When the Rough Trade record store housed in a 10,000 square foot warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, announced it was closing and relocating in January, few could have imagined its new home would be adjacent to the gleaming neon lights of NBC Studios and the towering marquee of Radio City Music Hall.
But starting June 1, commuters (should they return) and tourists exiting the subway at 49th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan will find stacks of vinyl behind the window of the latest Rough Trade record shop, at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
“Midtown certainly was not in the script,” said Stephen Godfroy, one of Rough Trade’s owners, in a video interview from his home in Oxford, England, last week. “That’s what makes it exciting for us — to champion emerging artists in a place where people wouldn’t expect it.”
Last Tuesday, tubs of Sheetrock, power tools and a small dumpster still filled the 2,100-square-foot space — a former shoe store just under a quarter of the size of Rough Trade’s old Williamsburg location — that will soon house some 10,000 new vinyl records. The windows facing out onto Avenue of the Americas were covered in messaging from its new landlords, the real estate giant Tishman Speyer, advertising an app called Zo, which a representative from the company described as its “tenant amenities platform.”
Rockefeller Center may seem a curious spot for Rough Trade, a shop born of mid-1970s London counterculture that spun out into a record label of the same name in 1978. But the Rough Trade stores of 2021 are by now a long way removed from their scrappy beginnings, having split from the label in 1982.
“Not being obvious bedfellows, we had to look at the details,” said Godfroy, who has been with Rough Trade since 2003. That included the specifics of the location, sandwiched right at street level between the subway station and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
As with their other four shops, all in the United Kingdom, the new Rough Trade will continue to host live events, but its partner will no longer be the concert promoter the Bowery Presents. Instead, Rough Trade will be part of the programming at Rockefeller Center, and its Midtown gigs will be held on the building’s 65th floor in the ritzy Rainbow Room, and at surrounding spaces such as the plaza and, in summertime, the ice skating rink.
Godfroy said Rough Trade had been considering a move across the East River since the summer of 2019, to better access the ever-growing number of people who want to buy new releases and reissued favorites on wax. Weekday foot traffic was never great in Williamsburg. (Not that Midtown is doing much better at the moment.) And though Rough Trade had maintained its sales numbers online through 2020, the move was “really precipitated by the pandemic,” Godfroy said, which put the necessity of keeping busy every day “into sharp relief.”
While Midtown is mostly synonymous with office towers and Broadway theaters, it also has a rich and varied history of record stores — like the former album- and sheet-music emporium Colony Records in the Brill Building, the eclectic D.J. hub Rock and Soul near Penn Station and chains such as Disc-O-Mat. The hostile nature of Manhattan real estate has contributed to many shuttering this past decade.
Tishman Speyer and Rough Trade declined to comment on the specifics of Rough Trade’s lease. (Its Brooklyn spot, which it occupied for seven years, is currently available to rent for about $50,000 a month.) But Ben Van Leeuwen, an owner of the store’s soon-to-be neighbor at 30 Rock, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, said his business received a generous deal even before the pandemic, allowing it to open there in 2019 at a lower risk.
“Tishman makes a lot of their money off the office space above,” said Van Leeuwen, which creates flexibility for the ground-level stores. “I imagine there are a lot of bigger brands that would have taken that space in a heartbeat and paid a lot more than we’re paying,” he said, but added that it was his understanding that the real estate company wanted to have storefronts that were “local and more artisanal.”
Godfroy said the store’s significant downsize in square footage, coupled with its status as a tourist destination, will mean that “the cost-benefit analysis is pretty much the same.” To bolster its smaller size, the shop will use mechanical Vestaboard displays to share real-time gig ticket info, sales charts and music news — “They make that chk-chk-chk sound that you get sometimes in airports and train stations,” Godfroy said — and it will also hold records at a new online fulfillment center in Greenpoint.
30 Rock was first called the RCA Building when it opened in 1933, and some lost New York City music lore lingers in the neighborhood. In the 1970s, the engineer Don Hünerberg rented a studio above Radio City — previously used by the NBC Symphony Orchestra — and the first Blondie and Ramones albums were tracked there. The avant-garde fixtures John Zorn and Glenn Branca also worked there, as did Sonic Youth for its 1982 debut EP. “The Rockettes would rehearse down the hall which always gave the place a certain ‘kick,’” Thurston Moore, a singer and guitarist for Sonic Youth, recalled in an email.
More recently, the arts space National Sawdust presented an “immersive, site-specific choral and movement piece” called “The Gauntlet” at Rockefeller Center in 2019. The internet station NTS Radio hosted live broadcasts there that year; it also programs, with complete creative control, the background music played inside the buildings.
Back in Brooklyn, the borough’s biggest record store is now Academy Records, which is currently located in Greenpoint. Its owner, Mike Davis, said that Rough Trade’s departure from the neighborhood had so far not impacted his sales numbers. “We’re both ostensibly record stores, but we’re sort of in a different business,” he said, noting Rough Trade’s emphasis on new releases and his own store’s focus on used vinyl. “They’re kind of catering to a slightly different market.”
Josh Madell, a former co-owner of the beloved, now-closed East Village shop Other Music and the current head of artist and label strategy at Secretly Distribution, proposed that this could be “a branding move” for Rough Trade, who might be looking “to drive music fans to their web store as much as to their new brick and mortar shop.” (That’s not dissimilar to what happened when Sub Pop opened its Sea-Tac Airport store in 2014, according to the retail director there.)
Madell sees Rough Trade’s move as a positive one for the independent music industry, even as he finds it hard to imagine local record heads traveling to 30 Rock to flip through the stacks. “I don’t think that’s who they’re trying to attract,” Madell said, noting that he had only been to Rockefeller Center in the past decade to visit the Lego store with his daughter. “They’re reaching a different audience.”
“Vinyl’s not really an underground medium anymore,” he added.
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