Zero in on Vinyl at MadCity Music Exchange

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Sturgill Simpson soothes with his new-age lyrics over a classic country sound as shoppers tab through an organized, yet seemingly endless collection of vinyl records. I study the walls, posters, stickers, and sea of music that stretches across the interior of MadCity Music Exchange. Madison is home to many treasures, and this local music store is a glimmering one. Owner Dave Zero stands at the counter, his hands filled with records. I wonder how and why his path brought him to Madison. His relaxed reasoning mimics the atmosphere, “It’s my home.”

Dave began working for MadCity Music Exchange as a part-time employee. The Sun Prairie native moved to Madison when he was 17 years old. Instead of attending high school, Dave preferred walking State Street with his friends. While his friends entered Flying Fish Boardsports, Dave entered the record store next door. “I always wanted to work here. I was a music person. I needed to be surrounded by it.”

Photo by Eric Tadsen

MadCity opened on Regent Street in 1980. Prior to Dave Zero, Dave Benton was the owner. He bought MadCity in 1986 and relocated it to 600 Williamson Street in 1989. Dave Benton played in bands throughout his ownership, particularly Spooner, which became the Grammy-nominated alternative rock band Garbage. “From what I know of Dave [Benton], he’s always been THE rock music guy,” Dave Zero says. “An intelligent and ahead-of-the-curve music fan who was always humble and sharing with his knowledge. It makes sense a guy that devoted to the music would buy a record store and pursue a music career seriously.”

When Dave Benton decided to sell, Dave Zero was given first chance at ownership. With help from family and friends, he purchased MadCity Music Exchange in December 2007.

Since then, the store continues to sell similar types of merchandise, but how it is sold is different. Dave explains the old sales model for record stores is ordering a 30-count box of new release CDs and selling a dollar over cost, hoping people purchase other records with it. “That model doesn’t really exist anymore. We have more diversity in our selection. We are buying less of a particular artist, but more artists. Knowing who is coming into the store for what is the trick.”

Dave saw the demand for vinyl increase in 2005. “MadCity is different because the store never stopped carrying vinyl. We always had new releases, used vinyl, seven inches—that’s just what we did.” Why the increased interest? “That’s something 10 different people will give you 10 different answers on,” Dave says laughing.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Dave’s relationship with vinyl began in high school. Searching for music while on a budget, he found albums from Elvis Costello and The Ramones for a dollar at Goodwill. After an $80 turntable investment, he saved on vinyl turned away by those replacing their collections with CDs. “The music was still there,” Dave justifies. “I learned by chance vinyl does sound better.”

The better sound is a result of being recorded on analog equipment, meaning no digital is involved in the recording or transferring process. Dave explains digital does not have the same frequency range as analog, so if the music is transferred to digital, some of the recorded sound is lost. “It sounds cliché, but there is a warmer sound to it if it’s done right. Now that vinyl is popular again there are a lot of people who don’t understand the process of it. The album still has to be recorded and transferred right.”

Dave says vinyl’s growth is a good reaction to downloading and streaming. With music becoming more accessible, consumers have nothing to show for their purchase but a confirmation code. “You don’t possess the art,” Dave says. “Downloading at its best is like a mixtape version of songs for someone. The quality is not great, but it’s a great copy of the music.”

However, Dave sees the positives behind streaming music. He sometimes streams songs as a way to sample or research an artist. When he hears an artist he likes, he will purchase the vinyl or CD. “The broader public will want to hear a few songs and call it a day,” Dave says. “That’s fine. We aren’t selling to them. We are selling to music fans who want to participate with it. They aren’t going to want it floating in a cloud somewhere.”

Photo by Eric Tadsen

When given enough time to dig through MadCity’s records, CDs, cassettes, used DVDs, and occasional music-based book, Dave assures you will be surprised. “This is not the cliché record store. People have the idea of the snooty clerk behind the register judging you on your purchase and still bring up High Fidelity . That movie is a tombstone for an era that doesn’t exist anymore.”

With his business located one block from Lake Monona and a few blocks east of the State Capitol, Dave gives credit to the area’s efforts to shop local first. “They think to try us first. We are ingrained in this part of town.”

MadCity gives back by donating to and supporting local festivals, neighborhood newsletters, food pantries, and sponsoring concerts for venues such as High Noon Saloon. As for the future of the store, Dave hopes to expand space by renovating, and credits his staff with giving him the time to plan the process. The staff even includes a few local musicians: Bobby Hussy of The Hussy, Vincent Presley of Zebras and Those Poor Bastards, Chris Lay, and Richard Skeat.

On his off days, you might find Dave removing stumps in the yard of his east Madison home with his wife of three years, Lauren, while their rescue Clumber Spaniel, Fancy, is nearby. His personal vinyl collection contains his first vinyl by Paul Black and the Flip Kings, along with favorites by The Velvet Underground and The Replacements.

As for me, I left MadCity Music Exchange that day with my first vinyl: Rolling Stones’ Still Life American Concert 1981 ($4) and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ I love Rock n Roll ($7). I also left with the feeling of a new world discovered, which is priceless.

Chelsey Dequaine is a freelance writer.

MadCity Music Exchange
Gateway Mall, 600 Williamson Street
Madison, WI 53703
(608) 251-8558