ward, the writer, he gave us a great big plug in the newspaper. We did the first one at the Knights of Columbus Clubhouse in Zilker Park. It wasn’t that big, but we were jammed!
"There were so many people out there, and it was so popular, that we decided we might as well go bigger. Then we moved to Palmer Auditorium the very next year, in the basement. Then we got too big for the basement and we moved upstairs to the main floor. We were at Palmer in 1981, then well into the 1990s.
"After they built the new Palmer Events Center next door (to the old one), we moved over to the new location."
TMO: And is the Austin Record Convention back doing events twice a year?
Nathan Hanners: “Yes…but it depends on when Palmer Events Center is available. People that have had a date there for a long time get preference. Since we were gone from that location for a while. There are people ahead of us now.
"The Spring date we can usually get. That’s not a big deal. But the Fall date is always a challenge, because there are so many events going on in the Fall. So actually we're moving (the 2nd date) into the Winter…this year it’s in November."
TMO: That sounds perfect for customers thinking about holiday gifts.
Doug: "Yes, it’s a good date. A lot of it depends on what else is going on at the same time."
Nathan: "So far, the demand is pretty consistent. The better we get at PR, the more demand there seems to be with both customer attendance and vendors. This year we have more vendors that we’ve had in many years."
Doug: "This will be the biggest show we’ve had in 10 years, maybe longer."
Nathan: "I think that’s because new people are hearing about it, and showing up. We’ve gotten better at PR, and advertising on Facebook."
Doug: "Records are great, collecting is great, but you can’t take it with you. Someone is always gonna have to liquidate (record collections). That maybe a little bit of what’s driving it, people liquidating old family member’s record collections."
Nathan: "We do see young vendors too though…showing up with their own collections. So it’s a little of both."
Doug: "(Selling on) Ebay and Discogs is…involved. So lots of people would rather come and sell for cash."
Nathan: "And to trade.
"There’s been a lot of articles this time around. The Narcity article from Canada really brought us an astounding amount of traffic. Then KVUE, Austin360, and the TMO started bouncing it around. Maybe that demand was always lurking. Maybe records are getting more popular. It feels like, as word gets around, demand is going up. We also re-did the website last Winter. That probably helps too.
Doug: "With Austin being a 'music Mecca,' people love to come here to visit for the Record Convention. The biggest problem is finding them an affordable place to stay that’s not $200 a night."
Nathan: "The international shoppers seem to have money to spend on a nice hotel, but it’s the vendors who don’t. But, I’d note that even our local vendors (registered to sell at the Convention) are up in number this year. People wanting a table to sell records."
Doug: "...we have more international shoppers, but we do have some international vendors. Some from England and Germany..."
Nathan: "The challenge there is getting all the records here. It’s more common for them to show-up and buy, and take them back, than it is for them to bring records here to sell. But some do!
"And there’s some dealers who are international vendors, but they happen to live in America. So they go to Utrecht and these other shows.
Doug: "It would be Hell trying to ship 2,000 albums to Utrecht (to sell). Good Lord…
TMO: Is Utrecht Record Show in The Netherlands the only show that is larger?
Doug: "Yes…we're the biggest in the USA. But they’re the biggest in the world. The size of that place is like the Palmer Events Center times four.
"It’s great…the interest and demand for records is so big. It’s amazing."
TMO: Is that demand reflected in the price? Is the price of records going up too?
Doug: "Well, it depends. Some prices are going down. When they make 100K copies of something, there’s not any rarity to it. Even after 40 years, a lot of them are still around. You even see sealed copies of older stuff still. So some of the rarer ones, it is going up. The more common, lower level stuff is going down. It all depends on the music and the artist. Like someone like Blaze Foley, and some of the classic stuff…"
TMO: The BLAZE film probably increased demand for his records?
Doug: "And the Queen film really drove demand for their records."
Nathan: "Now that you’ve said that, it does seem like the ‘80s are coming back in all these different ways. So maybe that is driving demand for the records too: nostalgia, and everything old becoming new again."
Doug: "I buy year round, but there are a lot of records that just aren’t worth buying. Mantovani, or 101 Strings, or junk like that. Luckily we’ve got a guy in San Antonio, and he takes the (worthless) records down to Laredo, and they turn ‘em into ashtrays or something. But that’s really the bad stuff. I hate to throw anything away, so they do get recycled in one form or another. They get sent to Mexican flea markets, or melted down to ashtrays.
"It’s good, because you don’t want stuff to get thrown away."
TMO: How often do you meet with buyers?
Doug: "Once a month. I have half a dozen buyers that get in touch with me once a month. And sometimes there’s too many record collections for me to purchase (and sort through). And I’ll have to bring in someone from the West Coast - or Dallas – just to help take up the slack…and haul off the surplus. I’ve got too many as it is right now. I’m trying to figure out a way to thin out the ranks, and get some of these moved out to another home. It’s just too many for me to sell.
"Collectors want perfection. I recently got a bunch of sealed records from an old DJ in Detroit. Sealed records like that are what collectors really want.
"...45s, because there’s so many 45s, and there’s so much variety. It was cheaper to make them. They’re very popular. And they really do keep their value up. Especially with the picture sleeve on it. It makes everything pristine."
TMO: And buying and selling records is your full time gig?
Doug: "Since 1969, I’ve been buying selling records, or doing catalogs between shows. They were always 45 RPM catalogs because they were so much easier to ship. And the demand was so high. So that’s what I’ve always dealt with. And I’d sell 2/3rd of the records in one of the catalogs. It was all word of mouth. Collectors would tell other collectors. I really got lucky...
"And I figured out in the early ‘70s that jukebox sellers had to have back inventory. And many of them went back for many years, so they had old inventory. I found out that the state licensed jukeboxes. So I went and called the state licensing board, and because of the freedom of information act, they had to sell you a list of everybody that had ever had a jukebox license. And you could tell by the number on the license how old the sellers were. And so I went around the state and found a lot of the old records by going to them. And those guys were happy to get 50 cents or a buck. That was great for them.
"And then I met EJ Shelby (pictured second from left). He had all the rare rhythm and blues. He was in Waco, and Waco had a black strip. And he owned a couple of clubs. And so he had jukeboxes all over Waco in the African American locations. He had records that no one’s ever seen again. There must be more copies, but I’ve never heard of them...
"And I found other jukebox sellers too, in Houston and Dallas. But Shelby was by far the best because he had the right type of music. A sweetheart of a guy. Real nice to deal with. People had been calling him because they heard he had records. And he’d say, 'what will you pay me?' And they’d say, '10…20 cents apiece.'
"And he’d say, ‘get lost!’
"And when I came to him, he said, ‘what will you pay me?’
"And I said, ‘At least $1…’
"And he said, ‘Come on in…’ (laughs)
"And I walked in his garage and I tell you it was probably the most surreal experience…probably ever I’ve experienced…when I saw all the glow of all the silver top Chess Records, Red plastic Vee-Jay’s…I thought I’d died and gone to heaven."
Nathan: “The motherlode!"
Doug: “Where am I, I thought. It truly was the motherlode. It was great. There were probably 3 or 4 guys in Texas at his level of rarity and quantity of rhythm and blues…because R&B records have always been the most popular."
TMO: Why do you think that is?
Doug: "I think because the music is just there. People like that kind of music. And they made the best music. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, and all those guys made the best records and the best music. They were better musicians, better songwriters, and it was great. It was just a shame that there’s not more like them still around.
"I went around the whole state. And then we branched out and would try to find other jukebox licensing boards in other states, but it was just too hard because other states just weren’t as organized as Texas in keeping up with their jukebox businesses.
"I knocked on a lot of doors…and sometimes they’d say, 'oh, we threw those records away.' Other times I walked in and fainted.
"A lot of times one thing would lead to another. You’d go to radio stations, old stores, old jukebox places, old producers…
TMO: So Nathan…you’re going to keep the family business of the Austin Record Convention going?
Doug: "I’m retiring. I sell some records there, but that’s about it. Nathan’s doing all the hard work."
Nathan: "My plan is to take it over full time, and try to keep it going. I’m always a little nervous about changing anything about the show. Because Austin has a lot of other events, and you can easily become too much like an event that already exists…like SXSW (or other live music events)…
"So I slowly experiment with new ideas at the show to see if they fit the character of it. And then test ideas against people who have been coming for 30 years, and also against the people who its only their 3rd or 4th show.
"Like we started the 'text-to-search' system. We trying to find ways to improve the accuracy of it. Right now, it segments to dealers: for instance, if you’re looking for 45s, it will only go to dealers that sell 45s. And the same for 78s and LPs. And we’re actually going to go a little further, and isolate genres and eras, and see if that can make it more accurate.
"Because the challenge is you sign up for it, and you get a ton of updates. And eventually it can’t keep up with all of them. And if we target it better, we’ll get a higher success rate.
"It’s been really successful in that dealers say they are selling more stuff with it. And customers that come to the show for the first time...I think they are the primary audience, because they don’t know where to start (because the show is so massive). So they can text something obvious – like a Queen album, or whatever is popular that year – and then they can get to a table where a vendor has some Queen albums, and some other stuff like that. And it gets people’s momentum building. And so I’m trying to experiment with other stuff like that to make the experience better, without making it a different kind of show."
Doug: "Nathan’s improved the show 100% because of things like the “text-to-search”. And I think its future is pretty secure. They’ll always be records, and they’ll always be record collectors. And music fans. And Austin is the music Mecca. And that’s a lot of what drives the show…and drives people coming. They just like to come to Austin! I just wish it wasn’t so dang expensive to hang out...
"Maybe 60% of vendors are from out of town.
"And as far as attendees go – and early shoppers - we still have people from all over the place. Japan’s a big one. Europe. A guy from Dubai…"
TMO: Does the future of the show feel secure?
Nathan: "It feels really healthy. Especially in terms of the recent vinyl resurgence, and the demand for it seems to be increasing…between the vendors and the attendees and everything...
"As we’ve gotten better at publicizing it, that has helped. And I think people like to come to the show and take pictures and post them on Instagram. So it’s becomes an experience. And social media experiences are fun…and people want to participate for that reason alone."
Interview conducted by TMO Marketing & Communications Specialist, Marc Fort. The Austin Record Convention returns to Palmer Events Center in Austin on Friday, May 17 for early bird shopping. And then Saturday & Sunday, May 18-19 for regular shopping.