Terry Currier: Music Millennium

On a warm, starry October evening, Terry Currier stood backstage at The Aladdin Theater, calmly chatting with the 2013 inductees into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. As one of the OMHOF founders, he’s a perennial emcee for the event. The ease with which Terry interacts with some of Oregon’s most successful musical artists is no surprise to anyone familiar with his career. From humble beginnings as a clerk at a record store in the 1970s to owner of Portland’s beloved Music Millennium record store and owner of Burnside Records, Terry has cemented his place in Oregon’s music history. He was inducted into OMHOF in 2008.

Terry’s story is one of a dogged determination to continue pursuing his own passion for records, and bring that passion to a city equally anachronistic and nostalgic about its method of consuming music. Despite waning sales in an industry progressively more dominated by digital downloads and declining interest in brick and mortar record stores, Music Millennium has endured, expanding over the years into other locations and contracting back to its genesis, but always providing a place for true music fans to converge at the store, 3158 East Burnside.

Terry has presided over the Portland evolution from vinyl LPs, to cassettes, and ultimately CDs, forever reminding us that we were actually witnessing a devolving medium. The vast stacks of records at Music Millennium remind us of the heyday of emerging music culture that brought us quadraphonic analog recordings, and hi-fi sound systems capable of bringing out the nuances of those records. Music Millennium is a bastion of high-fidelity, restoring something completely lost in the age of digitally compressed MP3s.

A few weeks before the OMHOF induction, I caught up with Terry in his office above Music Millennium. I sat down with him in a small office amongst stacks of industry magazines, row upon row of CDs, and keepsake photos of Terry with some of the heavy hitters of the Oregon Music scene, as well as national acts who make the store a regular stop while on tour.

Most of your interviews already cover your inception, but I do want to reminisce a little bit. Can you begin by describing what it was like to work at Music Millennium in the 1980s? What was the music scene in Portland like then and what records were flying off the shelf at that time?

I came to Millennium in 1984. 1984 was a great time for music. There were so many exciting things going on in music because all rock didn’t sound the same. But this was also the beginning of MTV and video was big role in exposing music. A lot of things were being sold superficially because people were buying them based on MTV’s values—fast cars and scantily clad women. Record companies focused on making more products rather than getting good music. But some of the impact of MTV was good because many artists got exposed in a very good way through video. People like Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Pat Benetar and Cindy Lauper.

I told a friend of mine I was going to be interviewing you and she got all excited and said that it reminded her of wearing black and smoking cloves outside waiting for new releases of Duran Duran imports. What was it about imports and how did this culture evolve at Music Millennium?

A year or two after Music Millennium opened in 1969, the owner Don McCloud went to Europe and started setting up accounts and bringing in a lot of imports. He had records here that you couldn’t find anywhere else in town in many cases. Since the record industry didn’t have regulations, Europe could release the new Pink Floyd album weeks before it came out in the United States. Even more important, import vinyl was better than American. And different countries would have different versions of covers, plus other unreleased material. However, once the CD took over, there wasn’t anything different between the domestic and the import CD except for price. So the whole import culture really kind of fell to the wayside.

How have things changed in music retailing since then?

The retail side of record stores has been on the decline since digital downloading in the early part of the last decade. MP3s have the most inferior sound ever in the history of music. As a music fan of the 70s, we were on a quest for the best sounding music ever. When digital downloading came out though, it was like that whole mentality didn’t matter anymore since most consumers were getting the music for cheap or free. When you’re getting something for free, your mark of excellence goes down. We lost the whole youth culture with digital downloading, but in the last few years many of that youth culture has started discovering vinyl again. The kids are finally coming back into our stores, and that’s because of vinyl, which is usually the best sounding format.

Is vinyl just a local phenomenon?

It is a nation-wide phenomenon, but Portland is a phenomenon unto itself. There are more record stores in Portland than any other major city in the United States, including New York. In 1969, Music Millennium was the first independent record store. There was nobody stocking Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention records, or John Fahey records, art records, or experimental records, and all these different things that you couldn’t find at these other stores. Now there are 25 record stores in Portland, some vinyl only.

You seem very decisive about your career and giving up your music scholarship to pursue retailing. Was there a specific moment when you made that decision?

When I decided to go to a Leon Russell concert in 1972. Two weeks later, I was applying for a job in a record store; I had seen the light. I was still determined to go to college on a scholarship, but by January of my senior year, I decided, you know, I’m 17 years old; I’m assistant manager of a record store. It couldn’t get any better than that. I knew at that point that this is what I wanted to do.

Has the relationship between radio and retail changed?

In the 1970s, the disc jockeys could play whatever they wanted, and they’d talk about the music—promoting bands they liked, and often promoting record stores. But after the 1970s, investors started buying radio stations. They used to be very locally owned and operated, and a guy who started out as the janitor could work his way up to DJ, station manager, and eventually maybe owner. Now, corporations own most radio stations in the United States, and they program most stations into categories like “rock,” “country,” “top-40”—the formatting of music today is very cookie-cutter. Before the change, a radio station or a record store could break a band. The same thing with record stores. In the 1970s there were a number of records that were broken in the Northwest because record stores got behind the artists that they loved, and it really championed those artists. Now, stations just aren’t as connected to the music they’re playing.

What allows you to persist in an industry that has been all but left for dead by others? How can you balance or reconcile your love of music with the realities of a tough business climate?

Music is the one thing that drives me to go to work every day. I don’t want to be doing anything else. It’s been a struggle; we almost went out of business. But I’m a survivalist. I’ve had friends across the United States that have gone out of business in the last few years. But because of the return of vinyl, I’m optimistic. Having vinyl on the increase has returned some of my business. The beauty about vinyl is that it’s more of an experience.

To what extent has Music Millennium adapted and are there changes that you’re unwilling to make?

Oh, I’m sure there are changes that we’re unwilling to make, but we’ve changed a lot already to make it work. We’ve added more non-music items. But we’ll always be a record store first and foremost. And I want my customers to have the best music experience they possibly can. Variety is very important to me. There will always be someone who comes in and doesn’t want to hear Hank Thompson or Dave Brubeck on the overhead, and we can’t satisfy everybody’s comfortable environments. But we try to take care of them as best as we can.

How much does merchandise other than music factor in for revenue?

There’s always been non-music merchandise—in 1969 Music Millennium had the best incense selection in the city. And record stores have sold water beds, lava lamps, posters, black lights. It doesn’t help that big box retailers got into music, lowering the prices while the record companies started raising the cost prices. We’ve needed something to keep us profitable. But we keep it less than 10 percent of our business, because music is the most important thing to us.

You guys have always had great in-store performances. Why are those so important?

We pioneered the in-store performance in 1989. We were coming up on our twentieth anniversary, and I thought we should have twenty straight days of live music in the store. We created a stage and bought our own sound system. We hoped if we built it, it would encourage bands to come and play in the future. These days, we’re still doing 150 performances a year, which is more than any other record store in the United States.

How did the genesis of Oregon Music Hall of Fame come about and what impact does the Oregon Music Hall of Fame had on the Oregon Music scene?

In 2002, I finally agreed to start the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. After a few set up years, we finally had an induction and started up the ongoing Hall of Fame, and this year is our seventh annual induction ceremony. But I wanted us to do even more. Instead of just preserving the musical heritage of Oregon, I wanted to help the musical arts. We use most of the money we earn on music education. This past year, we had violinist Aaron Meyer perform at K-5 elementary schools, providing music education to over 8,000 kids. We gave four music scholarships to high school seniors going to college to further their music education. We’re having an impact out there.

What are your most valued albums? What are your favorite bands?

My favorite band of all time is The Kings. That never changes. After that, there’s Spirit, Mott the Hoople, and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. And Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention had a big impact on my life; they were doing things with music I never imagined possible.

What are your favorite venues in Portland to see live music?

I like the Aladdin Theater. The sound in there is always good. I was there last night seeing Billy Common, an old 70s fusion jazz guy. There’s not a bad seat in the house. But I go to all the clubs in town. You’ll see me at Dante’s, Mississippi Studios, The Satyricon. I’m also lucky because we do these 150 in-store performances in my store.

Who was the most interesting person you’ve met at an in store performance?

Most artists are regular people. They have regular lives, except they’re living out of a van sometimes. I have a friend, Michael Fennelly, who I actually met in the store, and I was a big fan of his music. It was very exciting to have an autograph signing at my store with a guy I have been a fan of and who I’ve been friends with for the last twenty years.

Music Millennium has remained a beloved Portland institution because it’s more than a music store. Why is it important to walk into a brick and mortar location rather than buy music online?

It’s more important today than ever before. If you know what you’re looking for, you can go online. But what about all the other stuff? Music Millennium is kind of like a community center. Record stores are a resource for information. A customer can come in to talk music, hear music, or just meet other musicians and music lovers in the area. It’s so much more about personal experience.

www.musicmillennium.com

About The Author: Justin Fields