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We Need More Jazz Vinyl Cafés
And I have a hunch we will get them
Someone needs to launch a 12-step program for jazz vinyl collectors. It’s just like dope, my friends, only with a different kind of needle.
I’ve met many fans who have a genuine addiction to those rotating 33 rpm platters. And their habit is expensive. For the most avid music fans, a trip to a record store can be more costly than a gambling junket to Vegas.
But unlike that lost weekend at the slot machines and blackjack tables, this problem definitely doesn’t stay in Vegas. I’ve heard from more than a few vinyl junkies that their single biggest problem—well, the second biggest, after paying for those over-priced licorice pizzas—is how to sneak the purchased vinyl into the home without the spouse noticing.
It's alarming, but true. Your relationship could founder because of one Blue Note first pressing too many.
Ah, the horror stories you hear at Jazz Vinyl Anonymous!
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But I have a solution for these struggling addicts. It’s kind of like the turn-your-lemons into lemonade strategy. But in this case, you use your jazz record collection to open a jazz vinyl café.
I can’t overstate the brilliance of this plan.
For a start, every album you purchase is tax deductible! Even better, when your spouse complains about all the time and money wasted on your habit, you now have a rejoinder.
Spouse: Did you buy another Cannonball Adderley album? Don’t you have enough of those?
Jazz Vinyl Addict: Calm down, baby. I’m just taking care of business.
If you’re unfamiliar with the jazz vinyl café concept, don’t feel bad. They don’t get a lot of attention outside of Japan—where they are known as jazz kissa (ジャズ喫茶). In fact, I assumed for a long time that they were almost exclusively a Japanese thing.
But my Twitter friends taught me otherwise. When I asked them for examples of jazz vinyl cafes in other parts of the world, I was stunned at the hundreds of responses I received.
I now know that, if you look hard enough, you can find a jazz kissa almost anywhere in the world. The format isn’t always the same—sometimes they operate as a coffee house, in other instances more of a restaurant or pub, and a number of them also double as record stores. The vinyl record spinning on the turntable is usually jazz, but in some of these venues others genres get featured.
The history of the jazz kissa is fascinating, and their role has evolved over time. Many people assume that they originated in tandem with Japan’s growing export economy, which really took off in the 1960s and 1970s. But before World War II, there were already more than 80 jazz kissa in Japan. The earliest example appears to date back to the late 1920s.
Nowadays these establishments have a reputation as enclaves for music fanatics and urban sophisticates. But the origins of the Japanese jazz café tells a different story. These businesses first appeared in the late 1920s, and were a source of scandal.
The jazz café was sometimes the front for prostitution. Waitresses would sing along with records, but sometimes also offer additional services to paying clientele. According to some accounts, the jazz records were played loud so nobody could hear the naughty conversations between staff and customers.
I know you’re shocked to learn this. But that’s only because the respectability of jazz today has led to a cultural amnesia. This music was always associated with sex and violence going back to its origins. (And even before the birth of jazz, the same was true of ragtime—for example, the Maple Leaf Club immortalized in the name of Scott Joplin’s famous Maple Leaf Rag was a center for prostitution back in late nineteenth century Missouri.)
But just as jazz grew more respectable, so did the Japanese jazz cafes. Their popularity clearly fueled the growth in the jazz economy in Japan—which has long been the most desirable export market for the genre. (But I note that classical music and other genre-focused cafes also exist in that country.) But most accounts suggest that interest in jazz kissa waned after the mid-1970s—when hundreds of these establishments flourished.
The usual explanation for the decline is that jazz fans all bought high-end audio equipment for their homes during the economic boom years, and no longer needed to go to a café to hear music. If that’s true, it might explain why the concept could take off again right now.
With the shift to streaming, few consumers own high-performance audio systems. The most recent figures I’ve seen indicate that smartphones and computers are the preferred devices for music nowadays, and only a tiny percent of consumers have dedicated audio playback systems.
Given this shift, the jazz vinyl café offers a far superior audio experience than most people can replicate at home.And even if you can afford an expensive home entertainment center, who has the time and cash to collect all that rare jazz vinyl. So I won’t be surprised to see a global resurgence of the jazz kissa.
There’s one more reason why entrepreneurs with vinyl collections should consider entering this business—namely its competitive advantage. It’s almost impossible for Starbucks or other casual dining corporations to run jazz cafes. It takes so much special knowledge and hard work just to collect the vinyl, let alone know what records to play. So if you can succeed in launching a jazz kissa, you can be assured that no big company will put you out of business. Even other small business owners would struggle to match your offerings.
But my biggest reason for telling vinyl collectors to open up cafes is that I selfishly want to see more of these enterprises for my own personal enjoyment. If one opens up near me, I’ll be a loyal customer. And I know many of you feel the same.