INTERVIEW: Dan Matherson, Owner of Repo Records

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WRITTEN BY: Vince Barreras

Music is something most of us enjoy. It’s a universal means of communication that can break through language barriers, and cultures. In the age of the internet, finding new music from anywhere in the world is in the palm of our hands. Thanks to smart phones, and the various streaming services offered, it’s almost impossible not to have a multitude of different artists to listen to. In 2019, streaming made up about 80% of the revenue for the music industry at $4.3 billion, with over 100 million users using Spotify and 56 million using Apple Music.

Streaming music is a huge convenience for people so the fact the numbers continue to rise is no surprise, but what about music in physical formats? CDs are beginning to phase out as major stores are taking them off shelves, and sales are hitting historic lows over the last decade. A new champion of the physical media portion of the music industry has been resurrected, and that is Vinyl. If this trend continues, vinyl will eventually outsell CDs, which will be the first time this has happened since 1986. I recently met with Repo Records owner, Dan Matherson and talked about all thing’s music, vinyl, and how his store has operated for the greater part of two decades, whilst riding the ups and downs of the industry.

vinyl sales to 2018
Not pictured: 2019 vinyl sales at 18.8 million units

Dan is the owner of Repo Records located at 506 South Street in Philadelphia. Taking the stores name from the 1984 film, “Repo Man,” punk rock was largely influential to young Matherson when he opened his first Repo in 1986.  “When I started the store punk rock and new wave were big. There was one store in the city that had some artists, but not all. I was really into it, and most people didn’t even know what it was, so I was able to turn people onto bands like Sisters of Mercy, The Cure, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, and Television.” Dan talked about how he would go to different shows and try and expand his musical vocabulary. The 80s saw an array of different underground artists experimenting with different styles and also changing the way bands could sound. Due to these artists not having mainstream attention, this led a lot of people to miss out resulting in the continuation of bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bruce Springsteen, and Led Zeppelin. According to Matherson, people wanted more of an edge.

Most of the influential music scenes started in big metropolitan cities. Geographically, there aren’t as many people living in the suburbs or record stores in those areas. Dan grew up in Devon, PA, a suburb outside of Philadelphia. In a town where there wasn’t much local music or even a record store, Dan had to look elsewhere. “There was nothing there, nothing at all. Most of the stores were in malls, in chain stores.” This lack of musical diversity led Dan to New York, where he would travel in order to see what new releases were out. The music Dan was interested in was so underground and local to one city, it was hard to come across these artists in Philadelphia. In the late 70s and 80s New York was a hot bed for underground music, by way of the legendary club CBGB’s located in Manhattans, East Village. Dan mentioned an HBO show called, “The Deuce,” which depicts 1970s New York. It’s a historically accurate depiction of how violent- and crime ridden the city was back in those days. “It really portrayed how New York was, because where CBGBs was, you didn’t want to walk down through the Bowery in the day time let alone the night.” This provided listeners that “edge” Dan previously mentioned, especially with the Bad Brains or Black Flag, two bands that were instrumental to the early American Hardcore Punk movement of the 80s. Dan was along for the ride.

The main floor of Repo

This kind of music was so radically different than what was being played on the radio. When Dan was exposed to this, it had an impact on him that was the precursor to him starting Repo Records. Dan and I talked about his early record store experiences, traveling up to New York to see what there was to offer, and also the musical landscape during the early 80s. “Going to shows in the 80s, there’s a place called the East Side Club, and the Hot Club. I would see bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, X, Killing Joke, Public Image, and The Chameleons, and there would be like 100 people there. It was so hard to find out about music. The only way you could find stuff is through word of mouth, English magazines, or even local fanzines.” In order to be involved in finding out about new artists, you needed to network with other like-minded people. With this in mind, Dan began thinking about opening a record store in order to bring this culture and awareness to people who may not have heard these sounds before, and in 1986, Dan did just that.

The first Repo Records opened in Wayne, PA just about 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia. Located under a railroad track bridge, and down a back road, Dan describes the old store as a small brick building, an old electrical switching station with dirt cheap rent, that a regular driver couldn’t have drove by because it was so hidden. This location helped Dan establish a business model, and also learn the ins and outs of owning a record store. “I didn’t want to get in over my head, a lot of people start businesses with high rent and all of a sudden you’re behind the 8 ball.” Dan had a plan to open this business and get a feel for the industry. In the process, he created this store that left a lasting impact on the few that shopped there.

“That first original store I had was there for two years, that store is sort of a legend.” Much like how Dan and others found out about music during the 80s it was mainly through networking, and word of mouth. Much like the store and music at the time, word of mouth was the only way to hear about this hidden record store located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. This kind of talk amongst music listeners created this legend about the store and would attract people from all over and helped establish Repo as a prominent record store. “Word of mouth is the best advertising, people began to talk about the store, and we saw more people discover it.”

Wall of releases

While Dan was establishing his business, and having people come in and out of the store, he decided to eventually move to another location. “We were there for 2 and a half years and then we moved to Bryn Mawr right on the main strip and that’s when things started to boom.” The late 80s and early 90s saw a wave of different genres beginning to emerge into popularity amongst Dan’s audience, not to mention the rise of CD’s as a format that would captivate the music world. When the CD’s came out, they ushered in a new wave of music people haven’t heard before. Dan and I talked about the early 90s when the “Shoegaze” movement began. Dan mentioned artists like the Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, and My Bloody Valentine, which helped attract Dan’s crowd. These were only some of the artists from that period that drew a new attention to underground music, and most flocked to Dan’s Repo for the newest releases. “People told me they would drive 30-40 miles to the store in Bryn Mawr, it was crazy how busy it was and how many people would come.” Dan had a solid audience of people, most of whom knew about his place via word of mouth, and not advertising. “Where are you going to advertise? The crowd I was trying to reach, the local radio station like MMR and YSP, they were still playing Led Zeppelin, so that wouldn’t help advertise to my crowd.”

During the early 90s, Dan saw an increase in customers, as well as stores popping up around the area. He mentioned how one of the biggest things plaguing the music industry were stores selling a lot of bootlegs.“The record companies were at fault with this because they never lowered the prices of CDs, they got greedy. The FBI got involved and the record industries were concerned with these hurting sales.” Stores would sell bootlegs of big-name artists like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and The Beatles. Dan mentioned how the record industry was so worried about stores selling bootlegs they didn’t get to address the illegal downloads happening. This led to record stores going out of business. At this time, people moved away from buying physical albums because you could just get things for free. During this mid to late 90s period Dan noticed a downswing, which caused him to re-think his store location. In 1998, Repo moved to South Street, where they have been ever since.

Just recently, Repo celebrated the move to a bigger and new location, only about a block away from the original location, just up the street to 506 South Street. The move was due to them running out of space and needing more room. This new store allows them to stretch out displays and move things around. When Dan mentioned this move, it occurred to us that the South Street Repo, opened in 1998, has now been in South Street for more than 20 years. An accomplishment he attributes to knowing his audience and adjusting to the current market. “We’re selling more shirts and posters, stuff I said when we first opened, I would never do, but the market creates what you need to do. That’s how you stay in business you have to adjust to the times.” Repo sells an array of physical music mediums, as well as t-shirts. With the advent of the internet, Dan mentioned how difficult it is to stay in business since virtually anyone can sell merch, and/or stream music online. “If people come in and buy, and decide they want to start buying music again, which is happening a lot lately, they will be familiar with this place.” Dan mentioned how a lot of people in their 40s and 50s come into the store and decide they want to get back into buying music after previously selling their old albums.

T-shirt design for the store

One thing that has been helpful in the sale of records has been record store day. One day a year, artists announce either new releases or repressing of their albums for a huge day of celebrating music, and also independent record stores. The first record store day was in 2008 and has seen a growth every year. This past year was the biggest so far, with 827,000 records sold during the week of record store day. It’s also important to note that 673,000 of those were sold at independent record stores.“Record store day is huge. The record companies thought this was a fad because there was a production problem four or five years ago, all the plants closed. Now the major labels all have their own plants. This is not a fad.” Dan is right, record pressing plants are beginning to dust off their old machines and turn the lights on for the first time in decades. Sony reopened their old pressing plant in Japan, which closed back in 1989. Late in 2017, a plant opened in Virginia, capable of pressing 9 million records a year. More recently, a plant in Chicago opened, which is the cities first pressing plant in 20 years. This allows companies to keep music in the vinyl format in circulation. Some older records tend to go out of print and stay out of print for years. “Anything in the 90s Vinyl-wise it’s almost impossible to find original of because they were cutting production of vinyl for CD, if you do find one its hundreds of dollars.” Now since vinyl is becoming more of a popular commodity, things will begin to circulate so people can get their hands on a copy of those rarer releases. There are still a very passionate group of people who will track down original pressings of their favorite records. “It’s dangerous being a record collector because you have to search for a lot of the stuff, and you can’t find a lot of it and it’s expensive.”

For anyone who doesn’t know, South Street is a very busy section of Philadelphia. Whether it be restaurants, places to shop, murals to see: you can always find a ton of people wondering the streets. One of these places is a music venue that has been on South Street for decades. Repo Records is just down the street from the Theater of the Living Arts, which is a popular music venue. Because of this close proximity to Repo, I asked Dan if any musicians ever come into the store. “All the time I can’t tell you how many artists we have had come in here, I don’t even know where to begin.” Some of the names Dan dropped were Billy Corgan, of the Smashing Pumpkins, and Morrissey. Other musicians Dan mentioned were from different bands such as: B52s, Stone Sour, Echo and the Bunnymen, Jesus and Mary Chain, and Guided by Voices. “When they are in town they usually come here, most of those guys like to buy records, especially Billy Corgan, he was in here 5-6 years ago for hours. Morrissey was here years ago early in the morning and a customer went up to him and said something and he ran out the door.” I asked Dan about local artists coming in. “Kurt Vile shops in here all the time, the guys from The War on Drugs come in.” Both Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs are popular artists from Philadelphia, in fact, The War on Drugs just won the Grammy for “Best Rock Album.”  Repo also sells smaller, local artists records as well, and Dan is happy to make them available in the store. “We do consignment with them, we get hundreds of local artists. They put out their own record or CD and we sell them. We don’t take much from them when they sell, we just want to help them out, so they can get off the ground.”

In addition to Vinyl and CDs, Repo carries an impressive cassette selection

Over the years, Dan said the population of the store has changed quite a bit. “There are a lot of young people buying but it’s a nice mix, before you came in, I had an older guy come in and spend a lot on jazz records.” Back in the 90s the majority of the buyers were much younger, and now it has expanded to everyone. As we continued our conversation, we discussed how the population of Repo is about as diverse in age as possible. Before, in the 90s, Dan said the typical age of customers was roughly 20-30 years old, now it’s about 14-60. In 2020, we are seeing this format reach a wider audience of people from all generations. Millennials are digging up their parents’ old turntables, and older collectors have never stopped buying vinyl. With all this in mind, Dan makes sure to stress how you need a business sense in order to thrive in this industry. “Just because you like music doesn’t mean you can own a record store. It’s like watching Bar Rescue, just because you go to a bar and drink doesn’t mean you can own a bar. It’s a lot of work and you have to have some sort of business sense. It’s a tough business.” Having been in business for over 30 years, it is safe to say Dan has that business sense and more. He knows his audience and caters to things they would like. He has dedicated his life to holding onto this store that means so much to people past and present.

Dan Matherson provides a haven for music listeners in Philadelphia and has done so for 20 years. His unique taste in artists, most recently of dark wave/cold wave origins, and musical insight has kept people coming back for generations. As a music fanatic myself, I can’t begin to say how impactful Dan and his legacy have been to Philadelphia. At a time where record stores are few and far between, his is a beacon of hope. It’s impossible to walk into that store and not be in awe at what you are seeing. They have music for every kind of person in there, and it continues to grow each day. In a time where streaming platforms allow anyone to upload music, Dan sees his shop as an opportunity to help local artists from the area use his store as a platform for their art. This alone, shows how dedicated he is to local artists. Dan is what’s right with music, and hopefully people who have never been to Repo Records before use it as an opportunity to support one of the most important places Philadelphia has to offer.


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