Will Underground Sounds Go Out Of Business Forever?

A conversation with a record store owner who is bracing to close his shop for good.

Apr 15, 2024 at 10:56 am
Craig Rich, owner of Underground Sounds
Craig Rich, owner of Underground Sounds Aria Baci

After 28 years, independent record store Underground Sounds might be going out of business. A conversation with owner Craig Rich reveals that a local business is more than its inventory and that genuine connections are music to a community’s ears.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

When Craig Rich opened his record store Underground Sounds at 2003 Highland Ave. in 1995, vinyl albums were still being purchased alongside CDs and cassettes. Depending on a customer's preferred playback device — a Technics turntable, a Sony Walkman cassette deck, or one of those CD players that plugs into a cigarette lighter on a car's dashboard — Underground Sounds had its customers covered.

The advent of the peer-to-peer file sharing application Napster only four years later in 1999 introduced music lovers to free digital audio distribution. Two years after that, in 2001, Apple introduced the iPod. The MP3 file format became an everyday term, and soon after the turn of the millennium, independent record stores across the country began experiencing a downward trend in profits. In the two decades since the proliferation of digital downloads, streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have further diminished sales of physical media.

But there is more to a record store than the audio formats it sells. Independent businesses like Underground Sounds are a part of the cultural ecosystem of their respective communities. In addition to the physical experience of entering a retail space, the curation of its inventory offers customers the experience of discovery, fellowship, and a sense of belonging. So despite the many changes to music formats over the past 28 years, Underground Sounds has stayed in business.

When Almost Diamond LLC purchased the property Barret Ave. for $506,500 in April 2022, they let Rich know that they were planning to eventually open a tequila bar there. In March 2024, the property owner informed Rich that his lease would not be renewed.

Rich says his record store will have to vacate the rented space at the end of April. "This may be our last Record Store Day," Rich says, as customers flip loudly through CD jewel cases in the background. Initiated by the retail organization the Department of Record Stores in 2007 to "celebrate the culture of the independently owned record store," Record Store Day is an annual event held on one Saturday every April. Record Store Day 2024 is Saturday, April 20. "I'm going to be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and there will be some markdowns. There's going to be some things I bring out of the back supply rooms. There's going to be some things out of my personal collection. You will want to be here."

click to enlarge A longtime customer of Underground Sounds browses CDs - Aria Baci
Aria Baci
A longtime customer of Underground Sounds browses CDs

The Moneygoround

Rich says that Almost Diamond LLC had a dream to open a tequila bar called Rhinestone for many years. "So I get that," he concedes. At the same time, he feels that increasing gentrification in Louisville is a factor in changes to the retail landscape in the Highlands, Crescent Hill, and other neighborhoods.

"It's sad because the mom and pops can't afford to really go anywhere. I've had a couple people call me with spaces and it's almost two or three times what I'm paying here. And I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to pay $3,000 [a month] for a space. That's ridiculous."

When Rich opened his business, he says the rent the Highlands was very affordable. When he relocated to 1006 Barret Ave. in Germantown in 2019, "there wasn't that much here. And then Fat Rabbit came, and Better Days came, and that was cool. We all complement each other. This store complements [Artist & Craftsman Supply]. It complements Nitty Gritty. It complements Ultra Pop."

Rich says that developers seem to want to "turn this into Chicago, or at least St. Louis. Outside developers that come into the area and they have their ideas," he says "They charge $30 to $50 per square foot. And that's unrealistic for Kentucky. I've seen overpriced locations flip three times in one year."

"You know, there's a lot of people that would like to open new stores, consignment stores, and jewelry stores, and whatnot. But they go out and price shop locations, and they just forget about it. That's sad."

The steadily increasing price of rent for retail spaces in Louisville will inevitably change the local culture. Independent business owners cannot afford the same rent prices that chain retailers can and larger corporate entities are not always invested in making connections with communities. "It doesn't sound like fun to me but … I'm not in charge," Rich says. "The city would be a lot more fun if I was."

click to enlarge A typical display of vinyl albums for sale at Underground Sounds - Underground Sounds
Underground Sounds
A typical display of vinyl albums for sale at Underground Sounds

You Can't Always Get What You Want

"If I can't find a place that suits me, I might just pack this all up for a few months and take some time off." Rich has not had an employee for almost 10 years, and works seven days a week. "I've only had 21 days off in five years. I've done this for 28 years. Solid."

He says his business was never only about the money. "I could have done things for a lot more money over the years, and I had a lot of offers that I did turn down to do this. But it's been my pleasure to serve the Louisville community."

Since the announcement of the potential closure, Rich has been contacted on social media and in person by customers who tell him how much his store has "changed their lives and destinies." He gestures toward a customer and smiles. "He grew up in the store."

The customer in question is Louisville native Bryce Russell, who started coming to Underground Sounds with his dad when he was in eighth grade. "I'm a junior in college now," he says. "Whenever I come back to visit for break, I'm always here, just hanging out, getting records."

Russell recalls his life-changing experience with Underground Sounds. "I found my dad's Dylan albums and I listened to those: 'Bringing It All Back Home,' 'Highway 61 Revisited,' 'Blonde on Blonde' … I was like, 'these are awesome, I want the rest.' So we started going to all the record stores around Louisville."

The first time Russell came to Underground Sounds, he saw a box set of 'The Library of Congress Recording Sessions' by Woody Guthrie. Rich told him that Guthrie had been a big influence on Dylan. The two started talking, and their friendship grew from there.

"He was like, do you ever listen to Grateful Dead? You got to listen to 'American Beauty,'" Russell says. "And that was like, BOOM! Blew my mind. Big part of my life ever since then." Russell credits Rich for later expanding his tastes to artists like The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, and Billy Strings.

Rich says a lot of people are intimidated by starting a record collection because they might not know where to start. "It's kind of like a sacred job for somebody that works in a store like this to guide them. I curate entire collections for people, and I've done it for three decades now." That work might be coming to an end.

In recent years, Rich has been asked by friends and customers to host a podcast. If he cannot find an affordable alternative to his current retail space, he will consider it. He is also interested in writing a book. But Underground Sounds is his true passion. "I'm going to try to reopen. You have my word."